The Auk’s Auk

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

Brewster, Allen and Coues when they were young men

On the first of August 1883, three young members of the tiny [1] Nuttall Ornithological Club (NOC) of Cambridge, Massachusetts—the President (William Brewster), as well as the Editor (Joel Asaph Allen) and the Associate Editor (Elliott Coues) of its Bulletin planted the seed that would grow into the AOU. All three were in their twenties at the time but would before long lead the scientific study of birds in North America.

To plant that seed, they sent a letter to 48 prominent North American ornithologists inviting them to a Convention in New York City in late September “for the purpose of founding the AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS UNION upon a basis similar to that of the “British Ornithologists’ Union” “[2]. At that convention:

…the question of an organ, in the form of a serial publication, was the first to present itself, and the impression was general that such a publication must prove indispensable to the work of the Union. It was accordingly voted to establish such a journal, its publication to begin January, 1884. Mr. Allen was chosen editor, to be assisted by a staff of associate-editors, likewise selected by the Council, who are collectively to decide the character of the periodical, and to whom will be intrusted its management…it became a question with the members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club whether the Nuttall Club should continue to publish an organ, which, under the new conditions, could only be a rival of that of the Union…the Nuttall Club, at a meeting held October 1, voted to discontinue its Bulletin with the close of the present volume, and to offer to the American Ornithologists’ Union its good will and subscription list…with the tacit understanding that the new serial of the Union shall be ostensibly a second series of the Nuttall Bulletin. It is therefore to be hoped and expected that the many friends of the Bulletin who have hitherto given it such hearty support will extend their allegiance to the new publication of the Union, freely contribute their observations to its pages, and use their influence to extend its usefulness. [3]

BNOClastAnd thus, in 1883, the AOU, and its journal, The Auk, were born—more by C-section than natural birth [4]—from the NOC and its journal . The NOC was the first scientific society (1873) devoted to ornithology in North America and its Bulletin (1876) the first ornithological journal in the USA. While we know when, how, and why the AOU and its journal were founded, the reasons for the AOU naming its journal ‘The Auk‘ and the origin of the line drawing on its cover are more mysterious.

As the short quotation above indicates, the AOU was patterned after the BOU (established in 1858), so it seems likely that the founders of the AOU wanted to name their journal after a bird, much as the BOU had done with The Ibis. But why ‘The Auk‘ and why the Great Auk on the cover?

The first editors simply claimed that: The outcry from all quarters excepting headquarters of American ornithological science against the name of our new journal satisfies us that the best possible name is The Auk [5]. And they go on to make several whimsical suggestions [6] for the choice of that name. I suspect, however, that the name was chosen simply because The Auk‘s first editor, Joel Asaph Allen, had great interest in this species, having published a note on their extinction in The American Naturalist in 1876. Like the Sacred Ibis that inspired the naming of The Ibis, the Great Auk was very much in the public eye in 1880, being the first North American bird clearly driven to extinction [7] by man, as recently as 1844.

Allen was also a friend of Charles Barney Cory, who lived in Boston and joined the NOC in 1876, when he was only 19. Cory was later one of the ipso facto founders of the AOU [8], one of the 26 men who attended that first conference in New York. In 1880, Cory began publishing his Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World, a large format work that was to appear in 12 Parts at about 3 month intervals, with each Part dealing with 2-3 species that Cory were most beautiful and curious. Each species account comprised both a hand coloured full-page (21″ x 27″) lithograph and 2-3 pages of text. Joseph Smit did the artwork, and the book was limited to 200 copies and could be obtained only by subscription.

In 1880, Allen reviewed Part 2 of Cory’s work in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and said, of the Great Auk, that “the general execution of this plate is both spirited and artistic while the coloring is quite beyond criticism” [9]. Clearly, he was a fan of the book and the bird. That plate, or possibly the original painting, was used as the basis for the line drawing that appeared on the first volume of The Auk, shown below. Notice that in addition to pointing the bird the other way, The Auk cover shows a wider scene but the rest is identical.


In October 1973, a century after the founding of the Nuttall Club, the NOC presented to the AOU one of the original Great Auk plates [10] from Cory’s publication, in recognition of their shared history. That framed print is handed down from editor-in-chief to editor-in-chief of The Auk, and after 45 years was showing the mileage of its travels and its exposure to light and moisture. This year, the AOS is having this original print reframed and restored to ensure that it will continue to grace the offices of the journal’s editors-in-chief. Alan Brush (editor from 1984-92) recently donated to the AOS another beautifully framed Great Auk plate from the Cory book, which now hangs in the AOS executive office.

That first cover design served The Auk well for 30 years but was then replaced by an original drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes in 1913, then again by him in 1915 to match more closely the look of the original. That 1915 Great Auk by Fuertes has adorned the cover, with slight alterations, ever since:

The Auk covers beginning 1913, 1915, 1978 and 1998


  • Allen JA (1880) Recent Literature:  Cory’s “Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World.” Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 6: 111
  • Allen JA, Coues E, Brewster W (1883) The American Ornithologists’ Union. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 221-226
  • Anonymous (1884) Notes and News. The Auk 1: 105
  • Batchelder CF (1937) An account of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 1873 To 1919. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 1-109
  • Bengston S-A (1984) Breeding ecology and extinction of the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis): anecdotal evidence conjectures. The Auk 101: 1-12
  • Cory CB (1880-1883) Beautiful and Curious Birds of the World. Boston: published by the author for the subscribers


  1. members of the tiny NOC: the NOC was founded in November 1873 by 8 young men. The nucleus of that group was 4 former high school friends (including Brewster) who had been meeting each Monday for a couple of years to read Audubon and talk about birds. By 1883 the membership had grown to 15 (Batchelder 1937).
  2. quotation from letter to ornithologists: from Allen et al. 1883 page 221
  3. quotation about the AOU’s journal: from Anonymous 1884 page 105
  4. born by C-section: according to Batchelder (1937), Allen, Coues and Brewster acted on their own to found the AOU, using their NOC positions to establish some credibility. They did not, apparently, inform the other NOC members of their actions or their intention to transform the Bulletin into the Auk
  5. quotation about the best possible name: from Anonymous 1884 page 105
  6. whimsical suggestions: this rather long quotation, from page 105 in Anonymous 1884, is reproduced below
  7. first North American bird driven to extinction: the Labrador Duck was probably extinct by 1880 but it was always rare and it was not clear that humans had caused their extinction; the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet were still extant in the 1880s and were not extinct until early in the 20th century
  8. ipso facto founders of the AOU: as Allen et al. (1883, page 221) said in their report on the conference— Those who attend the first meeting will be considered ipso facto Founders of the American Ornithologists’ Union
  9. quotation from the review of Cory’s Part 2: from Allen 1880 page 111
  10. original Great Auk plate: see Bengston (1984). Cory’s publication is now for sale at auction for $30,000. Since only 200 were made, and the original lithographs destroyed, this is one of the rarest of 19th century works on birds

whimsical suggestions (see footnote 6):

