Bird Paper One

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 10 December 2018

When we were writing our Ten Thousand Birds book on the history of ornithology since Darwin, we thought it might be interesting to try to illustrate the growth of the field since the mid-1800s. To do that, we prepared a graph showing the number of articles and books published per year for every fifth year since 1865, using both Zoological Record and, for recent years, Google Scholar. The results were staggering [1], showing an explosive growth in publications on—and presumably knowledge about—birds since the second world war. Since the year 2000, there have been more articles and books published about birds than in the entire period from the beginning of scientific publishing in 1665 until 2000. We can estimate the number of publications before 1865 with some confidence as there were very few bird papers published before that date. The world’s major bird journals did not even start publishing until the mid-to-late 1800s [2].


When we compiled that graph, we wondered when the first-ever scientific paper had been published on birds. It had to be after 1664, as the first ever scientific journals [3], Journal des sçavans and Philosophical Transactions, began publishing early in 1665.

To find that first bird paper, I scoured the early issues of both journals, looking at each issue as there was no Zoological Record or Google Scholar coverage that far back. The early issues of Journal des sçavans were devoted largely to obituaries, astronomy, and Cartesian philosophy, and Philosophical Transactions focused mainly on optics, astronomy, and other physical phenomena in its earliest years, though most issues had at least one paper on a biological/medical topic [4].

Male Bee Hummingbird

Although birds were mentioned in several papers in the first few years of scientific publication, the first paper exclusively about birds did not appear until May 1693—in the 17th volume, and 200th issue, of Philosophical Transactions. That paper was attributed to the noted English botanist Nehemiah Grew [5] who published a letter (by a Mr Hamersly [6]) describing a hummingbird. He called the bird both ‘Hum Bird’ and ‘Tomineius’, the latter a Spanish word derived from ‘tomino‘ which was a measure of weight equal to 12 grains (0.78 g). In his Ornithology of Francis Willughby, published in 1678, John Ray suggests that the name ‘Tomineius‘ reflects the weight of the bird. But the smallest hummingbird—the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae) of Cuba—weighs three times that. I suspect that the name ‘Tomineius’ was just meant to indicate that the bird was extremely small.

Antillean-Crested-Hummingbird-Orthorhyncus-cristatusWe don’t know for sure which species Hamersly was referring to as tomineius was probably a general term for all hummingbird species. In his 1590  book on the West Indies, for example, José de Acosta says that hummingbirds were called ‘Tomineios‘ in Peru.

A hand-written annotation  in some manuscript notes [7], presumably by Hamersly, found in a copy of Richard Ligon’s 1657 book on Barbados says that “I sent this description of this bird to doctor Grew one of the Royal Society & he caused it to be printed in their philosophical transactions. This suggests that Hamersly was describing one of the 3 species that are common on Barbados. By ‘this bird’, the annotator was referring to the picture below right, which, though crude, looks most like the Green-throated Carib (Eulampis holosericeus. By its size, however, I think Hammersly must have been referring to the Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus) which weighs about 3 grams, the smallest hummingbird on the island. It’s too bad that we don’t really know who Hamersly was, nor which species he was describing.

Green-throated Carib (L), and hummingbird illustration (R) from manuscript notes [7]

Grew, or rather Hamersly, made a number of perceptive observations of the hummingbirds, though recent research has shown that he was not quite correct. Here are a few of the interesting things that Hamersly noted, with comments and what we now know in square brackets:

  • “He is of a most excellent shining green Color…resemble some of our English Drake-heads” [true, both are iridescent green]
  • whole weight was the tenth part of an ounce Avoirdupoise” [this would be about 2.8 g which is about right for the Antillean Crested Hummingbird]
  • They feed by thrusting their Bill and Tongue into the Blossoms of Trees, and so suck the sweet juice of Honey from them” [hummingbirds don’t suck [8]; they take up nectar into their grooved tongue and force it back into their throat by pressing their tongue with their bill as it retracts]
  • I did observe them several years but never heard them sing” [he claims they don’t sing, but they do, as do all of the 50 or species that I know reasonably well. He may have meant they don’t sing a song that sounds like most of the passerine bird songs and that is generally correct]
  • He is called the Hum-bird or Humming Bird because some say he makes a noise like a Spinning Wheel when he flies..I never heard any Noise; besides their Body and Wings are too small to strike the Air to make any Noise” [he is mistaken here, of course, but he later acknowledges that other people have heard them humming. He should have known that mosquitoes make noise so that his comment about size must be wrong.]

He did correctly note that they are very solitary, and suggested that with such a beautiful plumage they may not need to sing well: “so I think this Bird is so beautiful to the Eye, as not at all to please the Ear“. Indeed, recent studies have found such a tradeoff between selection for elaborate song or bright plumage in different groups of bird [9].

In Nehemiah Grew’s day, anyone interested in the sciences could read everything published in all (both) of the scientific journals. Even when I was a PhD student, in the 1970s, it was possible (and de rigueur) to read most of the papers in ecology and evolution published in the major journals, and to read all of the recent papers published on your study organism. Those days are over and few scientists can manage to even be aware of all of the research relevant to their own studies. No wonder many scientists get most of their information about recent studies in their field from Twitter.

Even if you wanted to keep up with research on birds since 2000, you would face a daunting task. The Web of Science [10] says that 127,000 papers have been published on birds from 2000 to 2018. The following graphic shows the distribution of 115,000 of those papers in the best-studied topics:

Papers on birds published 2000-2018 on the 10 most common topics

Even focussing on hummingbirds, you would have to read 2383 papers to be fully informed about research published since 2000 (see below). Contrast this to the 36 papers on hummingbird ecology and evolution published during my PhD years, and the 48 papers published on those topics from 1900 until the year I graduated in 1979. We have come along way since Grew began the scientific publications about birds.

hbird papers
Papers on hummingbirds published from 2000-2018 on the 10 most common topics


  • Badyaev AV, Hill GE, Weckworth BV (2002) Species divergence in sexually selected traits: increase in song elaboration is related to decrease in plumage ornamentation in finches. Evolution 56: 412–419

  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Boyle (1865) A way of preserving birds taken out of the egge, and other small fætus’s. Philosophical Transactions 1: 199-201

  • de Acosta J (1590) Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias. Sevilla: Juan de Leon.
  • Grew N (1693a) The description of the American tomineius, or hummingbird. Philosophical Transactions 17: 760-761
  • Grew N (1693b) A query put by Dr. N. Grew, concerning the food of the Humming Bird ; occasioned by the description of it in the transactions. Numb. 200. Philosophical Transactions 17: 815
  • Lefanu W (1971) The Versatile Nehemiah Grew. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 115: 502-506
  • Ligon R (1657) A true & exact history of the island of Barbados: Illustrated with a mapp of the island, as also the principall trees and plants there, set forth in their due proportions and shapes, drawne out by their severall and respective scales. Together with the ingenio that makes the sugar, with the plots of the severall houses, roomes, and other places, that are used in the whole processe of sugar-making; viz. the grinding-room, the boyling-room, the filling-room, the curing-house, still-house, and furnaces; all cut in copper. London: Printed for Humphrey Moseley, at the Prince’s Arms in St. Paul’s Church-Yard.

  • Price DJS (1963) Little science, big science. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.

  • Rico-Guevara A, Fan T-H, Rubega MA (2015) Hummingbird tongues are elastic micropumps. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282:20151014.

  • Shutler D, Weatherhead PJ (1990) Targets of sexual selection: song and plumage of wood warblers. Evolution 44:1967–1977.


  1. staggering results: while the numbers are high, the pattern is typical of all sciences, as described by Derek da Solla Price in his 1963 book
  2. first major ornithological journals: see previous posts, here, here, and here
  3. first ever scientific journals: Journal des sçavans began publishing on 5 Jan 1665, and Philosophical Transactions (later called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) on 6 March of that same year.
  4. one paper on biological topics: Philosophical Transactions did have early papers on snake behaviour, breeding silkworms, and various medical anomalies, for example. There was even an 1865 paper on preserving bird embryos (Boyle 1865) but I don’t really count that as being about birds
  5. Nehemia Grew: was an early Fellow of the Royal Society, and was both editor of Philosophical Transactions (1678-79) and secretary of the RS. He is often called the Father of Plant Anatomy
  6. Mr Hamersly: although Grew published this letter under his own name, he revealed in Grew (1693b) that it was actually written by a Mr Hamersly of Coventry. See here for more information, suggesting it might have been John Hamersly, also referred to here as John Hammersley.
  7. manuscript notes: see here for details
  8. hummingbirds don’t suck: I discovered this tin the 1970s when doing my PhD on hummingbirds but I am sure that all of the other biologists I knew who were studying hummingbirds in those days—Bill Calder, Peter Feinsinger, Lee Gass, Larry Wolf, Reed Hainsworth and Frank Gill—knew this too; Rico-Guevera et al. (2015) recently described the details and physics of this process
  9. tradeoff between song and plumage: see for example, Shutler and Weatherhead (1990) and Badyaev et al. (2002)
  10. Web of Science: These numbers are smaller than what we show in the graph at the top of this essay, because Web of Science focuses only on publications in scientific journals, whereas we graphed all publications about birds. The data from Web of Science show the same patterns as in that graph but only about 7000 bird papers published in 2010, for example. To generate those data I entered bird* and ornithology as topics for the first graph and hummingbird* for the second and searched through the years in question

IMAGES: top graph from Birkhead et al. (2014), drawn by the author; Bee Hummingbird from Wikipedia; stamp from a stamp collection website; Green-thoated Carib (on Barbados) photo from Wikipedia, painting from manuscript notes [7]; bottom two graphs from Web of Science (accessed 9 Dec 2018)

Joe Grinnell’s Notes

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 13 August 2018 (posted 21 Aug 2018)

For at least 400 years, ornithologists—and presumably naturalists of every stripe—have kept notebooks recording each day’s observations from the field. In 17th century England, these were called ‘Commonplace Books’, rather large bound volumes that were used by scholars to record ideas, notes about what they read, experiences and observations. This was the Renaissance, and the beginning of the scientific revolution, where scholars were questioning everything, and basing conclusions on direct observations rather than hearsay, ancient texts, and idle speculation.

