Birds of the Incunables

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 19 November 2018

For bibliophiles, antiquarian booksellers and librarians, incunables are the crown jewels. These are the earliest books, pamphlets and broadsheets produced during the 60 year period following Johannes Gutenberg‘s development of the printing press in Europe in about 1440. Incunable are all things printed with these new presses until 1 January 1501. And while there are, surprisingly, a lot of incunables—at least 30,000 editions and more than 200,000 extant volumes—they are still rare enough that they are particularly treasured (and expensive to buy [1]).

The word ‘incunable‘ is the English form of the Latin incunabula which means either ‘swaddling clothes’ or ‘cradle’, and thus obliquely refers to the early stages in the development of something, like books. The Gutenberg Bible is certainly the most famous of the incunabula, but once the obvious efficiency of movable type caught on, incunables were produced on a wide array of topics, though religious texts seem to dominate. Some were printed using a carved wooden block for each page, whereas others used the movable lead type for text, and woodcuts for the illustrations. 

So, when Lauren Williams, the librarian at McGill University’s Blacker-Wood Collection [2], asked me if I wanted to see their incunable, I did not hesitate to say ‘yes’. Like many incunables, the Blacker-wood volume is hardbound in wood, but unlike most it is hand-coloured and contains probably the first printed and hand-coloured images of recognizable birds. This is the Buch der Natur by Konrad von Megenberg published—or rather, printed—in 1478 by Johannes Bämler in Augsburg, Germany. Bämler was a printer and bookseller, and the Buch der Natur is probably his most famous incunable.

Buch der Natur 1475

Konrad was a German scholar who lived for most of the 1300s when he wrote more than 30 books on a wide variety of topics. In his day, of course, there were no printing presses so his books were printed by hand from woodcuts or transcribed by hand. His Buch der Natur was written around 1350, and was the first book of natural history to be written in German. In it he tried to survey everything that was known about natural history at the time, heavily based on a 13th century work by Thomas of Cantimpré, written in Latin. Of the eight chapters in Buch der Natur, there is only one on ‘zoology’, where there are some descriptions of 72 kinds of birds [3] from pages 62 to 86.

Casey Wood, who built the Blacker-Wood Collection a century ago, was obviously proud of this acquisition. Here is what he wrote about it (my emphasis):

The second edition on the first German book on natural history contains 12 full-page woodcuts contemporarily colored…This copy, bound in original oak boards with leather back, lacks pp. 279 and 288 of the text…There is no copy in the British Museum or in the Bodleian library, and Schreiber records but five examples. The copy in hand is in fine state, crisp and untouched. The woodcuts of the editio principes, 1475, Bämler, always appear uncolored; the illustrations of the present copy may, consequently, be regarded as the earliest portraits of birds in color to be found in any printed book. [4]

Plate number 4 is called Birds and starts the section on birds. That plate from the Blacker-Wood volume is shown below left, with the colours remarkably well preserved after 500 years:

Birds from Buch der Natur (L), and in grey scale with red numbers (R) described below

I asked a few ornithologist colleagues to try to identify the birds in this plate and here is our best guess, as numbered on the plate above right:
1 eagle, based on relative size (maybe White-tailed based on range)
2 swan, based on size and lack of colour
3 European Goldfinch
4 goose, based on size, maybe Egyptian
5 raven or carrion crow
6 Indian Peacock
7 Eurasian Eagle-owl, based on ‘ears’ and size
8 Eurasian Magpie
9 Common Hoopoe, based on crown tufts
10 cockerel
11 Rose-ringed Parakeet (aka Ring-necked Parakeet)
12 White Stork
13 falcon

bdnlibcongressSome of these are obviously correct (goldfinch, peacock, magpie, cockerel, stork) but the others are not well enough drawn to be positively identified, though they may be mentioned in the (German) text. I assume that the birds in this plate would be familiar to the 14th century German author, but otherwise there is no obvious rhyme or reason for those choices. The plate to the right is from a 1481 printing of the second edition now in the US Library of Congress. In this plate the colours are a little more realistic, such that the eagle, hoopoe and parakeet are more easily identified.

We have come a long way since 1478 in depicting birds in books, but still most often rely on the skill of artists and illustrators to make them come alive. I have just downloaded the excellent second edition of David Sibley’s eGuide to Birds app and have no doubt that both Konrad and Casey Wood would be enthralled, but still recognizing the value of ancient texts and drawings.