Were the name of this journal one which anyone could have proposed and everyone liked, it could not have been an ‘inspiration.’ The editors beg to say that they have copyrighted, patented, and ‘called in’ the following puns and pleasantries: I. That The Auk is an awkward name. 2. That this journal is the awk-ward organ of the A. O. U. (These two species, with all possible subspecies, for sale cheap at this office.) 3. That this journal should be published in New Yauk. or in the Orkney or Auckland Islands. (It is published at Boston, Mass.. at $3.00 per annum, — free to active members of the A. O. U. not in arrears for dues.) 4. That an Auk is the trade-mark of a brand of guano. (A rose by any other name, etc. ) 5. That the Auk is already defunct, and The Auk likely to follow suit. (Mortua Alca impeninisin pennis ALCA rediviva!) 6. That the Auk couldn’t fly, and what’s the use of picking out a name. etc.. etc. (But the Auk could dive deeper and come up drier than any other bird, as Baird says.) 7. That The Auk apes ‘The Ibis.’ (Not at all. It is a great improvement on ‘Ibis.’ ‘Ibis’ is two syllables and four letters; ‘Auk’ is only one syllable and three letters — a fact which bibliographers will appreciate. It is simply following a good precedent because it is good. We wish, however, that we could ‘ape’ or otherwise imitate ‘The Ibis’ in sundry particulars. We should like to make THE AUK the leading ornithological journal of America, as ‘The Ibis’ is of the rest of the world. We should like to make THE AUK the recognized medium of communication between all the ornithologists of this country’, as ‘The Ibis’ is of that. We should like to take and keep the same high standard of excellence in every respect, and thus become such an acknowledged authority as ‘The Ibis’ is. We should like, on behalf of the A. O. U.. to imitate ‘The Ibis’ in the courtesy and kindliness already shown us on the part of the B. O. U. We should like to ‘ape’ or otherwise resemble ‘The Ibis’ in vitality and longevity. May its shadow, already’ ‘sacred,’ be cast while the pyramids stand ; and may THE AUK in due time be also known of men as an “antient and honourable foule” !)

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)

Stresemann’s History of Ornithology

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 12 November 2018

3StresemannEntwicklungI suspect that rather few birders or ornithologists have heard of, or know much about, Erwin Stresemann. Among his many accomplishments Stresemann wrote the first and most comprehensive history of ornithology, published originally in German in 1951 (Die Entwicklung Der Ornithologie von Aristotles bis zur Gegenwart) and then (thankfully for me) in English in 1974 as Ornithology: from Aristotle to the Present.

StresemannCover2Stresemann’s book does pretty well what its title says, covering the entire vast sweep of ornithology from its origins in Ancient Greece to ‘the present’ (i.e. 1951), or with respect to American ornithology up to the early 1970s. The extension to the 1970s was a consequence of Stresemann’s long friendship with Ernst Mayr who contributed a final chapter. modesty entitled Epilogue: Material for a History of American Ornithology. This title belied Mayr’s extraordinary scholarship and broad grasp of the history of science (see his magnificent The Growth of Biological Thought). Stresemann did not live long enough to see the publication of the English edition but, as Mayr says in the foreword, he knew about it.

Stresemann is poorly known outside his native Germany, where he is an ornithological hero. He wrote almost entirely in German and I am sure that that, together with his nationality and rather formal manner, isolated him from many English and North American ornithologists, especially in the aftermath of WWII. However, it is essential to note that Stresemann opposed the regime in Germany during war and sent bird rings (bands) and other materials to British and American ornithologists incarcerated in German prison camps. Stresemann’s story and extraordinary contribution to ornithology was championed by my late friend Jürgen Haffer in some excellent papers [1].

Stresemann in 1919 (age 30)

An important reason why Stresemann is not better known is the lack of an English translation of the book that launched his career in Germany: the volume simply entitled Aves [Birds] in the Handbuch der Zoologie (edited by Willy Kükenthal) published in 1927-34. If you have a chance to look at this—even, if like me, you are unable to read German—you cannot fail to be impressed by the breadth and depth of the coverage of all aspects of ornithology — a staggering achievement that Stresemann was asked to produce when he was only 25 years old. His work on Aves was delayed by WWI but he started writing right after the war and sent the first installment of his manuscript to Kükenthal in 1920

Equally staggering is Stresemann’s book on the history of ornithology, written largely from memory in a tiny apartment during the years immediately following the end of WWII. This was an era referred to as the ‘hunger blockade’ during which Stresemann and his family had no electricity or gas, no heating, and no access to libraries. Extraordinary!

I re-read some of Stresemann’s Ornithology recently, and wondered how his book might be reviewed had it been published now. First, no one could challenge his scholarship. Inevitably—notwithstanding the excellent translation by Hans J and Cathleen Epstein and editing by G. William Cottrel—the text now seems a bit dated, but this is no impediment. Language evolves, and one has to adjust one’s expectations, just as one should adjust one’s expectations about the way science was conducted in the past [2].

Second, one could legitimately say that Stresemann was somewhat biased towards German-speaking ornithologists. However, central Europe was where a huge amount early ornithology was conducted, and Stresemann’s account makes that material readily accessible to non-German speakers.

Stresemann (L) in 1958 (age 69) in Vesterkulla, Finland (photo by Alexander Wetmore)

Third, and particularly impressive to my mind, is the sheer volume of information that Stresemann was able to access and describe. Only fifteen years ago when I started the research for my own first book on the history of ornithology, The Wisdom of Birds, I had to visit libraries in Oxford, Cambridge, across Europe and North America to see particular books. A few years later, much I what I had consulted was available on-line. Stresemann (obviously) had no internet, and even though he had access to an excellent library at the natural history museum in Berlin where he worked, his scope was extraordinary.

Finally, re-reading Stresemann’s text, I could not help but be impressed by his wonderful grasp of history; his ability to put himself in the position of his predecessors and place ornithological history in its proper context.


  • Haffer, J (1994) The genesis of Erwin Stresemann’s Aves (1927–1934) in the Handbuch der Zoologie, and his contribution to the evolutionary synthesis”. Archives of Natural History 21: 201–216.
  • Haffer J (2008) The origin of modern ornithology in Europe. Archives of Natural History 35: 76–87.
  • Haffer J, Rutschke E, Wunderlich K, editors (2004) Erwin Stresemann (1889-1972): Leben and Werk eines Pioniers der wissenschaftlichen Ornithologie [in German with English summary]. Acta Historica Leopoldina 34: 1-468.
  • Kruuk H (2003) Niko’s Nature: The Life of Niko Tinbergen and His Science of Animal Behaviour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Mayr E (1982) The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • Stresemann E (1927-34) Sauropsida: Aves. In W. Kukenthal & T. Krumbach (Eds.), Handbuch der Zoologie. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

  • Stresemann E (1951) Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie von Aristoteles bis zur Gegenwart. Berlin: F. W. Peters
  • Stresemann E (1975) Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  • ten Cate C (2009a) Niko Tinbergen and the red patch on the herring gull’s beak. Animal Behaviour 77: 785-794
  • ten Cate C (2009b) Tinbergen revisited: a replication and extension of experiments on beak colour preferences of herring gull chicks. Animal Behaviour 77: 795-802.


  1. papers about Stresemann: see Haffer 1994, 2008, Haffer et al. 2004
  2. science in the past: see ten Cate 2009a, b, for example

IMAGES: of Stresemann from Wikimedia, both in the public domain; book covers from (German edition) and R Montgomerie (English edition)

Elizabeth Gould and the Heads of Australian Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 29 October 2018

John Gould’s A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the Adjacent Islands strikes me as the oddest of the superbly illustrated 19th-century bird books. Published by subscription that began in 1837, it was illustrated by his wife, Elizabeth, but only shows in colour the head of each species [1], unlike any of the other hundred or so ‘Birds of…’ books [2] that I know of. In some cases, she has drawn the feet or wings separately but only as outlines, adding colour in only a couple of instances where it may have been thought to be important for identification. Even Louis Agassiz Fuertes’s album of Abyssinian birds [3], which shows the heads of many species, at least has vignettes of the whole bird on most of the plates.