Detail from a page in Linnaeus’s commonplace book

John Ray and Francis Willughby [1] each had their own Commonplace Book, as required by their tutors at Cambridge.  In the late 1600s, the great English philosopher John Locke considered Commonplace Books to be so important to the progress of science that he published a scheme for properly indexing a commonplace book in an addendum to his influential An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [2]. And in the 18th century, Linnaeus used his Commonplace Book to record and develop his ideas about his binomial system of nomenclature, resulting in his Systema Naturae [3].

Commonplace books seemed to be de rigueur for scientists and scholars through the 1800s eventually evolving into the specialized (rather than all-encompassing) small notebooks (e.g. Moleskins) and field notebooks (e.g. Rite in the Rain) used by writers and naturalists, respectively, throughout the 20th century.

A page from Grinnell’s Field Journal from the Mojave 1914

In the early 1900s, the American ornithologist Joseph Grinnell thought that field notebooks were so important that he developed a systematic method of note-keeping that he taught all of his students and colleagues. His method, sometimes called the Grinnell System, involves at least two different books—the Field Notebook, carried everywhere to record observations immediately, and the Field Journal, to daily record experiences and observations as in a diary, using the Field Notebook. Each diary-like entry in the Field Journal is written in the evening, using the Field Notebook for details. The Field Journals, or separate notebooks, also include Species Accounts compiled during the course of a field trip, and a Catalog, recording the details of all specimens collected. The method seems simple enough but requires some discipline to maintain during busy field work. Grinnell even went so far as to recommend the sort of paper and ink needed to make the method historically valuable: The India ink and paper of permanent quality will mean that our notes will be accessible 200 years from now….we are in the newest part of the new world where the population will be immense in fifty years at most. [4]


I am an academic descendant of Grinnell [5] and while I am not a very disciplined diarist, I treasure the 57 notebooks that I have used to chronicle my field activities over the years. These books contain some data but they are mostly a summary of where I went, what I did, what the weather was like, who my companions were, what I found interesting each day in the field, and ideas for further work. My field data sheets and recordings occupy another 5 metres of book shelf and a few terabytes of hard drive space.

In 1908, Grinnell was appointed as the first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, where he set out to build a collection of birds and mammals from California. To do that he embarked on a series of expeditions to the Colorado Desert (1908), The Colorado River (1910), Mount Whitney (1911), the San Jacinto Mountains (1913), the Sierra Nevada (191–1920), and Lassen Peak (1924-1929).

Grinnell kept such careful field notes that the MVZ scientists decided to survey some of those same areas beginning in 2002, to see what, if anything, had changed over the past century. They called this the Grinnell Resurvey Project. Grinnell did not actually conduct censuses using repeatable, modern-day methods, but he did provide enough information that reasonable comparisons could be made.

Earlier this month, PhD student Kelly Iknayan and AOS Past President Steve Beissinger published a paper in PNAS using both Grinnell’s surveys and the recently completed replication to analyze the changes in bird fauna in the Mojave Desert of California. The nice thing about this resurvey is that most of the sites visited by Grinnell in the Mojave are on federal lands, with little or no anthropogenic influence in the intervening 100 years. The results are clear…and depressing.

Surveying 61 of the same sites studied by Grinnell, they found that the number of bird species at each site had declined, often significantly (red dots of figure below). And the number of sites where they found different birds had also declined for >125 of those 135 species. Only the Raven was found at significantly more sites a century later (blue dot, below). IknayanFIGmod

By evaluating several potential causes for these changes, Iknayan and Beissinger found that climate change was the strongest predictor, particularly with respect to increasing drought conditions. As they point out, in their paper’s abstract: Climate change has caused deserts, already defined by climatic extremes, to warm and dry more rapidly than other ecoregions in the contiguous United States over the last 50 years. Desert birds persist near the edge of their physiological limits, and climate change could cause lethal dehydration and hyperthermia, leading to decline or extirpation of some species. [6]

I expect that Iknayan and Beissinger take better field notes that I do, especially as they are both also academic descendants of Grinnell [5] and work in his shadow at Berkeley. But even the best field biologists’ note-taking abilities are rapidly becoming anachronisms, I fear, with the advent of eBird, automated recording devices, and digital database apps. I think this is sad, not because I long for the good old days—I am a quite tech savvy—but because those detailed field journals are an important historical record [7[ that show both the human side of field work and the nuances associated with collecting data.

You could argue that Grinnell’s field surveys would have been more useful today if he had digitized his records and taken more quantitative measures, and you would be right to some extent. But field naturalists a century from now will no doubt lament the passing of the commonplace book and the Grinellian field notebook when they try to understand our quantitive, digitized, data stored faithfully in online repositories if those data are not also supplemented by a little personalized narrative.


  • Charmantier I (2011) Carl Linnaeus and the visual representation of nature. HIST STUD NAT SCI 41:365–404.

  • Iknayan KJ, Beissinger SR (2018) Collapse of a desert bird community over the past century driven by climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 201805123.

  • Locke J (1689) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: The Buffet.

  • Linné CV (1766) Caroli a Linné. Systema naturae : per regna tria natura, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis / (t.1, pt. 1 (Regnum animale) (1766)). Holmiae :Impensis direct. Laurentii Salvii.


  1. Ray and Willughby: see previous posts here, here, here, and here
  2. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: see Locke (1690) available here
  3. Sytema Naturae: see von Linné (1766)
  4. Grinnell on paper and ink: cited from Wikipedia article on Grinnell, here
  5. Academic descendants: me through Peter Grant to Ian McTaggart-Cowan to Grinnell; Beissinger through Bobbi Low to Frank Blair to Lee Dice to Grinnell (see here and here for details)
  6. Quotation about climate change: from Iknayan and Beissinger 2018, abstract
  7. Important historical record: see here for example

IMAGES: Linnaeus’s notebook from Charmantier (2011); Grinnell’s notebook from the Grinnell ECOREADER;  graphs modified from Iknayan and Beissinger (2018)

A great store of fowle

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 6 August 2018

Four hundred and eight years ago this month—in August 1610—Henry Hudson and his crew of 21 on the tiny ship DISCOVERY entered Hudson’s namesake bay in search of a northwest passage to the orient. As far as we know, Hudson’s 1610-1611 expedition was the first time that Europeans had recorded the sighting of an identifiable arctic bird on its breeding grounds in North America. Martin Frobisher, for example, had previously visited Baffin Island three times in a vain attempt to mine for gold [1] but he made virtually no note of the birds [2].

A map made in 1612 from Hudson’s surveys on his final expedition

Hudson’s crew famously mutineed in June 1611 after a dreadful winter spent on their ship trapped in the ice of James Bay. The 12 mutineers set Hudson, his son, and 7 loyal  seamen adrift in rowboat and their fate is still unknown [3]. What we do know about Hudson’s final expedition comes from the writings of one of the mutineers, Abacuk Prickett, who wrote about it after returning to England [4]. Prickett was one of the four mutineers who was tried (and acquitted) for the mutiny, and there has always been some suspicion that his narrative was biased in a way that was designed to save him from the gallows. Nonetheless, there is no reason to expect that his account of the birds is not as accurate as could be expected for a document being written, we presume, largely from memory.

Prickett records that their first landfall in the Canadian arctic was in July 1610 on the ‘Iles of Gods Mercie’, probably the islands off the south coast of Baffin Island [5] near the present-day settlement of Kimmirut (formerly Lake Harbour) in Nunavut. There, they “sprung a covey of partridges which were young: at the which Thomas Woodhouse shot, but killed only the old one” [6]. Given the current breeding ranges of the two arctic ptarmigans, these were almost certainly Rock Ptarmigan, which makes it the first bird species recorded in Arctic North America and, fittingly, the official bird of Nunavut.

Their next landfall was at Digges Island [7] on 3 August. A small crew went ashore, including Prickett who said “In this place a great store of fowle breed…” [8], almost certainly referring to the huge colony of Thick-billed Murres nesting on the cliffs there, today numbering some 300,000 breeding pairs.