CORRECTION: Thanks to Rick Wright for pointing out that Konrad von Megenberg is most often called ‘Konrad’ and not ‘von Megenberg’ and I have corrected that above. He also notes that those block-printed books are not considered by many scholars to be incunables and they reserve that term only for books printed with movable type. See the Wikipedia article here for more details.


  • von Megenberg K (1478) Das Buch der Natur. Second edition. Augsburg: Joannes Bämler.
  • Wood CA (1931) An introduction to the literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press.


  1. incunables expensive: a quick survey of the listing of incunables for sale at AbeBooks reveals that you can buy a single page for $500 or more, and books sell for at least $25,000
  2. Blacker-Wood Collection: see here and here for previous posts about this magnificent collection of rare books about birds
  3. descriptions of birds: I cannot read German so this is from a secondary source. While there are online digital versions of the second (1481) printed edition (here) and an 1831 edition (here), I can find no English translation
  4. quotation about the Blacker-Wood volume: p 458 in Wood (1931)

A Bird’s Eye View

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 17 April 2018

When I started my PhD at McGill University, in 1973, I was thrilled to discover that the university had a library devoted just to ornithology: the Blacker-Wood Library of Zoology and Ornithology. This library was a primarily large room located in the basement of the university’s  immense Redpath Library just down the road from the Biology Building. Besides a fabulous collection of contemporary books and journals about birds, the library also had a rare book room full of treasures like the feather book of Dionisio Minaggio. It also had a hand-coloured copy of John Ray’s Ornithology of Francis Willughby published in 1776 and ostensibly given as a present to Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th century diarist [1]. 

I remember the librarian, Eleanor MacLean, telling me that the library subscribed to more than 100 ornithological journals and newsletters. That seems like a lot but they did get the separate bird journals published by many of the provinces in Sweden, as well as a dozen or more in foreign languages that I could not read, so that total might not have been far off. It was a real treat for me to spend every Friday morning poring over the latest acquisitions. While I love the convenience of the internet, and rapid search engines, there was something oddly rewarding about opening the latest issues of journals from around the world, all devoted to the study of birds.

That library was founded in 1920 by Casey Wood, a Canadian-American [2] ophthalmologist who was also an avid—OK, obsessive—book collector. On Friday (20 April), I will be going to Montreal to participate in a symposium celebrating his contributions to the library in particular and to ornithology in general.

Wood wrote several papers about birds but his signal ornithological work was a little-known volume called The Fundus Oculi of Birds, published in 1917. Because Wood was an ophthalmologist and immensely curious, he thought it might be interesting to use the tools of his trade to study the eyes of birds. To do that, he employed the techniques that he had used in his practice, and further developed some procedures for studying the eyes of birds. His main interest was the structures of the fundus oculi, at the back of the eye—the retina, the fovia(s), the nerves and the pectin.

2018-04-16 21.11.16
Wood adapted the methods he used to strudel the eyes of his patients (left) to examine the fundus oculi of birds (right). From Wood (1917)

64BCC83D-A67F-46C9-8914-7F692BDF0D6AWood realized early on that his observations would be most useful if he could somehow illustrate what he was seeing through his ophthalmoloscope. In those days, photography was simply not advanced enough to provide enough depth of focus:

In spite of recent advances in that direction, attempts to reproduce the colored (ophthalmoscopic) appearances of the fundus by photography have so far failed. [3]

Instead he employed the talents of Arthur William Head [4], a celebrated UK artist, to draw and paint the fundus oculi of more than 80 bird species. Wood does not record how Head did this—did Wood train Heath to use the opthalmoscope or did he roughly sketch what he saw and then work with Head to make Head’s illustrations match what Wood saw? Wood says that it takes a lot of experience to be able to use the ophthalmoloscope but maybe he was able to teach Heath his techniques. Wood also says that his methods allowed only a short period of observation of the fundus oculi so it is remarkable how detailed these illustrations are, however they were produced.

file 2018-04-16, 21 25 12.png
Arthur Head’s paintings of the fundus oculi of Great Black-backed Gull (left) and African Penguin (right) showing the pectin (black) and retina (red or brown). From Wood (1917)

Perhaps surprisingly, Wood took a very modern approach to his subject, as he attempted to examine at least one species in each avian order to see if there were patterns related to the bird’s way of life—an early example of what we now call comparative analysis.