A collage of some of the bird heads painted by Elizabeth Gould for the Synopsis

Why did the Goulds decide to paint just the heads of Australian birds? I have three hypotheses, outlined below, but first a little backstory.

John Gould was initially, by trade, a taxidermist, setting up his own practice in London in 1824. Many prominent ornithologists sent him their specimens to mount and he became both very good at his trade and very well-known. In 1827, he was appointed the first Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London, where he prepared bird specimens sent to the ZSL from the colonies and elsewhere.

Charles Coxen, who called Gould The Birdstuffer, was also a taxidermist and introduced John to his older sister, Elizabeth. John and Elizabeth were married in January 1829, and it was not long before Elizabeth began making drawings and paintings of the birds that John was stuffing for his customers. By 1830, John was already selling some of Elizabeth’s artwork to customers for his taxidermy.

When the ZSL received a shipment of bird specimens from India in 1830, John saw this as an opportunity to use Elizabeth’s artistic skills to produce a book of Himalayan birds, many of which were previously undescribed. He also recognized the potential for lithography to produce much finer illustrations than were possible with woodcuts or copper plates, especially with respect to the nuances of shading and feather detail. To that end he implored Elizabeth to learn lithography, which she quickly mastered. By 1832 Elizabeth had produced 80 hand-coloured lithographs illustrating 100 bird species from the Himalayas, bound together with text to form their first published book [4]. In recognition of her contribution, the systematist for that project named one of the new species as Mrs Gould’s Sunbird (Aethiopygia gouldii).

Elizabeth’s brothers, Stephen (in 1827) and Charles (in 1834), moved to Australia where they established farms in New South Wales, frequently sending back bird specimens for John. As before, John soon realized the value of, and potential interest in, these birds as many had not yet been formally described, nor illustrated. John immediately sought to present these new specimens in a ‘synopsis’ but then to go to Australia with Elizabeth to embark on a full Birds of Australia project, patterned after the Birds of Europe project that he and Elizabeth had just completed in 1837. Gould’s idea for the Synopsis was to publish it in 6-8 parts, with each part comprising 18 plates with descriptions, measurements and affinities of each species, to sell the parts either coloured or uncoloured. They abandoned the project after publishing only four parts and set off for Australia in May 1838.

So why illustrate only the heads in colour?

Himalayan Monal (Lophorus impejanus) from Himalayan Birds

Hypothesis One: The Goulds had not yet seen Australian birds in the field and were nervous about depicting them in inappropriate poses or habitats. This was my first thought, but that was soon dispelled when I looked at their A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains published in 1831. Here, Elizabeth illustrates in full colour birds she could not have seen alive, even though each of her paintings says ‘Drawn from Nature & on Stone by E. Gould.’ She may have seen some of these birds in zoos or aviaries but I suspect that ‘Drawn from Nature’ simply means that she used the actual bird specimens to inform her painting. Some of her paintings of Himalayan birds—and later of Trogons [5]—do look a little awkward so maybe she did realize that she really needed to see the birds, or at least their close relatives, in nature to make credible paintings of the whole bird.

Hypothesis Two: John Gould knew he was going to visit Australia soon, and wanted to produce a magnificent book on the Birds of Australia, for which ‘his’ Synopsis would be a teaser, driving up subscriptions. Gould was the consummate entrepreneur so this seems highly likely to me. He stopped work on the Synopsis early in 1838 when it was only part way done, presumably because he had enough subscriptions to see that the bigger book would be popular, and his big Australia trip was fast approaching.

Hypothesis Three: The Goulds were in a hurry, and illustrating just the heads would take a lot less time for both the artist and the colourists. As noted above, the Goulds started work on the Synopsis only a couple of years before their planned trip to Australia. Presumably drawing and colouring heads would take less than half the time needed for Elizabeth to draw the entire bird and background, and to colour one copy for the colourists to work from. In 1837, when Elizabeth started work on the illustrations, she had just had her sixth child [6], and completed her illustrations for the Birds of Europe, so she may have been feeling a little pressed for time, to say the least.

Striated Pardalote (L) and Superb Fairywren (R) with outlines for the body, from the Synopsis

Indeed, John was in such a rush to get his Synopsis in the hands of subscribers in Australia in advance of their trip, that he sent fresh copies of the completed parts on the third Beagle Voyage [7] leaving England on 5 July 1837, arriving in Australia in November. On arriving in Australia in September 1838, the Goulds went first to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) where they met and stayed with the governor, Sir John Franklin [8] and his wife, who were among the subscribers to the Birds of Australia project. John Gould seemed never to pass up an opportunity to enlist royalty and the wealthy and powerful to subscribe to his projects, recognizing full well that that would improve sales. Even Elizabeth must have impressed the Franklins as she gave birth to her sixth child—a son who they named Franklin—at Government House on 6 May 1839.

I have not yet read Chisholm’s biography of Elizabeth published in 1944 so there may be information there to inform my speculations. Whatever the reason for this book of bird heads, the illustrations show us Elizabeth Gould at the height of her artistic talents.  She was already a gifted artist when she started painting birds for John but she also learned a lot from Edward Lear, who John also employed. For these bird heads, Elizabeth began using whipped egg-white, for example, to provide a reflective surface to the birds’ eyes, giving them a much rounder appearance. Just look at the details of the eye and the feather structure on Elizabeth’s painting of the Square-tailed Kite, below. Elizabeth’s illustrations for the Synopsis are incredibly lifelike, even more so that her work for the Birds of Europe.

Square-tailed Kite (Circus jardinii) from Synopsis

Even though Elizabeth Gould is now recognized for her contributions to bird illustration, and to the success of John Gould’s early ornithological enterprises, we may never know how much she really contributed to ornithology for, like most Victorian wives she did not write very much and worked mainly in the service of her family and her husband’s success. Elizabeth bore her eighth child, and third daughter, in August 1841, but died soon after from a uterine infection incurred during childbirth. By then she had already completed 84 magnificent plates for John’s new Birds of Australia, based on their collections and observations there, a lasting testimony to her exceptional skills.


  • Anonymous (1837) Bibliographical notices. Magazine of Zoology and Botany 1:571-572
  • Anonymous (1881) Memoir of the late John Gould, F.R.S. The Zoologist 5: 109-115
  • Chisholm AH (1944) The Story of Elizabeth Gould. Melbourne
  • Chisholm AH (1964) Elizabeth Gould: Some “New” Letters. Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society) 49: 321-36.
  • Fuertes LA (1930) Album of Abyssinian Birds and Mammals. Special Publication of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
  • Gould J (1832-37) The Birds of Europe. 5 vols. London: published by the author.
  • Gould J (1835) A Monograph of the Trogonidae, or Family of Trogons. London: published by the author.
  • Gould J (1837-38) A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the adjacent islands. London: published by the author.
  • Gould J (1840-48) The birds of Australia. 7 vols. London: published by the author.


