Dirty Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 February 2019

As a teenager, in the 1960s, I spent much of my spare time during the school year hanging out at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), not far from my family’s home in Toronto.  The denizens of the bird/mammal prep room in the basement of the museum—Don Baldwin, Hisham Badran, Jim Borack and Rolph Davis—took me under their wing and taught me how to prepare bird skins and skeletons for the collections. That experience led directly to my Dream Jobs #3 and #4 in 1967/68 when I stopped going to the University of Toronto in search of a more satisfying (and financially rewarding) way to spend my days.

Dream Job #3 had me working as a preparator for the Mammalogy Department, mainly preparing bat skulls sent in by a collector from what we still called British Guiana as it had only been renamed Guyana a year before. My Dream Job #4 was a Park Naturalist position at Algonquin Park where my first duties were to put their museum’s specimen collection in order. The contrast between breathing formaldehyde all day in the museum lab and inhaling the intoxicating scent of piney woods reminded me that I was really a naturalist at heart.

The Ornithology Department at the ROM was thrown into a bit of a tizzy in 1965 when they hired Jon Barlow [1], with his newly-minted PhD, to be curator. Jon brought new ideas and new methodologies with him and those changes—not surprisingly—upset the old guard and intrigued the young. Jon introduced us all to quantification (statistics!), cladistics, and phenetics [2] for the purpose of classification; to the value of skeletal and tissue material for museum collections (and, of course, systematics); to the need for rigour in field notes and detailed specimen labels [3]; and to the notion that examining intraspecific variation was useful—essential even—for understanding evolutionary change and speciation.

For those of us in the prep room, the biggest changes were that we focussed more on skeletal and tissue collections, and that skins should be washed in detergent to remove blood and dirt, then dried before making them into a study specimen. Barlow also taught me the “John Williams method” [4] of skinning birds by making an incision on the side rather than the belly, stuffing the skin with a cone of cotton, and finishing up without stitching up that initial incision. I used that method for a while but never perfected it and to this day use the traditional method of preparing study skins as outlined in Rudolph Anderson’s classic book on preserving vertebrate animals.

bichicken
dirty Sacred Ibis in Australia

Barlow wanted us to wash bird skins not for aesthetic reasons, as you might expect, but because he was interested in measuring plumage colours accurately. Such colours would, of course, be obscured by dirt from dust-bathing or simply by the bird living in dirty environments, by foraging in evergreens where they would get resin on their feathers, or by blood and guts on their plumage while they were eating. He was interested in geographic variation in House Sparrows, to see how their colours may have varied (evolved) as they spread across the continent since their introduction in New York in 1851/52. He had studied with Richard Johnston at the University of Kansas and wanted to contribute to Johnston’s evolutionary analyses of that species. At first, we measured plumage colours by simple comparison to colour swatches in the Villalobos Atlas de los colores [5]. But Barlow was interested in exact quantification so we soon tried to modify a cumbersome desktop transmission spectrophotometer to measure plumage reflectance.

A recent paper by Shane DuBay and Carl Fuldner, at the University of Chicago, now suggests that by washing those bird skins we were flushing down the sink an important record of atmospheric pollution. On noticing that some bird specimens at the Field Museum of Natural History were quite dirty looking, they decided to investigate the source of that dirt. It turned out to be largely black carbon, which they verified by examining feather under a scanning electron microscope. They then developed a method using digital photographs of birds with white breasts to quantify the degree of light reflectance (less reflectance = more carbon deposited).

2ETOLIGY5A5YXESY2PALA36WVA
Horned Larks when atmospheric carbon was high (left) and today (right

To examine variation in these carbon deposits on birds in the industrial heartland [6] of America, the researchers photographed and analyzed the white breasts of 1097 specimens of five species [7] collected over the past 135 years. They used the excellent collections at the Field Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and the Michigan Museum of Zoology. Because these species all moult in the fall, and every fall, they took specimens only from the winter months, and could thus date stamp the deposition of carbon on the plumage to within a few months. The remarkable results are shown on the graph below. The black line shows their estimate of average carbon accumulation on the specimens from 1888-2015; the orange line shows the quantity of coal burned in the USA during that period; and the purple line shows the results of a comprehensive model to predict the black carbon emissions in those states.