Clets on St Kilda

On Digges, Prickett also noted that “Passing along wee saw some round hills of stone, like to grasse cockes, which at the first I tooke to be the worke of some Christian. Wee passed by them, till we came to the south side of the hill we went unto them and there found more; and being nigh them I turned off the uppermost stone, and found them hollow within and full of fowles hanged by their neckes.” [8]. What he is referring to here are small domed stone huts, about 2 m in diameter, built by the local Inuit to hang, dry and protect their game from predators.

Remarkably, my colleague Tony Gaston, who studied the murres on Digges in the 1980s, found at least four of the same drying huts described by Prickett. As Gaston noted, these are very similar to a structure called a ‘clett’ (also ‘clet’) that the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides use to dry and cure fish and birds (see photo).

From Digges, the explorers headed south, ecstatic that they might have found the passage to China, as winter approached. By the time they reached James Bay, they knew that there nowhere near the orient. But on  10 November DISCOVERY was trapped in the sea ice so the crew prepared for the winter. During that harsh winter, they often went ashore to hunt, taking as many as 1200 ptarmigan, enough for each man to have one to eat every day or two for three months: “for the space of three moneths wee had such store of fowle of one kinde (which were partridges as white as milke) that wee killed above an hundred dozen, besides others of sundry sorts…The spring coming this fowle left us, yet they were with us all the extreame cold. Then in their places came divers sort of other fowle, as swanne, geese, duck, and teale, but hard to come by.” [9]

Digges Island 1952 photo by Les Tuck

With the ship freed from the ice, the mutineers set Hudson and the others adrift at the top of James Bay in June 1611, and headed back to Digges to stock up on murres and their eggs for the trip home. There, they encountered a band of the local Inuit collecting eggs and catching adult murres with a noose, much the same way that today’s researchers catch murres for banding: “Our boat went to the place where the fowle bred, and were desirous to know how the savages killed their fowle: he shewed them the manner how, which was thus: they take a long pole with a snare at the end, which they put about the fowles necke, and so plucke them downe. When our men knew that they had a better way of their owne, they shewed him the use of our peeces, which at one shot would kill seven or eight.” [10]

The natives became frightened and suspicious of the mutineers, attacking an unarmed party that had gone ashore one day to shoot some murres. Three of that party were killed but the others escaped. The remaining mutineers went to another part of the colony where they shot enough birds to (barely) get them home.

None of these vague observations of birds by Prickett really made any useful contribution to ornithology, and I tell this story mainly as an introduction to the history of ornithology in the North American Arctic. By the late 18th century, explorers and naturalists were making regular forays into what is now Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska. Those later expeditions did make many useful contributions to ornithology, finding the breeding grounds and documenting the breeding biology of many Arctic birds for the first time.

coversSome of this early Arctic ornithology is described in a forthcoming 2-volume book on the Birds of Nunavut that will be launched at the upcoming IOC meeting in Vancouver. I wrote the history chapter for that book, but the limitations of space meant that many stories, images, and details had to be left out. As for much of the history of ornithology, this blog provides a unique opportunity to expand on the details of scholarly books and papers, as I have done here with the story of Abacuk Prickett.


    • Collinson R, editor (1867). The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher, in Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A.D. 1576-8. London: Hakluyt Society. [available here]
    • Gaston AJ, Cairns DK, Elliot RD, Noble DG (1985) A natural history of Digges Sound. Canadian Wildlife Service Report Series 46:1–63.
    • Mancall PR (2009) Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson. New York: Basic Books.
    • Prickett A (1860). A larger discourse of the same voyage, and the successe thereof. In G. M. Asher (Ed.), Henry Hudson the Navigator: the original documents in which his career is recorded (pp. 98-36). London: Hakluyt Society. [available here]
    • Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors (2018) Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press.


    1. Frobisher mining for gold: on his third expedition in 1578, for example, he took back to England 1350 tonnes of ore from the vicinity of Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) only to discover when he got back to England that the ‘gold’ was iron pyrite. No doubt he felt like a fool.
    2. Frobisher’s birds: Collinson (1867) has only three mentions of birds (fowle) in Frobisher’s writings and these were all with reference to birds and eggs being caught by the natives for food. It is impossible to know what birds he was talking about.
    3. Hudson’s fate unknown: there is speculation, however, that the men made their way south where were taken captive by the natives, then transported to the vicinity of Ottawa, Ontario (see here for details)
    4. Prickett’s account of the expedition: see Prickett (1860), in a volume by the Hakluyt Society, established in 1846 to publish original accounts of voyages of discovery. Prickett’s account was actually first published in 1825. Prickett is often spelled ‘Pricket’ but I am using the spelling on his account in the 1860 volume.
    5. Iles of God’s Mercie: these are shown on Hudson’s map (above), offshore where he labels ‘Goods Merces’
    6. Quotation about partridges: from Prickett 1860 page 103
    7. Digges Island: Hudson named this Deepes Cape, thinking initially that it was part of the mainland
    8. Quotations about ‘fowles’: from Prickett 1860, page 107
    9. Quotation about hunting birds in winter and spring: from Prickett 1860, page 113
    10. Quotation about Inuit method of catching murres: from Prickett 1860, page 128

IMAGES: Hudson map from the frontispiece of Asher (1860) where Prickett’s account was published; Clets on St Kilda from Wikimedia Commons; Digges Island photo by Leslie M. Tuck in the author’s collection; book cover from UBC Press.

Much Ado About a Cockatoo (reposted)

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 2 July 2018

For the past week or so the internet has been abuzz about a cockatoo depicted 4 times in the margins of Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus written around 1245 CE [1]. The story is that this bird suggests a mediaeval trade route from Australia to Italy, overturning the Eurocentric notion that Australia was a dark continent until ‘discovery’ by Dutch sailors early in the 17th century. This story has already been retweeted about 2000 times on Twitter, and has appeared in the popular press worldwide, including CNN, Reuters, ABC (Australia), Japan Times, and The Guardian [2].

Marginal cockatoos (numbers indicate folio pages)

This story began with an original paper published last month  in the journal Parergon [3] by Heather Dalton, Jukka Salo, Pekka Niemelä and Simo Örmä. That paper is wonderfully detailed about the creation and provenance of De Arte, about the source of Frederick’s cockatoo, and the details of the four coloured drawings of the cockatoo in the surviving copy of the original manuscript housed in the Vatican Library in Rome [4]. The popular press has been remarkably accurate in reporting the details of that paper, avoiding the hyperbole and small misleading errors that too often characterize science journalism.

Here, in a nutshell, are 5 quotes that summarize what I think are the important features of this story:

  1. Frederick_II_and_eagle
    Frederick II

    “Frederick II of Sicily made contact with the Kurdish al-Malik Muhammad al-Kamil in 1217… The two rulers communicated regularly over the following twenty years, exchanging letters, books and rare and exotic animals….[like] the Sulphur-crested or Yellow-crested Cockatoo the sultan sent Frederick.”  [5]

  2. “De arte was written in Latin by Frederick or a scribe under his direction between 1241 and 1244…Amongst the nine hundred marginal illustrations of birds, animals, falconers, perches, and falconry equipment are four coloured drawings of the white cockatoo gifted to Frederick II.” [5]
  3. “Discovery of earliest European depiction of cockatoo in medieval book rewrites history of global trade” [6] see also quote 7
  4. “Because the four images in the Vatican manuscript have rarely been reproduced in print, few people are aware of their existence. This may be because many scholars have relied on Casey Albert Wood and Florence Marjorie Fyfe’s 1943 English translation of all six books of the De arte. 11 Although Wood and Fyfe included many illustrations from the Codex Ms. Pal. Lat. 1071, they did not include those of the cockatoo. [5]
  5. “Bearing in mind the shape of the crest, the blue/grey of the periophthalmic ring and the lack of a yellow tinged ear patch, Frederick’s cockatoo was in all likelihood a Triton Cockatoo…or one of the three subspecies of Yellow-crested Cockatoos that have a yellow crest.” [5]
  6. “The main significance about it is we tend to think of our region, not just Australia, but the islands around it, as the very last things to be discovered; the European view is it’s almost this dead continent and nothing was happening until Europeans discovered it.” [7]

While Dalton and colleagues have done a great job summarizing all of the details in their paper, I do have a few quibbles with the final four points listed above. I was, for example, a little surprised to hear of the ‘discovery’ of these cockatoo drawings because I certainly knew about them. As so often happens, I wondered if I had simply failed to realize their significance.

But as the paper so nicely summarizes, previous authors [8] had written about the cockatoos, so this new work might be better characterized as a re-discovery. In fairness, Dalton and colleagues never claimed this to be a new discovery but this is the way that most of the popular press has characterized their work.

Wood and Fyfe p 38: cockatoo is at top of right margin

They do claim (point 4), however, that modern scholars are generally unaware of these illustrations, largely because everyone reads Wood and Fyfe’s translation from 1943. But that’s how I knew about the cockatoo—one of the pages (folio 18v) with the cockatoo in the margin is reproduced, albeit in black and white, on page 38 in Wood and Fyfe’s book. In the caption they even say  “also containing the reference to the parrot (?) sent to Frederick by the Sultan of Babylon”, and in a footnote on page 59 they say it was likely a cockatoo from the Sunda Islands.