  1. head of each species: for a handful of birds, some details of wing or leg plumage are also coloured, to show off features mentioned in the text. The plates of Striated Pardalote and Square-tailed Kite shown here are examples
  2. ‘Birds of…’ books: see previous post here
  3. bustard
    Bustard from Fuertes (1930

    album of Abyssinian birds: see Fuertes (1930), available online here

  4. their first published book: it is now customary to list Elizabeth as an author on the books she prepared with John, but the title pages of the books listed above do not include her name, so I have not included her as a named author on those citations.
  5. Trogons: see Gould and Gould (1835), where many of the birds look to me to be in unnatural poses. Elizabeth would surely have seen trogons in zoos and private collections so she does get some of them right, but curiously not all of them. Maybe she did not realize that all of the trogons behave more or less the same way
  6. sixth child: Elizabeth had eight children in all but only 6 survived so I assume that this sixth child was the fourth to survive.
  7. third Beagle Voyage: Darwin was on the second Beagle Voyage. The third was captained by John Clements Wickham who was First Lieutenant on the Darwin voyage.
  8. Sir John Franklin: yes, that Franklin, who had explored the Canadian Arctic in 1819-22 and 1823-27, but then was governor of Tasmania from 1836-43 after marrying his second wife. In 1845 he returned to the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage, where he remains to this day

Worshipping the Sacred Ibis

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

Just after I had begun my current academic position, almost 40 years ago, my avuncular Head of Department thought he should tell me a little bit about the scientific publishing game. “Look,” he said “I know that you people who study birds like to publish in those journals with funny bird names—Ibis, Auk, Condor, Emu—but it’s not a good career move. Those journals sound like nature magazines. The higher-ups and the granting councils are not going to give you much, if any, credit, for publishing your work there. Better to publish in Evolution, Nature and Science, for example.” He didn’t like American Naturalist either, for the same reasons, and he recommended against books and reviews until I became more established.

A selection of journals named after birds

He knew about those bird journals even though he was a plant physiologist because our department already had three rather well-known ornithologists on faculty—Allen Keast, Fred Cooke, and Raleigh Robertson. Fortunately, I did not pay much attention to his advice—I just published two papers in The Ibis and The Auk this year, for example—but I often hear from colleagues in North America and Europe that they worry about publishing in those bird-named journals.

But where did those names come from, and why have we cherished them for so long? I have no insights whatsoever into the second part of that question and it may need a socio-psychological analysis. Even the first part of that question is a tough one to answer. Let’s begin with The Ibis, maybe the first scientific journal to be named after an organism [1].

There has been a suggestion that the name ‘Ibis’ was a mistake made by the man hired to print the journal on mis-hearing the name ‘Aves‘ suggested by the founders of the BOU [2]. This seems highly unlikely as the founders almost certainly communicated with the printer by mail. Moreover, the printer was William Francis who was very interested in birds and had already been involved in the printing of bird books by John Gould and others. In a letter to Alfred Newton, Philip Sclater makes it clear that Francis not only did not suggest the name ‘Aves’ here didn’t even like it: “Dr Francis (our printer) objects to the title of Aves, and I think with reason. He suggests ‘The Ibis’ the sacred bird of the Egyptians – and emblematic of birds in general. Will this do! I think yes’” [3]. Here is Sclater, again, reminiscing on the 50th anniversary of the journal:

Messrs. Triibner & Co., of Paternoster Row, with whom I was well acquainted, agreed to publish it, and Messrs. Taylor & Francis to print it. From the head of the latter firm, the late Dr. William Francis — a very capable and well-informed person, — I received the excellent suggestion to call our new bantling ‘The Ibis,’ after the sacred bird of Egypt. I at once adopted the idea, with which Newton also was highly pleased, and we set Joseph Wolf (then in the zenith of his fame) to work to draw the well-known wood-block which appeared in the first number of ‘The Ibis’ and has ever since ornamented its cover. [3]

Joseph Wolf‘s woodcut for the cover of The Ibis in 1859

So it was the printer who suggested the name to Alfred Newton, possibly because the African Sacred Ibis was quite a famous bird in the mid-1800s [4]. Newton thought the name was fine: ‘as for the name itself I don’t think it signifies twopence, and Ibis is as good as any other’ [5]. John Wolley, another of the founders of the BOU, disagreed, however, and threatened to withdraw as a founding member [6]. I wonder if Wolley considered the name to be odd, as the eponymous ibis did not occur in Britain, or even in Europe for that matter, and thus must have seemed an odd choice to symbolize the BOU. Indeed, at the centenary conference of the BOU in 1959, Ernst Mayr joked that:

…we have this quite miraculous situation that the two national journals are named in the most appropriate manner: the British one is named for that well-known British bird, the Ibis, and the other journal is named for that North American species, the Great Auk. If I may for a moment continue in this frivolous mood (which really does not belong to this subject), I would like to say I think the Australians really missed the boat. They had an opportunity to combine the unique features of the title of the American journal and of the British journal, and name their own national journal for an exotic bird that was extinct-and call it the Dodo. [7]

The founders and members of the BOU long took pride in the name of their new journal, I think in part because it suggested a global reach and honoured a storied bird. In those early days they called themselves ‘Ibises’ and referred to The Reverend Henry Tristram, one of the founders, as ‘The Sacred Ibis’ [8]. At that centenary conference, Erwin Stresemann mused about the reverence of the journal’s name:

Comparative zoologists must agree that to symbolize an ornithological journal no better emblem could have been chosen than ancient Egypt’s most sacred bird. Almost two thousand years ago the Roman writer Claudius Aelianus produced some kind of natural history of birds. According to him, the Ibis enjoys freedom from sickness, longevity or even immortality. Our bird was sacred to such a degree that the Egyptian priests washed in water from which it had drunk. This kind of adoration still persists. In our days the priests of ornithology—whether in Eurasia or in Africa, in America or in Australia—behave after the fashion of their colleagues in the land of Pharaoh: they worship the healing water that emanates from the Ibis every three months. [9]

That reverence—and its religious overtone—is also reflected in the series of sayings [10] that appeared below the Wolf woodcut on the journal’s cover at least until 1924. With almost every new series of the early Ibis, the editors (presumably) chose or wrote a latin phrase that either included the word ‘Ibis’ or made some allusion to the importance of birds. For a 30-year period (1889-1918) took these from The Vulgate, a 4th-century Latin translation of the Christian Bible:

  • 1859: Ibimus indomiti venerantes Ibida sacram, / Ibimus incolumes qua prior Ibis adest. “We shall go undaunted, worshiping the sacred ibis; we shall go safely where the ibis awaits.” [ed. Philip Lutley Sclater]
  • 1865 (start of 2nd series): Ibidis interea tu quoque nomen habe! “Meanwhile take the name ibis for yourself.” From Ovid’s poem “The Ibis”. [ed. Alfred Newton]
  • 1871 (start of 3rd series): Ibidis auspicio novus incipit Ibidis ordo! “Under the good auspices of the ibis, a new order begins for the Ibis.” [ed. Osbert Salvin]
  • 1877 (start of 4th series): Ibis avis robusta et multos vivit in annos. “The ibis is a sturdy bird and lives for many years.” [eds. O. Salvin and P. L. Sclater]
  • 1889 (start of 6th series): Cognovi omnia volatilia caeli. “I know all the things that fly under heaven.” From Psalm 50. [ed. P. L. Sclater]
  • 1895 (start of 7th series): Non moriar, sed vivam, et narrabo opera Domini. “I shall not die, but live, and I shall tell of the works of the Lord.” From Psalm 117. [eds. P. L. Sclater and H. Saunders]
  • 1901 (start of 8th series): Quam magnificata sunt opera tua, Domine. “How great are your works, oh Lord.” From Psalm 91. [eds. P. L. Sclater and Arthur Humble Evans]
  • 1907 (start of 9th series): Delectasti me, Domine, in operibus manuum tuarum. “You have delighted me, Lord, with the works of your hands.” This is an abridged bit from Psalm 92.  [eds. P. L. Sclater and A. H. Evans]
  • 1919 (start of 11th series): He prayeth well, who loveth well/Both man and bird and beast. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, presumably suggesting that we should love birds as we love ourselves. [ed. William Lutley Sclater (Philip’s eldest son)]
THE IBIS evolves: still sacred after all these years

My old head of department would not doubt be scandalized to discover that our birdy journals continue to flourish despite their names, and that I continue to (or at least try to) publish some of my best work there. He would certainly be shocked to find that the Canadian Journal of Biochemistry, that he once edited, has approximately the same Impact Factor as The Ibis, The Auk and The Condor, indicating that our bird-named journals make just as substantial a contribution to their branch of science.