 The oculi of Birds exhibits a great variety of areas of distinct vision, and these correspond closely to the habits and habitat of these animals especially their methods of obtaining food, of escape from enemies, of migration, of reproduction, etc. [3]

But he also wanted to determine whether the fundus oculi might be a useful taxonomic tool, helping to define the evolutionary relationships among species. To that end, he sampled and illustrated the fundus oculi of birds from 24 of the Orders of birds that were recognized in those days, missing only 5 of the Orders that we (or at least some authorities) recognize today (Turniciformes, Craciformes, Gabuliformes, Coliiformes and Musophagiformes). There was a bit of a taxonomic signal there, in Wood’s opinion, but not clear enough to be useful. 

Side view of the eyes of an Ostrich (left) and  Kiwi (right) showing a clear difference in pectin (black) structure that Wood thought might be related to visual acuity, with the kiwi needing less as it hunts mainly by smell at night. From Wood (1917)

 Instead, Wood showed nicely that the pectin size and shapevwere likely related to visual acuity, and that some birds have two fovias, related either to visual acuity or more likely the need to switch from binocular to monocular vision while foraging. Even today, a century later, we still do not have definitive studies of these traits in the fundus oculi, as far as I can tell.

 Wood also found that the pectin degenerated in domesticated birds suggesting to me that it is a costly structure that becomes smaller under relaxed selection when visual acuity is no longer important for foraging or survival.

 Reading Wood’s Fundus Oculi Book for my talk in Montreal reminded me once again of the tremendous value in reading the older literature once in a while. I have been interested in avian vision for about 25 years but had never really thought or read about the pectin before. To the best of my knowledge, many of the patterns that Wood described have not been further investigated even though we now have all of the tools needed to measure and quantify the structures he described and illustrated. Wood’s book is not an easy read as it is largely descriptive and lacks focus (no pun intended). There are enough gems buried there, though, that anyone interested in the vision of birds might want to have a look at this interesting book.


  • Montgomerie R, Birkhead TR (2009) Samuel Pepys’s hand-coloured copy of John Ray’s ‘The Ornithology of Francis Willughby’ (1678). Journal of Ornithology 150:883-891  DOI 10.1007/s10336-009-0413-3
  • Wood CA (1917) The Fundus OCuli of BIrds ESefially as Viewed by the Ophthalmoloscope: A Study in Comparative Anatomy and Physiology. Chicago: Lakeside Press. Available here


1. Pepys’s  copy of Willughby and Ray’s Ornithology: see Montgomerie and Birkhead  (2009)

2. Casey Albert Wood: (1856-1942) was born in Wellington, Ontario, attended high school in Ottawa, and got his medical degrees from McGill University. He eventually settled in Chicago where he practiced ophthalmology. See here for details

3. Quotations: from Wood 1917 page 7

4. Arthur William Head: (1861-1930) was a celebrated artist who lived in London, England, see here for examples of his work

Books about Books about Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 22 January 2018

Before Google Scholar and similar search engines, most ornithologists that I know trundled off to the library from time to time to search the current literature on birds. As a graduate student at McGill, I was lucky enough to have the Blacker-Wood Library close at hand and they subscribed to something like 300 bird journals, magazines and newsletters. But even then I often searched through the fat volumes of Zoological Record: Aves, Current Contents, and Biological Abstracts to ferret out papers that might be interesting or relevant to my research.

filecardsMy own PhD supervisor, Peter Grant, went to the library every Friday to search and read the literature, making out file cards for every paper that interested him. And well into the 1990s, George Williams—who was an adjunct professor here at Queen’s would show up in our library every few months filling out file cards on papers that he had read. I figured that if this method was embraced by two of the great evolutionary biologists of the twentieth century it was good enough for me. By the time I finally put my file cards into the dumpster having transferred that information over to Bookends, I had accumulated >7000 cards like the ones in the picture to the right.

This ritual was the stock-in-trade of scientists for most of the twentieth century. While I don’t lament the demise of this weekly ritual, which consumed a huge amount of time for such a small gain in knowledge, there was something vaguely satisfying about keeping up with the literature on a regular basis. My students, of course, can’t imagine actually keeping abreast of the relevant literature in our discipline and even often baulk at reading a paper once a week for our journal club discussions.