Dalton and colleagues do a really nice job of describing the four coloured marginal drawings and they use those details to try to identify the bird. They make the reasonable conclusion that it was likely a female Sulphur- or Yellow-crested Cockatoo. Others have suggested that it might be a White Cockatoo [8]. Nonetheless, I cannot agree with the authors’ assumption that those descriptions are very useful for identification.


For example, in the De Arte illustrations, it looks like the birds have yellowish flanks and back, whereas none of the potential cockatoos have that colouring [9]. They also interpret the shape of the crest as ruling out the White Cockatoo, but the shape and size of the bill, feet, and wing feathers are so inaccurate that I would not be inclined to assume that the crest is correctly drawn. Moreover, none of the illustrations in De Arte show the characteristic yellow cheek patch of the Yellow- and Sulphur-crested.

peacockFiiThe marginal drawings are, after all, crude by modern standards, as you can see from the reproductions above. The manuscript has at least 7 marginal drawings of peacocks [10], for example, that show that, although the artist was remarkably good for his day, he was no Lars Jonsson. Thus it would be entirely reasonable for Frederick’s bird to be a White or Yellow-crested Cockatoo, from Sulawesi (one of the Sunda Islands) or the Moluccas [11]. If that is correct then I am not so sure that this cockatoo really tells us anything about mediaeval trade routes.

It has long been known that there was extensive trade between southeast Asia and the Middle East along the Silk Road, beginning centuries before Frederick’s day. That ‘road’ includes several marine routes extending as far east as Sulawesi and the Sunda Islands (see map below). While there may have been some trade between New Guinea and northern Australia in the 13th century, there is really no evidence for this, as far as I know. Thus, Australia does seem to have been a relatively ‘dark continent’ until the 17th century, especially to Europeans, and Frederick’s cockatoo does not really shed any light on that narrative.

I feel that I should emphasize how much I enjoyed the original article by Dalton and colleagues, despite my reservations above. In my view, science progresses when there is some healthy skepticism, and that’s what I have tried to present here.

Land and marine trade routes in mediaeval times.

NOTE: I accidentally posted an incomplete version of this essay a couple of days ago. My apologies for that. I blame the heat.


  • Dalton H, Salo J, Niemelä P, Örmä S (2018) Frederick II of Hohenstaufen’s Australasian Cockatoo: Symbol of Detente between East and West and Evidence of the Ayyubids’ Global Reach. Parergon 35: 35-60.

  • Frederick II (~1245) De arte venandi cum avibus. Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, codex Ms. Pal. Lat. 1071.
  • Kinzelbach R (2008) Modi auium – Die Vogelarten im Falkenbuch des Kaisers Friedrich II’. pp 62–135 in Vol 2 of Kaisers Friedrich II 1194–1250: Welt und Kultur des Mittelmeerraums (ed. Ermete K, Mamoun Fansa M, and Carsten Ritzau C). Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.
  • Rowley, I. (2018). Cockatoos (Cacatuidae). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 2 July 2018).
  • Stresemann E (1975) Ornithology from Aristotle to the present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Willemsen CA (1980) Das Falkenbuch Kaiser Friedrichs II. Nach der Prachthandschrift in der Vatikanischen Bibliothek. Dortmund: Harenberg.

  • Wood CA, Fyfe FM (1943) The Art of Falconry; Being the De Arte Venandi cum Avibus of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen by Frederick the Second of Hohenstaufen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  • Yapp WB (1983) The illustrations of birds in the Vatican manuscript of De arte venandi cum avibus of Frederick II. Annals of Science 40: 597–634


  1. Frederick II’s manuscript: see my earlier post on this ornithologically important masterpiece here
  2. articles in popular press: but curiously not (yet) The New York Times or any of the other leading American and Canadian news media outlets.
  3. Parergon: is the journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (Inc.), and has been publishing refereed articles since 1983.
  4. Frederick’s manuscript in the Vatican Library: is also available for study online in two spectacularly reproduced digital copies here and here.
  5. Quotations 1, 2, 4 & 5: from Dalton et al. 2018
  6. Quotation 3: from the headline in The Telegraph (UK)
  7. Quotation 6: Helen Dalton quoted in The Guardian (UK)
  8. previous authors on this cockatoo: see, for example, Wood and Fyfe (1943), Stresemann (1975), Willemsen (1980), Yapp (1983), Kinzelbach (2008)
  9. yellowish back and flanks: I would be inclined to interpret this colour as shading rather than as the colour of the feathers.
  10. peacocks: would probably have been a very familiar bird in the courtyards of Italy in the 13th century, having been traded along the Silk Road for centuries before. Like the cockatoo, those drawings would have been based on live speciemens
  11. likely species: Dalton et al. (2018) do seem to favour the Yellow-crested Cockatoo in their analysis, so it is curious to me that they make such a fuss about the trade routes, since the range of the Yellow-crested on one of those mediaeval routes

IMAGES: Cockatoos and peacocks from De Arte copied from the online versions; Frederick II and Silk Road map from Wikipedia; Cockatoos and range map from Handbook of Birds of the World (Rowley 2018); page from Wood and Fyfe scanned from the author’s copy.

Why Woodpeckers are Scarce in the North

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 June 2018

On the 18th of June 1858, one hundred and sixty years ago today, Darwin claims [1] to have received that fateful letter from Alfred Russel Wallace—probably the most famous letter in the history of science. The original letter was lost but it was transcribed and read to the Linnean Society of London on 1 July and published later in their journal. That letter is well worth reading, especially because it contains some interesting insights into avian ecology. While Wallace had some useful ideas relevant to natural selection, it could be argued that his argument was not nearly as well-formed as Darwin’s [2]. In a way, his ecological and biogeographical insights are more original, in my opinion.

Wallace in 1862

Wallace wrote that letter on Ternate in the Mollucas in February 1858, sent it out on a mail steamer on 5 April. He was in the South Pacific for 8 years on a collecting trip, in part to obtain specimens that he could sell back in England but also to gather material for books that he thought, rightly so, would provide him with a lifetime of fame and fortune. He brought home more than 125,000 specimens, including more than 8000 bird skins.


I found three things to be remarkable about Wallace’s letter. First, he develops some of the same ideas about selection as Darwin,  and uses some of the same language: “state of nature”, “struggle for existence”, “stability of species”, “geometrical ratio”, “origin of…species”,  “conditions of existence”, and “superior varieties.” These are not phrases you would be likely to read in a recent paper on evolutionary biology, but may well have been argots of the scientific literature in the 1800s.

Second, he makes clear his objections to Lamarck’s ideas:

The hypothesis of Lamarck—that progressive changes in species have been produced by the attempts of animals to increase the development of their own organs, and thus modify their structure and habits—has been repeatedly and easily refuted…the view here developed renders such an hypothesis quite unnecessary, by showing that similar results must be produced by the action of principles constantly at work in nature. [3]

And third, he is remarkably insightful and creative about what today we would call evolutionary ecology with respect to passenger pigeons, woodpeckers, and clutch size.

On clutch size, he makes the perceptive observation that a species’ population size—and rate of increase—has nothing to do with the number of offspring in a brood:

…large broods are superfluous. On the average all above one become food for hawks and kites, wild cats and weasels, or perish of cold and hunger as winter comes on. This is strikingly proved by the case of particular species; for we find that their abundance in individuals bears no relation whatever to their fertility in producing offspring. Perhaps the most remarkable instance of an immense bird population is that of the passenger pigeon of the United States, which lays only one, or at most two eggs, and is said to rear generally but one young one. [3]

Great Spotted Woodpecker

On woodpeckers, he argues that they are more scarce in the temperate zone than in the tropics due to the uncertainty of overwinter food in the north, and the various morphological adaptations that would make long-distance migration difficult. I don’t even know if these observations are true, but the idea is immensely creative and demonstrates his excellent ecological insights:


Those whose organization does not permit them to migrate when their food becomes periodically scarce, can never attain a large population. This is probably the reason why woodpeckers are scarce with us, while in the tropics they are among the most abundant of solitary birds. Thus the house sparrow is more abundant than the redbreast, because its food is more constant and plentiful,- seeds of grasses being preserved during the winter, and our farm-yards and stubble-fields furnishing an almost inexhaustible supply. [3]

On the Passenger Pigeon, he reasons—correctly, I think—that its unbelievably huge populations were a product of the bird’s ability to move efficiently to track the vagaries of its occasionally superabundant food supply:

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of an immense bird population is that of the passenger pigeon of the United States, which lays only one, or at most two eggs, and is said to rear generally but one young one. Why is this bird so extraordinarily abundant, while others producing two or three times as many young are much less plentiful? The explanation is not difficult. The food most congenial to this species, and on which it thrives best, is abundantly distributed over a very extensive region, offering such difference of soil and climate, that in one part or another of the area the supply never fails. The bird is capable of a very rapid and long-continued flight, so that it can pass without fatigue over the whole of the district it inhabits, and as soon as the supply of food begins to fail in one place is able to discover a fresh feeding-ground. [3]

Like his contemporaries, however, Wallace reasoned that this species’ populations were just too big to fail: “This example strikingly shows us that the procuring a constant supply of wholesome food is almost the sole condition requisite for ensuring the rapid increase of a given species, since neither the limited fecundity, nor the unrestrained attacks of birds of prey and of man are here sufficient to check it. In no other birds are these peculiar circumstances so strikingly combined.” [3] This is one of those rare cases where we could actually learn from history and maybe not repeat Wallace’s mistake in our dealings with other species.