The most recent journal impact factors (for 2016) indicate that bird-named journals are at the top of the list of 24 ornithology journals with The Condor and The Ibis holding down the number 1 and 2 spots, and 3 of the top 5 spots. Thus there is really no evidence that publishing in one of those bird-named journals is in any way detrimental (given that you are going to publish in an ornithology journal). There has long been a move afoot to drop the names Auk and Condor from the AOS journals, but it would be a shame, I think, to erase that quirky little bit of ornithological history.


  • Anoymous (1959) The centenary banquet in London. Ibis 101: 281-289
  • Bircham P (2007) A History of Ornithology. London: Collins.
  • Birkhead TR, Gallivan PT (2012) Alfred Newton’s contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis 154:887–905.
  • Hale WG (2016) Sacred Ibis: The Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram, DD, FRS. Sacristy Press.

  • Moreau RE (1959) The centenarian ‘Ibis’. Ibis 101:19–38.
  • Mountfort G (1959) One hundred years of the British Ornithologists’ Union. Ibis 101:8–18.
  • Sclater PL (1909) A short history of the British Ornithologists’ Union. Ibis 50:19–70.


  1. journal named after an organism: certainly the first major ornithological journal (in 1859), followed by The Auk (in 1884), The Condor (in 1899), The Emu (in 1901), and Ardea (in 1912)
  2. journal named ‘Aves’: see Bircham 2007 page 191, Birkhead and Gallivan 2012 page 890
  3. Sclater quotations: letter to Newton from Birkhead and Gallivan 2012 page 890; about the Ibis cover from Sclater 1909 page 20
  4. sacred ibis was a famous bird: see last week’s post here;
  5. Newton quotation: from Bircham 2007 page 191
  6. Wolley disagreed about Ibis: see Bircham 2007 pages 190-191, Birkhead and Gallivan 2012 pages 890-891
  7. Mayr quotation: from Anonymous 1959 page 283
  8. Tristram as the sacred ibis: see Hale 2016
  9. Stresemann quotation: from Anonymous 1959 page 282
  10. sayings: Rick Wright blogged about these here, and I have used many of his translations

The Sacred Sacred Ibis [reposted]

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

Thoth and ibises

The ancient Greeks usually depicted Thoth—their god of writing, wisdom and magic—as having the head of a bird with a long, down-curving bill.  Until the 1800s, Europeans thought that this bird was probably a curlew, a stork or a heron. Linnaeus believed that the bird must be the Cattle Egret which he called Ardea ibis in the 1758 edition of his Systema Naturae. It was not until the turn of the 19th century that a small group of French scientists and naturalists finally confirmed the connection between Thoth and the head of the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus). This species was not unambiguously described until 1790 [1], but it took Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign to Egypt to provide the connection between this species and Thoth.

We now know that the sacred ibis was considered (and revered) by the Egyptians to be the earthly form of Thoth. For about a millennium starting in 1100 BC, ibises were frequently mummified as an offering to Thoth, believing that mummification would put the birds on a direct line to the afterlife. As a result, several million sacred ibises were killed, gutted, embalmed and folded with the bill tucked between the tail feathers. The carcasses were then wrapped with linen dipped in resin, and inserted individually or in pairs into urns that were placed in vast underground caverns in cities all along the Nile. Many of these mummified ibises have grains, snakes, snails and other foods in their body cavities, possibly to provide the birds with some food in the afterlife.

But why ibises, and where did all of these birds come from? There can be no doubt that the sacred ibis was a reasonably common bird [2] in swampy areas all along the Nile in the Late and Ptolomeic Periods of ancient Egyptian civilization [3]. Those birds were of great value to nearby villages as they ate the snails that infested fish ponds, snails that harboured parasites dangerous to humans. They were also claimed to feed on flying snakes (?) and generally consumed all kinds of human refuse [4]. No wonder they were considered to be sacred.

At several sites of ancient cities along the Nile, archaeologists have found incredible numbers of mummified ibises: 1.75 million at Saqqara, 4 million at Tuna el-Gebel, for example. Even over a period of 500 years that is a lot of birds per year, likely magnitudes more than could have been hunted in the local marshes for any sustained period. Because of their religious importance, sanctuaries dedicated to the ibis sprang up all over the country, where birds were bred and raised in captivity, processing as many as 20,000 ibises per year for the votive ibis industry. Priests apparently gathered eggs for artificial incubation and tended the large flocks, as well as engaging in a large pottery industry to make urns for the mummified birds. These ibiotropheia may well be the earliest examples of bird-farming that did not involve some form of fowl.

The vast stores of ibis mummies in Egypt were brought to light by Geoffery Saint-Hilaire and Jules-César Savigny, two of the 167 savants [5] who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt from 1798-1801. Savigny noticed that the ibis often appeared in hieroglyphics and tomb paintings, and reasoned that this bird was important to Egyptian culture. He wrote up his discoveries in 1805 as Histoire naturelle et mythologique de l’ibis which included some very nice illustrations.

from Savigny (1805) hand-coloured by Louis Bouqet

Georges Cuvier, one of the leading French biologists of the day, was asked by Napoleon to join the Egyptian contingent, but he suggested that Savigny go instead, so he could continue his work on molluscs. But it was Cuvier who first measured two mummified birds brought back from Egypt by Col. Jacques François-Louis Grobert [6] from the catacombs at Saqqara.  Cuvier initially concluded that those birds were probably curlews as they were smaller than some contemporary ibis specimens [7]. He later measured two mummies that Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire had brought home from Thebes. Those measurements plus the colours of some intact feathers convinced him that the mummies collected by Saint-Hilaire were indeed sacred ibises, and his 1804 paper has a very nice summary of his reasoning and all of the previous mis-identifications. Cuvier’s assistant even pieced together the bones from different mummies to make a complete skeleton (see picture below).

Even though the ibis mummies from Saint-Hilaire were not exactly the same size as contemporary birds, Cuvier also used those measurements to bolster his arguments of the fixity of species—evidence that species were created once by a deity and did not change through time. This argument put him at odds with his colleague Lamarck who argued that species changed through geological time.

I was made aware of this ibis story in a new essay in PLoS Biology [8], by Caitlin Curtis, Craig Millar and David Lambert. As Jerry Coyne noted in an essay on his Why Evolution is True site, not many evolutionary biologists seem to be aware of this as an early test of evolutionary change. The reason, I think, is that it was not actually a test [9]. The story is actually rather well known and has been published many times in scientific journals and the popular press ever since Cuvier’s initial publications [10]. While the new essay summarizes many aspects of this story the authors present no evidence in support of some of their claims and I am not entirely convinced by some of their assertions.