Zoological Record began publishing in 1864 as The Record of Zoological Literature and Biological Abstracts in 1926 and by the time our library stopped getting the print version, in the early part of this millennium, these two publications occupied tens of metres of shelf space. Searching those volumes was a daunting task at times, and I well remember trying to compile a complete list of papers published on hummingbird behaviour and ecology, the subject of my PhD. At least in the 1970s, that task was actually do-able, and worthwhile, as once I had finished I knew that I had the entire literature on my chosen subject at my fingertips. Getting copies of those papers was, of course, another story.

The compiling of bibliographies has a long history in the sciences, and presumably provided a very useful service for scientists who did not have ready access to extensive libraries. While today those bibliographic compilations can at first seem like a worthless anachronism, the best ones not only list what was published but also provide commentaries that are extremely useful to historians, providing contemporary insights into the perceived value of published work.

I have already mentioned here the bibliographies published by the execrable Wood brothers in the 1830s, but there are several others that form a very nice historical record of early ornithology, a few of which are listed here:

  • Wood CT (1835) The Ornithological Guide: in which are discussed several interesting points in ornithology. London: Whittaker. [Available here. An odd compilation of ornithological information, including a long section (pp 79-173) in which he reviews (English) books, journals and magazines about birds from Willughby and Ray’s Ornithology (1678) to his brother Neville’s soon to be published British Songsters, which was not published until 1836 under the name British song birds: being popular descriptions and anecdotes of the choristers of the groves.]
  • Wood N (1836) The Ornithologist’s Text-book: Being Reviews of Ornithological Works: with an Appendix Containing Discussions on Various Topics of Interest. London: JW Parker. [Available here. Not to be outdone by his brother Charles Thorold, Neville published his own review of books about birds in the long first section (pp 4-99) of this textbook, covering the same material as his brother but adding books written in French and German. Both of the Wood brothers are unstinting in their praise for books they liked, and highly critical of those they found to be wanting. Of James Rennies’ (1833) Alphabet of Zoology, for example, Neville says simply “A compilation of no merit”]
  • Günther ACLG (1864) The Record of Zoological Literature. Van Voorst
  • NewtonEXTRACTSNewton A (1870) Extracts from the Record of Zoological Literature, Vols. I-VI: Containing the Portions Relating to Aves, from 1864 to 1869. London: Taylor & Francis. 478 pp. [Available here. A fairly complete compilation and personal review of books and papers about birds published from 1864-1869, by the leading British ornithologist of the Victorian era]
  • Coues E (1878-80) Bibliography of ornithology. 4 Vols. US Government Printing Office. [Available here. Coues attempted to pull together the entire literature on ornithology with personal annotations, starting with 3 volumes on American ornithology and a fourth on ‘Faunal Publications relating to British Birds’ but he died before completing the entire series.  Here’s what he thought of all that work

I think I never did anything else in my life which brought me such hearty praise—immediate and almost universal recognition, at home and abroad, from ornithologists who knew that bibliography was a necessary nuisance and a horrible drudgery that no mere drudge could perform. It takes a sort of an inspired idiot to be a good bibliographer, and his inspiration is as dangerous a gift as the appetite of the gambler or dipsomaniac—it grows with what it feeds upon, and finally possesses its victim like any other invincible vice. Perhaps it is lucky for me that I was forcibly divorced from my bibliographical mania; at any rate, years have cured me of the habit, and I shall never again be spellbound in that way. Coues 1897 The Osprey 2:39-40

  • Mullens WH (1908) A list of books relating to British Birds published before the year 1815. Hasting and St Leonard’s Natural History Society, Occasional Publications No. 3:1-34. [A pamphlet that became the basis for his further publications listed below]
  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A bibliography of British ornithology from the earliest times to the end of 1912. London: Macmillan. [Available here. The most comprehensive listing of books and papers on British birds, essentially completing the task that Coues had begun 40 years earlier]
  • Zimmer JT (1926) Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 239, 240 Vol. xvi:1–706. [Available here. Like Casey Wood’s work, below, this is a comprehensive annotated listing of the publications held in a superb ornithological library at the Field Museum in Chicago]

The Edward Ayer Library

  • Wood CA (1931) An introduction to the literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press. [Available here. Casey Wood was not related to the Wood brothers (as far as I can tell) but did a magnificent job of listing and summarizing all of the books on birds in the extensive ornithological library that he established at McGill University in Montreal. Wood includes in this volume, chapters full of historical information on early ornithology gleaned, I assume, from the books in this marvellous library.]
  • PittieCOVERPittie A (2010). Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology—-A Bibliography. Permanent Black: India. [A comprehensive, annotated listing of about 1,700 books that contain information about the birds of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Includes a brief overview of the history of ornithology in the region since 1700 and short biographies of about 200 prominent ornithologists whose books are included in the annotated list.]