  • Bock WJ (2009) The Darwin-Wallace myth of 1858. Proceedings of the Zoological Society 62:1–12.

  • Davies R (2008) The Darwin conspiracy: origins of a scientific crime. London: Golden Square Books
  • Davies R (2012) How Charles Darwin received Wallace’s Ternate paper 15 days earlier than he claimed: a comment on van Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2012). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 105:472–477.

  • Darwin CR, Wallace AR (1858) On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection. Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, Zoology 3:46–50.

  • Davies R (2012) How Charles Darwin received Wallace’s Ternate paper 15 days earlier than he claimed: a comment on van Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2012). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 105:472–477.

  • Gould E, Gould J, Lear E (1837) The Birds of Europe. (v. 1-5). London: pub. by the author.
  • Smith CH (2013) A further look at the 1858 Wallace–Darwin mail delivery question. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 108:715–718.


  1.  Darwin’s claim about Wallace’s letter: Davies (2008) in particular, claimed that Darwin received the letter earlier and plagiarized it in his own notes so that he could claim priority, This seems highly unlikely to me, based on what I know of Darwin’s character and what Darwin himself says about the letter. van why and Rookmaaker (2012) present a convincing counter argument (but also see Davies 2012)
  2. Wallace’s ideas on natural selection: see Bock (2008) for details on what Wallace did have to say about selection
  3. Quotations: are all from the transcribed version of Wallace’s letter, available here

Audubon’s Legendary Experiments

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 June 2018

In his Ornithological Biography [1], John James Audubon describes two experiments that have become legends in the annals of ornithology. Both were ingenious ideas, but Audubon’s conclusions were misleading and remained uncorrected for more than a century. According to  a new paper by Matthew Halley in Archives of Natural History, one of those experiments might never have been conducted at all.

mill grove
Audubon mansion at Mill Grove

In the spring of 1804, just before his 19th birthday [2], Audubon found an Eastern Phoebe nest in a cave near where he was living, at the plantation his father had purchased at Mill Grove, Pennsylvania [3]. Audubon had arrived from France a few months earlier and immediately began exploring the countryside where, he said “Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them. I purchased excellent and beautiful horses, visited all such neighbors as I found congenial spirits, and was as happy as happy could be.” [4]

Audubon wondered whether his phoebes might exhibit what we would now call ‘natal philopatry’: “I had at that period an idea that the whole of these birds were descended from the same stock.” [5]. To test that idea, he put some ‘light threads’ on the legs of the 5 nestlings. The birds, or their parents, repeatedly removed those threads but finally gave up [6]. Once the birds had habituated to the threads, Audubon says that “when they were about to leave the nest, I fixed a light silver thread to the leg of each, loose enough not to hurt the part, but so fastened that no exertions of theirs could remove it.” [7]. Others have, I think, misinterpreted Audubon’s ‘silver thread’ as being silver-coloured yarn but the term is (and was) also used for wire made of silver. Audubon later refers to these as ‘rings’ (see below) suggesting that they were solid and unlikely to be removable by the birds.


The next year, Audubon claims, he found two of those marked phoebes—which he called pewees—nesting near where they were born:

…I had ample proof afterwards that the brood of young Pewees, raised in the cave, returned the following spring, and established themselves farther up on the creek…At the season when the Pewee returns to Pennsylvania, I had the satisfaction to observe those of the cave in and about it. There again, in the very same nest, two broods were raised. I found several Pewees nests at some distance up the creek, particularly under a bridge, and several others in the adjoining meadows, attached to the inner part of sheds erected for the protection of hay and grain. Having caught several of these birds on the nest, I had the pleasure of finding that two of them had the little ring on the leg.” [8]

Now Halley—correctly I think—calls into question the veracity of these observations of natal philopatry, First, he points out, the 40% return rate (2 of 5 banded) of Audubon’s nestling phoebes far exceeds the rate of natal philopatry for this species—and indeed all passerine birds [9]—revealed in subsequent research with large sample sizes. Work done from 1988-90 at my own institution’s field station by Kelvin Conrad, for example, showed a 1.3% return rate of 217 banded nestlings [10]. A much larger study in Indiana [11] found that only 218 of 11,847 (1.8%) phoebe nestlings returned to anywhere within a 250-kmstudy area. Based on those numbers, the chance that 2 of Audubon’s 5 nestlings actually returned is almost zero.

Second, Halley checked the dates of Audubon’s return to France (12 March 1805) and subsequent arrival back in Mill Grove (4 June 1806). Based on the normal first egg dates from nearby sites, Halley argues that Audubon could not have been at Mill Grove during the 1805 breeding season and could therefore not have observed the returns he claimed. While I think Halley is correct, it is always possible that Audubon was mistaken about the years when he conducted this experiment.

My guess, though, is that Audubon did actually make up this story, not about banding the birds [12] but about them returning to their natal site. Audubon was well known to be desperate to establish his reputation as an ornithologist, in part, at least, to enhance the sales of his fabulous collection of etchings based on his paintings of North American birds. Audubon was often at odds with Alexander Wilson and George Ord, sometimes plagiarizing Wilson and fabricating evidence so that he would be seen as the first to record a species of bird or an interesting observation [13]. Elliott Coues, for example, said that Audubon: “..loved warmth, color, action; he liked to exaggerate and ’embroider,’ and make his page glow like a hummingbird’s throat, or like on of his many marvellous pictures; he had no genius for accuracy, no taste for dull, dry detail, no care for a specimen after he had drawn it.” [14]

Audubon’s other misleading experiment was designed to assess the ability of Black Vultures to detect odours, but that is a story for another day. Whether or not Audubon was always accurate in his descriptions of bird behaviour or his timelines of events, his experiments were certainly ingenious. He probably does deserve credit as the first person to band birds in North America, and he really could paint a marvellous picture:

Audubon’s Black Vultures


  • Audubon JJ (1831-1839) Ornithological biography : or an account of the habits of the birds of the United States of America; accompanied by descriptions of the objects represented in the work entitled The Birds of America, and interspersed with delineations of American scenery and manners.  5 volumes. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black

  • Audubon JJ (1827-1838) The Birds of America. Edinburgh & London: J. J. Audubon.

  • Audubon MR (1897) Audubon and His Journals, with Zoological and Other Notes by Elliott Coues, vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

  • Burns FL (1908) Alexander Wilson: II. The Mystery of the Small-Headed Flycatcher. The Wilson Bulletin 20:63–79.

  • Halley MR (2018) Audubon’s famous banding experiment: fact or fiction. Archives of natural history 45:118–121.

  • Weatherhead PJ, Forbes MRL (1994) Natal philopatry and the cost of dispersal in Passerine birds. Behavioural Ecology 5:426–433.

  • Weeks Jr HP (2011) Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.


  1. Ornithological Biography: designed by Audubon, with the help of William MacGillivray, to accompany his paintings in Birds of North America. This 5-volume treatise (available here) contains many interesting details and insights about birds but is not an easy read.
  2. 19th birthday: Audubon was born on 26 April 1785 in the French colony that is now Haiti
  3. Audubon’s home: Audubon travelled from France to Mill Grove by himself, on the orders of his father to manage the plantation but was more interested in natural history and he eventually drove the plantation into bankruptcy
  4. quotation about hunting etc: from Audubon 1897, page ; one of the neighbours he talks about was William Blakewell, father of the woman he married a couple of years later
  5. quotation about phoebe philopatry: from Audubon (1831-39) vol 2, 1834, page 125
  6. phoebes removing threads: this thread removal and habituation must have occurred over less than two weeks as phoebes leave the nest after 16-18 days
  7. quotation about silver threads: from Audubon (1831-39) vol 2, 1834, page 125
  8. quotation about returning phoebes: from Audubon (1831-39) vol 2, 1834, page 125-127
  9. natal philopatry of passerines: Weatherhead and Forbes (1994) summarized the rates of natal philopatry for 32 migratory passerines from various published and unpublished studies. The highest recorded rate of natal philopatry was 13.5%, and the majority of species had rates <5%, much lower than Audubon recorded for his phoebes
  10. natal philopatry in Ontario: unpublished data summarized in Weatherhead and Forbes (1994)
  11. natal philopatry in Indiana: unpublished data summarized in Weeks (2011)
  12. Audubon banding birds: I am inclined to believe that Audubon did band those birds as the details ring true. He thus deserves his reputation as America’s first bander, preceding by almost a century the next attempt to band birds in the America’s
  13. Audubon’s conflicts and plagiarism: see Halley (2018) for a brief summary
  14. Elliott Coues quotation: as quoted by Burns 1908 page 68

IMAGES: Audubon mansion from Audubon (1897);  Audubon’s paintings from his Birds of America (1827-38)

George Ord’s warbler

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 21 May 2018

Cape May Warbler (Wilson 1812, part of Plate LIV)

I have always liked the Cape May Warbler. The male in spring is a handsome bird, but scarce enough here in eastern Ontario that I see only one or two every spring [1]. When I first saw one on migration at Long Point Bird Observatory in the 1960s, my friend and mentor David Hussell said that it was really a misnomer—the species was originally collected on Cape May, NJ, he said, but had hardly ever been seen there since.