Cuvier (1804) identifies the mummies as sacred ibises

When interpreting the past here is always a danger of applying present knowledge and values incorrectly. In this case, I cannot yet tell if my different interpretation of this interesting story is correct. I will need to read the work of Cuvier, Lamarck, Saint-Hilaire and Savigny in the original French and Latin to put the whole story in context but that will take a while, even though all of the relevant texts are now available online. I will revisit the topic when I have done the necessary research.

Whether the details in this new essay by Curtis and colleagues are correctly interpreted or not, it does end with a curious conclusion that I feel deserves some further discussion: Of great importance is the reminder, even today, of the power of a strong personality and that the belief in “what they know to be true” can dramatically influence the direction of science and public opinion. I do not think that anyone would dispute that strong personalities and beliefs can influence science and public opinion. Take, for example, Julian Huxley’s rejection of Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection [11], undoubtedly reducing interest in that topic for the next 50 years or so.  And while it is true that Huxley and Cuvier had strong personalities, and were great communicators and relatively powerful men, I think that their arguments held sway largely because they made them clearly and because there was neither compelling evidence nor any clear and logical mechanisms to explain the existing patterns. In both cases the delays in the progress of science were reasonably short and probably needed the ideas and considerable evidence presented by Darwin and Wallace, and Williams and Trivers, respectively, before there could be any real progress.

Finally, it has probably not escaped your notice that the African Sacred Ibis has been depicted on the cover of The Ibis in one form or another ever since 1859. This may seem a bit odd as that bird does not occur in the wild in Britain and only sparsely in southern Europe through introductions. Thus the sacred ibis does not really appear to be a fitting symbol for the British Ornithologists’ Union. There is a long and interesting story there, but that too will have to wait for another day.


  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Cuvier G (1804) Mémoire sur l’ibis des anciens Égyptiens. Annales du Muséum d’histoire naturelle 4:116-135. [available here]
  • Cuvier G (1812) Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles de Quadrupèdes : où l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs espèces d’animaux que les révolutions du globe paroissent avoir détruites, t1-4. [Studies of the Fossil Bones of Quadrupeds, volumes 1-4] Paris: Deterville. [available here]
  • Cuvier G (1826) Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe, et sur les changemens qu’elles ont produits dans le régne animal. Paris: G. Dufour. [available here and in English translation of the 1825 edition here]
  • Lacépède B-G-E, Cuvier G, Lamarck J-B (1802) Rapport des professeurs du Muséum sur les collections d’histoire naturelle rapportées d’Égypte, par E. Geoffrey. Annales du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle 1: 234–241. [available here]
  • Latham J (1790). Index Ornithologicus, Sive Systema Ornithologiae: Complectens Avium Divisionem In Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, Ipsarumque Varietates (2 Volumes, in Latin). London: Leigh & Sotheby. [available here]
  • Le-Suer RB, ed (2012) Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
  • Linnæus  C (1758) Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis, 10th edition.  Stockholm: Laurentius Salvius.
  • Rosser WH (1837) Mummy of Egyptian Ibis. The Gentleman’s Magazine 6 (new series): 145-148. [available here]
  • Savigny J-C (1805) Histoire naturelle et mythologique de l’ibis [Natural and Mythological History of the Ibis]. Paris: Allais. [available here]


  1. ibis described: see Latham 1790 page 706 where he calls it Tantalus aethyopius
  2. Sacred ibis once common in Egypt: but it is no longer found in that country, disappearing as the swamps and marshes were drained to provide land for the increasing population and agriculture.
  3. Late and Ptolomeic Periods: about 700 BC until 30 BC ending with the death of Cleopatra and the conquest of Egypt by the Romans
  4. ibises eating refuse: in Australia, where they have been introduced, they are often called ‘bin chickens’ as they are often seen foraging in trash cans in city parks. In the park beside the Australian National Museum in Sydney, I once watched a very dirty-looking ibis sneak up behind some picnickers then reach over the shoulder of a little boy to snatch his sandwich out of his hand. Clearly, their bills are adapted for sandwich snatching (!), and they are fearless.
  5. savants: these were scholars and scientists. The Journal des Sçavants (later called Journal des Savants) began publishing in January 1665, a couple of months before the Philosophical Transacations of the Royal Society, considered (erroneously) by many to be the first scientific journal. Frankly, I don’t see that it matters who was first, or even if it was one of those two.
  6. Grobert: (1757-181?) was a French artillery officer who wrote about the pyramids etc. on his return from the Egyptian campaign. See Cuvier (1826), which updates some of the information in his 1804 publication about his later study of some different mummies.
  7. smaller than contemporary ibises: On examining four more ibis mummies, Cuvier recognized that one of them was a juvenile based on its bone structure (Cuvier 1826). As a result, he realized that they may not be curlews at all but simply smaller, juvenile ibises. This is not so surprising as it turns out the many of the ibis mummies were clearly made from juvenile birds. No doubt the priest-farmers who raised the ibises for the votive market saw no reason to keep the birds any longer than was needed to make them suitable for mummification.  That just made good economic sense to maximize their profits.
  8. article in PLoS Biology: unlike the scientific articles in that journal, this one is labelled ‘Essay’ which they say “are opinionated articles on a topic of interest to scientists, as well as to a broader audience, including the general public”. Opinions are fine but I am surprised at the absence of clear evidence in support of the claims made.
  9. not actually a test: Cuvier simply used his measurements identifying the mummies as sacred ibises to suggest that there had not been much change in their morphology in the past 3000 years. But the ibis was just one of many examples that he referred to. Moreover, as Coyne noted, this was at best a ‘one-way test’ as any lack of change would be consistent with slow evolutionary change. Cuvier even acknowledged that the the measurements were not the same between the mummies and contemporary ibises. I don’t see this as a test of any kind because Cuvier was unlikely to be convinced by any such results: if the mummies were the same as extant ibises, then no change; if they were different then they must be different species.
  10. the story of Cuvier’s ibis measurements: in a quick search on the internet, I found more than 20 articles on Cuvier’s ibis measurements dating back to Rosser (1837)
  11. Huxley and sexual selection: see Birkhead et al. (2014)

NOTE As some of you may have noticed, this essay was briefly posted by accident in draft from a week ago. I immediately deleted that version from this blog and the final version above is substantially different, correcting several errors in the original and providing additional information, references and links.

The Invisible Women

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 3 September 2018

At next year’s annual AOS conference in Anchorage, Alaska, the role of women in ornithology will be one of the highlighted themes. This is an important initiative for several reasons, and will be the focus of several posts here in the coming months.

Most ornithologists are familiar with the names and accomplishments of Margaret Morse Nice, Rachel Carson, Brina Kessel, Fran Hamerstrom, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, and Florence Merriam Bailey, but what about Hilda Cinat-Thompson [1], Lady Elizabeth Symonds Gwillim, Genevieve Estelle Jones, and Althea Sherman? Women play such a visible role in ornithology (and most sciences) today, that it is easy to forget that women ornithologists were scarce before about 1960. Even those women who contriubuted to the history of ornithology tend to be relatively invisible.

As I have highlighted previously [2], the national ornithological societies that formed in the 1800s were all founded by men, and women were very much in the minority of their membership for much of the twentieth century. That’s just a fact, and I don’t see any point in attempting to rewrite that history. There is a lot to be gained, however, in knowing more about the women who did contribute to the development of ornithology and celebrating their contributions. Unfortunately, the contributions of many of those women to ornithology were never recorded, so they may forever be invisible—at least by name—to history. Today’s post highlights just one of what must be many instances of invisible women who made a great contribution.