This list is certainly far from comprehensive and I will add to it on a page on the History of Ornithology website here as I discover more volumes like these. I would have thought that Zoological Record, Biological Abstracts, as well as Web of Science, Google Scholar and the like would have marked the end of such bibliographies in the early part of the 20th century, if only because the task would now be so daunting as to be virtually impossible. The recent work by Pittie suggests that maybe there is still a market for and interest in these compilations, but I doubt it.

For a century, though, possibly beginning with the books by Charles and Neville Wood, books about books about birds were an invaluable guide for ornithologists, and helped to avoid redundancy in the naming of species. Today, they provide an invaluable historical record about the beginnings of scientific ornithology.

Time Travel

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 15 January 2018

For historians, travel to museums, libraries and historic sites is a way to get in touch with times past and seems, somehow, to improve understanding. I vividly remember the days I spent at Down House poring over Darwin’s artifacts, getting a feel for his working conditions, and supposing that somehow this made me a better student of evolutionary biology. The study of history does that for me, and many scientists, for reasons that are hard to pin down—I know that an appreciation for history helps my science but I cannot exactly say why.

Some of Darwin’s specimens on display in Down House (2013)

Now with the ready availability of so much digitized material online, including excellent videos of historic places, scanned copies of original volumes and documents, and—coming soon—virtual and augmented reality presentations that will give an immersive experience, much historical research and ‘time travel’ can be had without leaving your desk. My friends in the History Department just roll their eyes when I say this because, for them, there’s just nothing like holding the real thing in your hand or sitting in the same pub as Tolkien when you read his notes. They cannot really explain why this is valuable but I know what they mean about that kind of experience.

These days much of what used to take months of painstaking research and travel to examine documents and specimens can now be accomplished in minutes online. A recent study, for example, used digitized photos of eggs from a museum collection to do a comprehensive comparative study of 1400 species [1]. The authors could have done that entire study without actually holding a real egg. In last week’s blog post, Tim Birkhead decried the absence of real eggs in a museum exhibit, and I understand what he means. Historical research benefits somehow from encounters with some real artifacts from the past.

Fortunately museums and libraries often put their material on display and I can recommend the following four exhibits worthy of your attention in the coming months; one in London, one in Sheffield, one in New York, and one in Baltimore. If you plan to be in any of these cities, do not miss these exhibits. I am tempted to go to London just to see the Fashioned by Nature exhibit described below, and maybe while there to make yet another pilgrimage to Down House.

Audubon’s Birds of America

New York Historical Society Museum and Library, 170 Central Park West, New York

When John James Audubon died in 1851, he was living with his family in Manhattan at their estate on the Hudson River. In part to pay the bills, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon sold his original watercolours to the New York Historical Society where they reside today. These are the watercolours from which the engraver, Robert Havell, made the now famous prints that comprised the elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. You can now see many of these original watercolours and the engravings made from them in a gallery at the New York Historical Society. Details here.



This exhibition is temporarily closed until February 6th.

Fashioned from Nature

honeyeaterEarringsVictoria and Albert Museum, London—21 April 2018 – 27 January 2019

This exhibition, which opens in April, will explore how natural materials, including birds, were used as fashion accessories over the past 400 years. Particularly in the Victorian era, colourful birds—like the honeyeater heads on the earrings in the picture—fuelled an obsession for natural fashion accessories and ultimately led to the establishment of the Audubon Society and laws to protect birds from unregulated slaughter.

The Wonderful Mister Willughby’s New Natural History

West bank Library, University of Sheffield, UK; until 28 February

Tim Birkhead wrote about this exhibition here a few weeks ago. Willughby was a pioneering English ornithologist whose ‘Ornithology’ with John Ray in 1678 arguably marks the beginnings of scientific ornithology.

Beyond Flight: Birds in African Art

Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD; until 17 June 2018

This exhibit of West African Art illustrates the place of honour that birds occupy in many African cultures. Details here.


  1. Stoddard, M. C., Young, E. H., Akkaynak, D., Sheard, C., Tobias, J. A. & Mahadevan, L. 2017. Avian egg shape: form, function and evolution. Science 356: 1249-1254.