There are only three other North American birds named after such a small region of the continent [2], and the others are also misnomers in the sense that they do not represent anything useful about the bird’s range, habitat, appearance or song [3]. While there are rules about priority in the assigning of scientific names to species, common names are largely at the whim of the first person to describe the species, and, in North America, the later machinations of the AOU Check-list committee (now AOS’s North American Classification Committee).

That ‘first’ Cape May Warbler was a male collected by George Ord on a collecting trip with Alexander Wilson on Cape May in May 1812 [4]:

THIS new and beautiful little species was discovered in a maple swamp, in Cape May county, not far from the coast, by Mr. George Ord of this city, who accompanied me on a shooting excursion to that quarter in the month of May last…The same swamp that furnished us with this elegant little stranger, and indeed several miles around it, were ransacked by us both for another specimen of the same; but without success. Fortunately it proved to be a male, and being in excellent plumage, enabled me to preserve a faithful portrait of the original. [5]

Wilson described the bird, painted it (see above), and called it the Cape May Warbler Sylvia maritima in Volume 6 (page 99) of his American Ornithology, published in 1812. It was not seen again on Cape May until September 1920 when Witmer Stone found it there but it has been increasingly recorded—and is now regularly seen—on Cape May during migration ever since [6].

Unbeknownst to Wilson, the bird had already been described  as Motacilla tigrina in 1789 in Johann Friedrich Gmelin’s edition of Linaeus’s Systema naturae:

top of page 985 in Gmelin (1789) describing Motacilla tigrina

But wait, Gmelin says that this is the same species as Brisson’s Ficedula canadensis fusca and F. dominicensis, Buffon’s ‘Figuier tacheté de jaune,’ Edwards’s ‘Spotted Yellow Flycatcher,’ and Pennant’s (1874) ’Spotted Yellow Warbler.’ OK, Buffon, Edwards and Pennant did not give it a scientific name, and Brisson’s F. canadensis is the Chestnut-sided Warbler and his F. dominicensis is the Mangrove Warbler. So Gmelin is considered to be the scientific naming authority for this species, and the species name he gave it, tigrina, is official. He also correctly identified the habitat as ‘Canada’, presumably based on Pennant who said “Inhabits also Canada, which may be its place of summer residence and breeding.” [7]

But how did Gmelin (and the others) who wrote in 1789 even know about this species if the ‘first’ specimen was the one collected by George Ord on Cape May in 1812? The short answer is that Wilson was mistaken, as was Charles Lucien Bonaparte who later wrote about Wilson’s nomenclature [8] and edited editions of Wilson’s American Ornithology after Wilson died in 1813. Since Gmelin, Brisson, Buffon and Pennant were all referring to Edwards’s specimens, Gorge Ord’s warbler was actually the third specimen of what we now call the Cape May Warbler.

Edward’s (1758) Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher (L) and Yellow-tailed Flycatcher (R)

The first specimen of what we now call the Cape May Warbler was actually collected on 1 November 1751 when a male and female landed on a boat about 56 km off the coast of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. George Edwards obtained the specimens and published his painting of the male in 1758 on a plate with an American Redstart (shown to the right). In the plate caption [9], Edwards says these “undescribed small Birds” were collected by Thomas Stack “in a voyage from London to Jamaica.” Of the  female, Edwards says: “the breast in the hen was of a dirty yellow white spotted with dusky, and something less bright on the back; otherwise they are marked very much alike. These birds I believe have never been figured or described until now.” [10]

I have actually always liked the name ‘Cape May Warbler.’ Even though that moniker does not tell us anything useful about the bird, the name has an interesting history, in the same way as the name ‘Lady Ross’s Turaco’ that I wrote about in a previous post. And it’s much better than Boat-off-the-coast-of-Hispaniola Warbler, or Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher.


  • Bonaparte CL (1826) Observations on the Nomenclature of Wilson’s Ornithology. Philadelphia: Anthony Finley.
  • Brisson M-J, Martinet FN (1760) Ornithologie, ou, Méthode contenant la division des oiseaux en ordres, sections, genres, especes & leurs variétés (t.1 (1760)). Parisiis :Ad Ripam Augustinorum, apud Cl. Joannem-Baptistam Bauche, bibliopolam, ad Insigne S. Genovesae, & S. Joannis in Deserto.
  • Burtt Jr EH, Davis Jr WE (2013) Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Edwards, G (1758) Gleanings of Natural History. Part I. London: Printed for author at the Royal College of Physicians.
  • Gmelin JF (1789) Caroli a Linné. Systema naturae per regna tria naturae : secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. (Tom. 1 Pars. 2). Lipsiae: impensis Georg. Emanuel. Beer.
  • Pennant T (1784) Arctic Zoology, 2 vols. London: Henry Hughs.
  • Wilson A (1908-1914) American Ornithology; or, the natural history of the birds of the United States. Vols I-IX. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep. Available here.


  1. Rarity of Cape May Warbler in eastern Ontario: ebird says I am not alone as almost all sightings within 100 km of where I live in Kingston, Ontario, are of 1 bird on a given day.
  2. Area of Cape May: depending on how you measure it, Cape May is no more than 50 km2
  3. Three other North American bird misnomers: Nashville Warbler also named by Wilson in 1811 based on a specimen he collected on migration near Nashville—the bird breeds in the boreal forest of eastern Canada and northeastern USA, as well as in the mountains from BC to California; Philadelphia Vireo named in 1851 by John Cassin based on a bird collected on migration in Bingham’s Woods near Philadelphia where he lived and worked—the bird breeds mainly in Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland; and the Key West Quail-dove which did once breed in the Florida Keys (including Key West) but is now just a vagrant in Florida having been extirpated as a breeder there in the 1800s—the bird was described by Charles Bonaparte in 1855 based on a specimen from Key West but that was even then the very northern tip of its breeding range that encompasses the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas.
  4. Collected in 1812: since Wilson was writing in the summer of 1812, Burtt and Davies (2013) interpret ‘May last’ as meaning May 1812, but Ord later claimed that the bird was shot in May 1811, possibly as an attempt to show that his bird was collected before a bird that Audubon thought might be the same species. Audubon collected his bird in Kentucky in May 1811, and called it the Carbonated Warbler. See Burtt and Davies (2013 page 341) for further information on this.
  5. Quotation from Wilson: 1812 (vol 6), page 99
  6. Sightings on Cape May: ebird, for example, shows more than 100 sightings since 2011.
  7. Quotation from Pennant: 1784 page 407. Pennant actually called it the Spotted Warbler and not the Spotted Yellow Warbler as Gmelin claimed.
  8. Bonaparte’s nomenclature: see Bonaparte 1824, page 14
  9. Edwards’s plate: is numbered ‘257 and appears between pages 100 and 101 in Edwards (1758)
  10. Quotation from Edwards: 1758 page 102

IMAGES: all from digital copies of the books in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, in the public domain

Galápagos sojourn

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 26 February 2018

26 February 2018

Mr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey

My Dear Charles

Post Office Bay, Floreana

My apologies for not writing last Monday as I had suggested I might when I wrote to you on your birthday. We were still on the Santa Cruz II ‘steaming’ from Floreana to Baltra on Monday morning and there was no way yo get a message out. I thought of leaving a postcard for you in the barrel at Post Office Bay on Floreana but that might take months to get to you, or be stolen by a tourist.

We had a great visit to the Galápagos Islands, stopping on Baltra, Santa Cruz (Cerro Dragon and Puerto Ayora), Isabela (Punta Vincente Roca), Fernandina (Punta Espinoza), and Floreana (Punta Cormoran and Post Office Bay) to hike, snorkel and/or simply watch and photograph wildlife. I see from your Voyage of The Beagle that you, too, stopped on Charles Island (now called Floreana) and Albermarle (now Isabela), but you also went to Chatham Island (now San Cristobal) and James Island (now Santiago). Certainly, things have changed since you were in the islands in Sept-Oct 1835.


First, and maybe most strikingly, there are now a lot of people on the Galápagos Islands. There are now settlements on Santa Cruz, Baltra, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela, by far the largest being Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz with maybe 25,000 inhabitants (though ‘officially’ 15,000). On top of that a staggering 225,000 people visited the islands in 2015, by boat or plane. The islands are now almost entirely a national park, so travel is restricted to 54 sites on land and 62 for diving in the surrounding ocean. Visitors are limited to about 4 hours per site and must be accompanied by a trained guide.

Fortunately, the places we visited (except Puerto Ayora and vicinity) seemed to be in a relatively pristine state with well-marked trails, no trash, and abundant wildlife close at hand. The birds and reptiles are still exceptionally tame and the waters clear and teeming with life.