Dresser’s Birds of Europe (1871-82) letter bound into 9 Volumes, plus an index and a supplement

From 1871 to 1882, Henry Dresser published the 84 parts of his monumental A History of the Birds of Europe. Dresser was a prominent timber and iron merchant by day, and an ornithologist in the evenings—and presumably weekends and holidays, given his phenomenal productivity. During the mid-1800s, he made his fortune as a merchant in London, and began collecting birds and eggs on various field trips [3]. He eventually amassed a huge collection of bird specimens, eventually purchasing specimens from collectors and dealers around the world. In addition to a handful of excellent books, he also published more than 100 papers about birds. Dresser was well-connected in ornithological circles, regularly corresponding with Alfred Newton and Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, and was BOU secretary from 1882-88 [4].

PartcoverDresser’s Birds of Europe was published in separate parts, by subscription, so that he could use the income from subscriptions to fund the entire project [5]. Subscribers, of which there were eventually more than 300, received an unbound section of both letterpress and plates in blue paper covers every month, and many of those were eventually bound into leather-covered volumes by the subscribers. The whole set cost subscribers £52 10s, or about £5000 (roughly $6500 US in today’s currency).  You can pick up a full leather-bound set today for only $23,000 US at some of the antiquarian booksellers, which is actually quite a bargain given the rate of inflation over the past 140 years [6].

Each of the 634 species in Birds of Europe is illustrated on a superb colour print of the bird—often male and female, sometimes a chick or two—produced mainly by the outstanding 19th century illustrator J. G. Keulemans, plus a few by Joseph Wolf and Edward Neale. These illustrations are remarkable for their accuracy and the pace at which Keulemans made them, often in the midst of working on other projects.

Ruffs displaying from Dresser (1871-82)

To save time (and costs) Keulemans made most of these illustrations by drawing with sharp-pointed greasy crayon directly on the lithographic stone that would be used to make black outline drawings that would be coloured by hand to make the plates. Keulemans was renowned for his ability to use a study skin to make a life-like painting of a bird that he had not even seen in the wild. The fact that he could draw in crayon (in reverse!) on a lithographic stone without working from a sketch seems impossible to me, but then again I have no artistic talents whatsoever. Once the first satisfactory print was made, he used watercolours to make the final master copy. Keulemans only painted the master copy—all of the others that eventually ended up as plates in the book were painted in watercolours mainly by young women [7] in the employ of colourist workshops, using Keulemans’ originals as a guide. We do not know who these women were but the quality and quantity of their work—and thus their contribution to what many consider to be one of the finest bird books ever produced—was outstanding.

telephone switchboard ca 1900

As was the custom of the day, Dresser thanked the men who owned the companies who did the colour work and made no mention of the women who actually did the colouring. I am reminded of an old illustration of women doing all of the work at a switchboard in Paris with the male supervisor overseeing [8]. Here is Dresser, in his Preface: “…and the colouring was entrusted to Mr. Smith and Mr. Hart, the latter of whom is well known as the artist employed by Mr. Gould during the publication of all his later works.” [9].

Lest you think the colourists had no particular talent and were merely making passable copies of the works by the master (Keulemans) have a look at some of the detail, below, on a couple of the plates. Exquisite. The pace at which those women worked must also have been phenomenal. We do not know how many women were employed by Smith and Hart to do the colouring, but we know that they produced a quarter of a million copies (yes, 250,000! [10]) of the Keulemans’ originals in about 12 years. Even at one copy a day—a pace that I cannot even imagine—about 65 artists would have been needed to do all of that colouring [11].


Details of 6 plates in Dresser (1871-96) showing the lovely brush work and attention to detail

Keulemans apparently inspected all of the colouring to ensure accuracy and consistency.  I have looked at several copies of the original plates and cannot detect any difference between copies of the same plate even though they must have been painted by different, unknown, women.

We often vilify the practices of the past because they do not match our contemporary standards of fairness, equality, and recognition. No doubt our own academic descendants will similarly criticize us for our apparent failings. Instead, I think there is some value in trying to identify work that made important contributions to the history of ornithology, even in cases like this where we cannot positively identify who actually did that work. It would be interesting to know if any of the colourists for Dresser’s work went on to be ornithologists or artists in their own right.


  • Dresser HE (1871-82) A History of the Birds of Europe, including all the species inhabiting the Western Palaearctic Region [84 parts; first 13 parts coauthored with RB Sharpe]. London: Privately published. (available online here)
  • McGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian ornithology: Birds, books and business. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.


  1. Hilda Cinat-Thompson: did pioneering work on sexual selection in budgerigars but is so little known about her that the only references I can find to her online are in the book I wrote with Tim Birkhead and Jo Wimpenny on the history of ornithology (see here)
  2. formation of ornithological societies: see previous posts here, here, and here
  3. various field trips: to Texas, Mexico and New Brunswick (Canada) for example. Most of his collection eventually went to the Manchester Museum
  4. Henry Dresser’s life: details here were taken mainly from a new book (McGhie 2017) about Dresser that I will be reviewing here in a few weeks
  5. by subscription: the initial subscription price was £6 6s (about $8.50 US) per year for 12 parts with each part containing 10-12 species, and the whole project planned to take 6 years comprising about 72 parts, with each year constituting a volume (McGhie 2017, page 137)
  6. rate of inflation: an online calculator here, suggests that $6500 in 1880 would today be worth $153,000.
  7. we do not know who the colourists were: it might be possible to examine the records from Hart and Smith, and their workshops, to actually identify the colourists but that information is not yet readily available
  8. telephone switchboard operators: many of the earliest switchboard operators were young men, but it was soon recognized that women were generally more courteous. Probably more significantly, though, women were paid at only one quarter of the salary of the men! More info here.
  9. Dresser quotation: from page iv of Vol 1 in Dresser (1871-1882). He is referring here to Smith, Elder and Co., and to William Hart who was both an artist and a colourist who, presumably, supervised the work of several others.
  10. 250,000 copies: actually at least 214,587 coloured plates based on 633 plates per volume and 339 copies at one copy per subscriber. Presumably there were more plates completed than there were subscribers, as the number of subscribers grew through the 12 years of the project.
  11. 65 colourists: based on 250,000 coloured plates, about 250 working days per year, and 12 years for the project

IMAGES: all those of and from Dresser’s Birds of Europe were taken by the author in August 2018 at the Blacker-Wood Collections in the McGill University Library, with thanks to the librarian, Lauren Williams, for permission to use those photographs here; women telephone operators from Wikimedia Commons

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.

But is it art?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 July 2018

LSNYBig cities—maybe surprisingly—are good places to live if you are interested in natural history. While country folk have nature on their doorstep, city folk have to work a little harder to find woodland and wildlife. The advantage to city life, though, is that there are lots of like-minded people nearby and the resources for nature study and discussion can be amazing—museums, aquaria, naturalist clubs, universities. The Linnaean Society of New York, for example, has brought together naturalists from all walks of life since 1878 to meet regularly at the American Museum of Natural History and to hear lectures from world-class naturalists and biologists. And just across the road from the museum lies Central Park, not a bad place for birding.

When I was 11 years old, my parents sent me off each Saturday morning to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), a few blocks from our home in downtown Toronto, to meet with 250 other children and young teens in the Toronto Juniour Field Naturalists’ Club TJFN). This was a magical experience for me, getting to hang out for 3 hours every week with like-minded people, hearing talks and watching natural history films, getting to explore behind the scenes in a great museum, and regularly going on field trips to nearby parks and conservation areas inside or very near the burgeoning city.