G. fortis with foot pox, on Baltra

The (your) finches were also common to abundant just about everywhere we went. They certainly have not been scared off by human developments as we saw them even inside the airport buildings on Baltra and throughout the town of Puerto Ayora. Even we seasoned ornithologists and birders found the species hard to distinguish on any given island so you are to be forgiven for not initially noticing the proliferation of finch species there. The downside of increased human traffic to the islands is that we saw a high incidence of foot pox in the finches on Baltra, and a parasitic nest fly (Philornis downsi) is now posing a serious threat to some finch populations [1]. The finches are so closely associated with humans in some places that there now signs posted to tell people not to feed the birds.

You will recall that John Gould identified 12 species of ‘Galápagos’ finches from your collections. There continues to be debate about how many finch species are actually on the islands, especially as we are now using new molecular tools to help distinguish evolutionarily stable populations that might be worth designating as distinct species. During the 20th century biologists often defined species as reproductively isolated populations (the ‘Biological Species Concept’) but that has proven to be difficult to test empirically and not always useful, in my opinion. At my count there are now at least a half dozen ways to define species and the debate continues in a lively (and I think very productive) fashion.

The Handbook of Birds of the World Online now lists 14 species of Geospiza, plus the Vegetarian Finch (Platyspiza crassirostris), the Grey Warbler-finch (Certhidea fusca), and the Green Warbler-finch (Certhidea olivacea) for a total of 17 species of Darwin’s Finches. I expect that DNA analysis will add to this total in the coming years.

Peter and Rosemary Grant also discovered an instance of speciation through hybridization of an immigrant male Geospiza conirostris from Española Island with a female resident Geospiza fortis on Daphne Major in 1981 [2]. The descendants of this pairing (the Big Bird Lineage, see below) have only mated with each other over the last 37 years. These birds are reproductively isolated from the resident population of G. fortis by their distinctive song. Odds are that this tiny population of the hybrid species will go extinct, but the documentation of this event has given us an insight into a form of speciation that you may not have anticipated, though it is likely to be quite rare.


Sadly, some of the tortoises that you recognized as being distinct species are now extinct due to hunting by sailors, collecting by museums, predation by introduced rats and cats, and habitat destruction by goats. It is estimated, for example, that 200,000 tortoises were taken from the islands before 1900. The tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) from Abingdon Island (now Pinta) went extinct only 6 years ago when the last male (“Lonesome George”) died in captivity at the (relatively young) age of just over 100 years. George was preserved as a taxidermic mount and is now on display at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. Also now extinct is C. nigra from Floreana, which you saw and collected, was extinct by 1846 having been hunted mercilessly by sailors and the penal colony on that island; and C. phantastica from Narborough Island (now Fernandina) which is known only from a single specimen collected by Rollo Beck for the California Academy of Sciences in 1906. All of the other tortoise species are considered to be endangered or at least vulnerable with populations <10,000 each and some only in the 100s. There is hope, however, in restoring some of them by captive breeding and the eradication of predators.

Chelonoidis porteri in the ‘wild’ on Santa Cruz Island

As you might expect, your name is intimately associated with the Galápagos with an island (formerly Culpepper Island) now named after you, as well as a research station and a hostel in Puerto Ayora, a tortoise (C. darwini), and, of course, those finches.

Yr obd srvt



  • Darwin C (1840) The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Grant BR, Grant PR (2008) Fission and fusion of Darwin’s finches populations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363:2821–2829.
  • Kleindorfer S, Dudaniec RY (2006) Increasing prevalence of avian poxvirus in Darwin’s finches and its effect on male pairing success. Journal of Avian Biology 37:69–76.
  • Koop JAH, Kim PS, Knutie SA, Adler F, Clayton DH (2016) An introduced parasitic fly may lead to local extinction of Darwin’s finch populations. Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 511–518.


1. parasitic nest fly and foot pox: see Koop et al. 2016 on the fly and Kleindorfer and Dudaniek on the pox

2. speciation through hybridization: see Grant and Grant (2008)

IMAGES: Big Bird lineage from; Galapagos map from; Post Office Bay photo from Wikimedia Commons; all other photos by the author

Birthday wishes

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 12 February 2018

DarwinsgraveMr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey
20 Deans Yd
London SW1P 3PA

My Dear Charles (if I may)

Happy 209th birthday! 

I know that a few people have written to you [1] in the 132 years since you shuffled off this mortal coil, but I thought it high time we brought you up to date on the research inspired by those drab little finches that you collected in the Galápagos Islands. I am not really sure how long it takes for letters to reach you at your new address [2] but the current evidence suggests that it might take forever. But still…

You presumably know about the several Galápagos expeditions that took place during your lifetime. As soon as John Gould had figured out that there were actually 12 species of finches in your collection, and that there were different combinations of species on different islands, the floodgates were opened.

You will remember poor old Thomas Edmonstone [3] who went to the islands on HMS Herald in 1845. You had asked him specifically to collect finches from as many different islands as he could visit and to keep careful records as to which specimens were from which island, as you had not properly labelled all of your own finch specimens. Sadly, he died on that voyage and his records were virtually indecipherable.

Then Simeon Habel went out in 1868 and stayed for 6 months, making an extensive bird collection that ended up in Vienna. Percy Sclater and Osbert Salvin [4] published a little about that collection. Finally, your old nemesis, Luis Agassiz [5], went to the islands for only 9 days in 1873 but his crew still collected a lot of specimens for the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz, as you no doubt expected, could not see what all the fuss was about over the finches and remained a devout creationist.

It has always been pretty clear to me that the finches fascinated you. Even in your notes from the Beagle voyage you could already tell that they were closely related to some mainland species and realized that they were all related, even if, at the time, you thought that many of the finches on different islands were just morphologically differentiated races of the same species. As you said in your ‘Ornithological Notes‘:

These birds are closely allied in appearance to the Thenca of Chile or Callandra of la Plata. In their habits I cannot point out a single difference; — They are lively inquisitive, active run fast, frequent houses to pick the meat of the Tortoise, which is hung up, — sing tolerably well; are said to build a simple open nest. — are very tame, a character in common with the other birds…I have specimens from four of the larger Islands; the two above enumerated, and (female. Albermarle Isd.) & (male: James Isd). — The specimens from Chatham & Albermarle Isd appear to be the same; but the other two are different. In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable… When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. (Darwin 1963)

In 1888 and 1891, Zera L. Tanner took several naturalists (including Aggasiz’ son Alexander) on his fisheries research ship USFC Albatross to the islands to collect specimens. The bird specimens in those collections, as well those of Habel and Bauer and Adams in 1891, were studied by the great American ornithologist Robert Ridgway [6] and published in his Birds of the Galapagos Archipelago in 1896. Ridgway recognized that despite all of the previous visits to the islands, not much was really known about the finches still:

Not a single island of the group can be said to have been exhaustively explored, and few of the species are known in all their various phases in fact, many are known only from a few specimens in female or immature dress. No observations have been made upon the attitude the different species of Geospiza maintain toward one another tending to show how far the differences observable, or thought to be observable, in dried specimens indicate the actual grouping in species of living individuals. The anomaly of individuals adult as to plumage but with bills suggesting immaturity’, and of others which show exactly the reverse, remains to be explained and there are other questions which only protracted field-studies by a competent investigator can decide. Until all these present mysteries are solved, theories and generalizations are necessarily futile. (Ridgway 1897: 459-460)

Rollo Beck

The indefatigable Rollo Beck of California was the next ornithologist to make collections in the Galeapagos when he was sent there by Lord Walter Rothschild [7]  specifically to collect tortoises that were sent back to Rothschild’s collection at Tring (UK). Beck was sent back to the islands in 1905 to collect for the California Academy of Sciences, and stayed for a whole year. He shipped 78,000 specimens (including 8688 birds [8]) back to the Cal Academy, a third of which were finches.

Percy Lowe went out in 1936 but declared in his paper published in The Ibis that the finches were all a kind of hybrid swarm with no clear evidence of speciation. He did, however, call the birds ‘Darwin’s Finches’ and you will undoubtedly be delighted to know that that name endures to this day despite a few subsequent publications calling them ‘Galapagos Finches’.

LackDFIn 1938-39, a school teacher named David Lack spent four months on the islands studying the behaviour of the fiches, followed by a few months studying the extensive collection of specimens at the Cal Academy. Lack was already a well-known, if amateur, ornithologist having participated in some ornithological expeditions and published a few papers. Lack was appointed Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in 1945, a position he held until he died in 1973. In 1940 he published the results of his Galápagos studies in a paper in Nature and later, in 1947, in a book called Darwin’s Finches. Lack really established the finches as model organisms for the study of evolution.

To some extent inspired by Lack’s book, Robert Bowman [9]—a Queen’s University graduate—went first went to the Galápagos in 1956 and returned several times to conduct a series of studies designed in part to show that Lack was mistaken about the role of competition in the evolution of the finches. Bob did his PhD at UC Berkeley, carefully describing the skulls and jaw musculature of the finches. Later he studied their songs and concluded that those species that coexisted in the same island differed as much in their songs as they did in their bills, and that the songs probably reduced the incidence of ‘cross-breeding’ as you called it.

Finally (though not actually the end of the story), a personal note. In the fall of 1973, my PhD advisor, Peter Grant, who was then studying competition in microtine rodents, came into our grad student office and asked me if I’d like to go to the Galápagos to suss out the finches as a possible focus for my thesis research. I had just started a PhD program at McGill University a couple of months earlier and was thinking then that I wanted to return to Newfoundland or the high arctic, as I had worked studying seabirds for the Canadian Wildlife Service in both places in the preceding summer. Peter and his postdoc BeakIan Abbott were going to the Galápagos for a few weeks mainly to study the interactions between the birds and the seeds of Tribulus, which formed a large part of their diet. For several reasons I declined, but Peter (with Ian and his wife, Lynette) went and was enchanted, thereby beginning the longest running—and today probably best known—series of studies of ‘your’ finches. His work was the subject of a Pulitzer prize winning book called The Beak of the Finch. I am certain that you would be stunned by the quality and breadth of the work that Peter, his wife Rosemary, and their students and colleagues have accomplished in the intervening 45 years.

I am actually in Ecuador today in the cloud forest nw of Quito, watching birds with a couple of old friends, Tim Birkhead (sperm competition [10], history of ornithology) and David McDonald (manakins). Tim and I will fly [11] to Baltra on Thursday the 15th to tour the islands for a few days. I will send you some photos and field notes next Monday from our trip. That post might be delayed by a day or two depending upon the quality of the internet connection [12] on our boat or in Guayaquil. I know you did not get to the mainland of Ecuador in 1835 but I think that history has shown that your time was better spent in the Galápagos.

Yr obd svt

Bob Montgomerie


  • Darwin CR (1963) Ornithological notes. Barlow N. , editor. British Museum (Natural History) Bulletin, Historical Series 2: 201–278.
  • Lack D (1947) Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Lowe PR(1936) XV.—The finches of the Galapagos in relation to Darwin’s conception of species. Ibis 78: 310–321, doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.1936.tb03376.x

  • Ridgway R (1897) Birds of the Galápagos archipelago. Proceedings of the U. S. Nayional Museum 19:459–670.

  • Sclater PL, Salvin O (1870) Characters of new species of birds collected by Dr Habel in the Galapagos Islands. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 38:322–323.

  • Ridgway R (1897) Birds of the Galápagos archipelago. Proceedings of the U. S. National Museum 19:459–670.



1. see photo at the top, but also, if you modern readers of this post are familiar with the what3words app or website, Darwin is at, or very close to, salsa.snap.finger

2. see for example a letter from Jerry Coyne on the Oxford Press blog in 2009 here; and a letter from Frank Gannon in EMBO Reports, also in 2009, here

3. 1825-1846; sometimes spelled Edmonston; he was accidentally shot in the head after landing in Peru, right after visiting the Galapagos 

4. Sclater (1829-1913) and Salvin (1835-1898) were both prominent 19th century English ornithologists who were original members of the BOU and editors of The Ibis. Together they published the first paper to appear in The Ibis

5. Agassiz(1807-1873) was born and raised in Switzerland but moved to the USA in 1847 and eventually became professor of zoology at Harvard where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

6. Ridgway (1850-1929) was one of the founders of the AOU (now AOS) and was president of the AOU from 1898-1900

7.  Rothschild (1868-1937) was a wealthy collector who donated his Tring estate to the British Museum, where it is now a division of the Natural History Museum and sold his bird specimens to the American Museum of Natural History, thereby establishing the AMNH as a leading ornithological centre worldwide.

8. About 2500 of these were finches in the genus Geospiza alone (data from VertNet accessed on 4 Feb 2018)

9. Bowman (1925-2006) first went to the islands as a grad student, then several more times during his long career as a professor at San Francisco State University until he retired in 1988.

10. It wasn’t until 1970 that Geoff Parker added this interesting way that males compete to your list of important mechanisms of selection.

11. I don’t know if you are aware that we humans can now fly from place to place in giant buses with wings called airplanes, making it possible to get from my home in Canada to the Galápagos in less than a day. The first airplane flew to the Galapagos in 1934 to rescue a naturalist who had contracted appendicitis.

12. I don’t even know where to start explaining this. It’s like the mail without the paper, and messages are transferred instantly (which is both a boon and a curse) across the ether, so you are actually likely to encounter them wherever you are.

The First Penguins

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 Oct 2017

While preparing a talk [1] last week about the early history of ornithology in North America, I wondered who might have been the first to describe and identify a bird on this continent. As far as I can tell, that was Jacques Cartier when he wrote, in 1534, about the ‘Apponat‘ (originally in French but here in English translation [2]):

whose numbers are so great as to be incredible, unless one has seen them; for although the island is about a league in circumference, it is so exceedingly full of birds that one would think they had been stowed there Some of these birds are as large as geese, being black and white with beak like a crows. They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings about the size of half one‘s hand, with which however they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat that it is marvellous. We call them apponatsand our two longboats were laden with them as with stones in less than half an hour. Of these, each of our ships salted four or five casks, not counting those we were able to eat fresh

Cartier also recorded seeing Margaulx (Gannets) and Godertz (probably Common Murres) but the apponat referred to here is the Great Auk (Puinguinis impennis). “Apponath” was what the local Newfoundland natives (i.e. Beothuks) called this bird. On his second trip to Isle des Oyseaux, a year later, Cartier wrote “The island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without perceiving that any of them had been removed” [2].

The “isle of birds” (Isle des Oyseaux) referred to in that passage above, was called ‘Penguin Island’  in the 1600s and  was ‘officially’ called ‘Funk Island’ by the late 1700s. Cartier was not the first to visit this island, as Gaspar Corte-Real stopped there in 1501, and it is shown on two maps by Pedro Reinel—one in 1504 where he calls it ‘Y Dos Saues’ and the other in 1520 where it is labelled ‘Yihas das Aves’. The map below by John Mason was made around 1617 and clearly shows ‘Penguin Island’ off the northwest coast on Newfoundland. This map was drawn upside down (for some unknown reason), so Penguin Island is on the lower left margin.


There is some debate about where the word ‘penguin’ came from, though we can be certain that it was what Europeans called the Great Auk, centuries before any of the birds that we now call penguins had been ‘discovered’. The three most commonly suggested—but very different—origins for the word ‘penguin’, as applied to the Great Auk, are:

  1. Great_Auk_Thomas_Bewick_1804derived from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn‘, where ‘pen’ is their word for head (or headland) and ‘gwyn’ means white, referring either to the white patch on the bird’s head, or the fact that a headland full of Great Auks looks white. The Welsh (and other Europeans) would have known this bird long before they found it in North America, as it bred (and was slaughtered) across the eastern North Atlantic from Iceland thorough Great Britain and Norway to as far south as Spain. In 1577, Francis Fletcher, a clergyman who travelled with Sir Francis Drake, wrote in his log about the southern hemisphere penguins [3]: “Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.” This seems to me fairly convincing evidence for the word’s origin.
  2. derived from the name ‘pin-winged’, referring to the lack of real wing feathers on this flightless bird. I like this explanation though the consensus seems to be that it is incorrect.
  3. derived from the Latin pinguis, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘plump’

There is quite a good online debate about these origins here, if you are interested, and the several books now published on the Great Auk variously mention and discuss where the word ‘penguin‘ came from.

Probably the first European to see what we now call penguins was the explorer Bartholomeu Diaz, from Portugal, who reached the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) in 1488, but he never mentioned these birds in his notes. The first mention of southern hemisphere penguins is probably in the travel book of Álvaro Velho who rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Vasco da Gama in 1497. He called them ‘otilicarios’ [opticians?] and said that (again in rough translation): “They are as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings. These birds, of which we slaughtered as many as we could, cried like jackass.”

So the Great Auk was the first ‘penguin’. Presumably it seemed logical at the time to call the southern hemisphere flightless oceanic birds ‘penguins‘, as well, because they looked and behaved so much like the Great Auk. Hunted relentlessly, the Great Auk had disappeared from Funk Island by 1800—where the ‘funk’ but not the bird remains to this day. The last individual was killed in Iceland in 1844, leaving its current genus name Puinguinis as the final remnant of its life as the first penguin.


  • Cook R (1993) The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Gaskell J (2001) Who Killed the Great Auk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Grieve S (1885) The great auk, or garefowl (Alca impennis, Linn.): Its history, archaeology, and remains. London: TC Jack. [available here]

  • Thier K (2007) Of Picts and penguins—Celtic languages in the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. pp 246-259 in Tristram HLC (ed.) The Celtic Languages in Contact. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press


  1. On Sat 19 Oct 2017, I gave a talk called ‘Discovering Birds in the Great White North‘ as part of a Bird Festival at the lovely Ruthven Park National Historic Site in the Niagara Region of Ontario. That talk drew material from a chapter I wrote on the History of Ornithology in Nunavut for a forthcoming book on the birds of Nunavut.
  2. This quote is from Cook 1993:xvii
  3. This quote is from Thier 2007:255