The TJFN was organized into about dozen special interest groups—mammals, birds, insects, and the like—that we broke into after the initial presentation to share our experiences and learn from the group leader. I first joined the mammal group, led by a young man named  Bob, a local school teacher who had just returned from a 14-month-long expedition from Africa to Australia by Land Rover with one of his friends. That expedition was what our dreams were made of, and my three naturalist buddies and I spent many an evening planning to make a similar trek one day by Land Rover from Pont Barrow to Tierra del Fuego. Bob taught art at a local high school and gave us budding wildlife artists some great feedback on our feeble attempts to draw the local animals and plants. Years later he developed into one of the world’s best and best-known wildlife artists—Robert Bateman.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet by Bob Bateman, age 17

Bob was certainly the first real artist that I had ever met, but those TJFN meetings eventually brought me into contact with the ROM’s excellent artists and illustrators—Terry Shortt (birds), Paul Geraghty [1] (mammals, birds and dinosaurs), Peter Buerschaper (fishes) and Anker Odum (insects). It was only years later that I came to appreciate what a privilege it had been to know such outstanding wildlife artists.

In the late 1960s when I was working at the ROM for a year, I also got to meet a slew of young wildlife artists who brought their work into the bird department both to get some feedback on their latest work and to borrow skins to help them with details of plumage and bare parts. Names like J. Fenwick Lansdowne, Glen Loates, Barry Kent Mackay, and George MacLean might be familiar to some readers of this blog.

Once, on a long drive from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Paul Geraghty and I had a lively discussion about the nature of bird ‘art’ and bird ‘illustration’. I naively considered any drawing or painting of a bird to be ‘art’ but Paul, quite rightly I think, made a distinction between the two. To him, birds drawn or painted to highlight the bird’s features for the purpose of identification or to enhance some text were illustration, and birds drawn or painted in such a way that the work evoked a more emotional response were art.

For years after that trip, we often debated about paintings of wildlife. When I told Paul about some new painter I had discovered, he would often say, “but is it art?” I think we agreed that there was no point to trying to make a clear distinction along what was clearly a continuum, but the ends of that spectrum were quite clear to us—Bruno Liljefors’s painting of a Golden Eagle was art, but Roger Tory Peterson’s painting of that species in his field guide was illustration.

Golden eagle by Bruno Liljefors (L) and Roger Tory Peterson (R, bottom)

I think it’s fair to say that Audubon was among the first [2] to blur the distinction between art and illustration. Before Audubon, birds were (usually) painted [3] as part of a scene, portrait, or still life (art), or in bird books to show the salient features of a species (illustration). Most of Audubon’s portraits in his Birds of America served both purposes, often being very ‘artistic’ in composition, depicting birds in habitats, often flying, preying, defending or courting. My favourite Audubon (below) certainly blurs the lines for me, combining flight, attempted predation, and accuracy useful enough for identification.

Bobwhite and red-shouldered Hawk watercolour by JJ Audubon ca 1825

Before Audubon, most bird illustration looked wooden [4], showed little or no action or habitat, and lacked the sort of ‘jizz’ that makes a painted bird look real. Bird art, of course, goes back far into prehistory with ancient depictions of loon-like birds found in archaeological digs, and myriad birds in Japanese, Chinese and other works prepared before the start of the Christian Era. Some of these early bird drawings and paintings may have been used for ‘identification’ but my guess is that they were mostly symbolic or ornamental.

Unequivocal bird illustration may have begun with Frederick II in his manuscript De Arte Venandi cum Avibus where birds were drawn in colour in the margins to enhance the accompanying text. Frederick did not identify his birds explicitly but, in his 1983 paper, William Yapp made a good stab at figuring our which species were being illustrated. The bird drawings in Frederick’s manuscript represent at least 60 species and are remarkably identifiable today. OK, I said ‘unequivocal’, but you could argue that they are really art because of their composition, and the depiction of habitats and behaviours, much as Audubon did 600 years later.

bottom of folio 7r in Frederick II’s De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (ca 1245)

Willughby and Ray’s Ornithology may have been the first serious attempt to accurately depict birds in a book [5], showing their ‘characteristic marks’ for identification. Ray, however, was not pleased with result and the illustrations do look very wooden by today’s standards. For the next 150 years or so bird illustrations in books became progressively more life-like in part due to improvement in printing methods—certainly birds in ‘art’ were remarkably accurate more than 2000 years ago.

Possibly due to Audubon’s influence and success, bird illustrations in books became much more ‘artistic’ in the 19th century with people like George Lodge, Archibald Thorburn, John Gould and many others putting more life, action and habitat into their work for bird books. While there were dozens of great bird artists in the century after Audubon, it seems to me that wildlife art became a ‘thing’ only in the 1970s, possibly fuelled by the critical and commercial success of Robert Bateman.

Snow Geese by Paul Geraghty ca 1973

We ornithologists are very lucky to have attracted such a wealth of talent to our discipline, adorning our books (and homes) with great images of our favourite animals. When Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and I were putting together our Ten Thousand Birds book on the recent history of ornithology, we decided to start each chapter with an example of superb bird art or illustration produced since Darwin. We were able to include the work of 12 great artisans but we were both delighted and perplexed by the wealth of available material. In the end, we had to make some rather arbitrary choices of whose work to include.

As one example of the current wealth of bird art, you need only attend the annual Birds in Art exhibiton at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, in Wasau, Wisconsin. This year, that exhibition will run from 8 September until 25 November and feature the work of more than 60 outstanding bird artists, including a few names that I recognize, like Tony Angell, Robert Bateman, Guy Coheleach, and Maynard Reece. There are dozens of such exhibitions every year in both North America and Europe, attesting to the popularity of this wildlife art. Art or illustration?…whatever you want to call it, the work is fabulous.


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

  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Frederick II (~1245) De arte venandi cum avibus. Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, codex Ms. Pal. Lat. 1071.
  • Johnsgard PA (1974) Song of the North Wind: a story of the snow goose. U of Nebraska Press.

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

  • 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. Paul Geraghty: not to be confused with the British author and illustrator of children’s books, often about dinosaurs and other animals. The Paul Geraghty I am referring to now lives in Saskatchewan and some examples of his early work can be seen in Johnsgard (1974). I have reproduced one of those drawings at the bottom of this essay. The cover of Johnsgard’s book says ‘Illustrations by Paul Geraghty’  but even by Paul’s own restrictive definition I would certainly call this ‘art’.
  2. Audubon among the first: I am being especially cautious here, and throughout this essay, because (i) I am no expert, and (ii) people are passionate about their favourite bird artists/illustrators and there is bound to be lots of disagreement. I do not see much point in playing the ‘who’s the first/who’s the best’ game, but I do think that the diversity of opinions is both interesting and productive. Feel free to weigh in on this topic in the comments.
  3. painted and drawn: I do recognize that these are not the only visual art forms but those are the ones I am dealing with in this essay. I will discuss sculptures, movies, and music some other time.
  4. bird illustrations looked wooden: it is pretty clear that the quality of bird illustration lagged behind that of plants, for example, because birds could not be accurately drawn from life. Bfore the ready availability of binoculars, telescopes and phoitography, birds could not usually be approached and opbserved very closely. As a result, most illustrators worked from dead birds, including Audubon. Audubon, however, often mounted his bird carcasses using wires etc into more or less lifelike poses as models for his work.
  5. Willughy and Ray illustrations: several previous authors (Aldrovandi, Belon, etc) had included bird illustrations in their books but Ray and Willughby made an explicit attempt to be accurate and to include some features useful in identification.