Using the birds as an index of black carbon in the atmosphere, it looks like the amount of carbon was highest from 1880 until the beginning of the Great Depression (red arrow), when it declined steeply as carbon emissions dropped. Emissions rose again as the depression ended and WWII began (blue arrow), then declined slowly to its present level after the Air Pollution Control Act (green arrow) and other regulations were imposed to reduce emissions even though consumption was on the rise (orange line).

CARBONgraph
graph modified from DuBay and Fuldner (2017)

Why are these results important? For one thing they suggest that the previous model of atmospheric carbon made an estimate that was too low from 1880-1910. This is an valuable bit of knowledge for climate change models. The results also match the estimate of peak atmospheric carbon in 1906-1910 as estimated from a Greenland Ice core. That core presumably measured what was in the atmosphere over Greenland, but this new study corroborates that finding. It would be interesting now to compare the sootiness of birds from this study to birds collected outside those industrial states, and even in other parts of the world.

Museums worldwide have suffered from shortages of funds and staff since at least the 1970s. Just like blue-skies research, the essential role of museums for science and society is hard to quantify. The historical value of museums is obvious and they are clearly invaluable for systematics research. But we can only guess what new discoveries will emerge from museum collections and they deserve our support. I would never have imagined that they might help us to understand climate change.

SOURCES

  • Anderson RM (1932) Methods of collecting and preserving vertebrate animals. Ottawa: King’s Printer.
  • DuBay SG, Fuldner CC (2017) Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environmental policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 43: 11321-11328
  • Johnston RF (1973) Evolution in the House Sparrow, IV. Replicate studies in phenetic covariation. Systematic Zoology 22: 219-226.
  • Johnston RF,  Selander RK (1971). Evolution in the House Sparrow, II. Adaptive differentiation in North American populations. Evolution 25:1-28.
  • Ridgway RA (1912) Color standards and color nomenclature. Washington, DC.

  • Villalobos-Dominguez C, Villalobos J (1947) Atlas de los colores. Buenos Aires: Libreria El Ateneo Editorial.

Footnotes

  1. Jon Barlow: (1935-2009) was the first person with a PhD in ornithology to be Curator of Ornithology at the ROM. He was curator there for 35 years.
  2. (statistics!), cladistics, and phenetics: Barlow did his PhD at the University of Kansas where he learned about all of these topics from Robert R. Sokal who wrote classic books on both biostatistics and numerical taxonomy
  3. detailed specimen labels: Barlow wanted so much info on the labels (life size drawings of gonads and skull ossification, preparation methods, details of moult, tissue and skeleton specimens) that we often had to use 2-3 labels to contain it all.
  4. John Williams method: Williams (1913-1997) was well-known as an expert on African birds and was said to be able to prepare >30 high quality bird skins a day using his method. My record was more like 15 on my very best day.
  5. Villalobos Atlas de los colores: there were other colour atlases more widely used by ornithologists (see here), like Ridgway (1912) but Jim Baillie (see here), the acting curator before Barlow arrived, had noticed a stack of the Villalobos atlases remaindered in a local bookstore and snapped them up at $5 each. The Villalobos had lots of colour swatches finely grading into one another, and clever little holes in each swatch so you could more easily match them to the object of interest.
  6. industrial heartland: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin
  7. five species: Field and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Towhee, Horned Lark, and Red-headed Woodpecker

The Nice Bird Club

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 January 2019

When I took first-year Zoology at the University of Toronto, in the 1960s, our lab instructor/coordinator was Dr J. Murray Speirs. Speirs was a kindly gentleman with a bit of old-world charm, accentuated by his ever-present black beret. I warmed to him immediately because he was also a birder and had a reputation for encouraging young naturalists [1].

That warmth cooled somewhat when Dr Speirs gave me a ‘B’ grade for my bird list from a weekend class lab project where we had to record all of the birds seen in a day’s outing. My non-birder friends all got ‘A’s so I was particularly puzzled. When I asked him about my grade, he said that he gave me a ‘B’ because “every bird has a name, and you failed to name them all”.  I had listed 3 unidentified buteos and a half-dozen unidentified peeps, whereas my more-savvy confrères had—I found out later—fudged their reports based on what the bird books told them to expect in late September in Toronto [2].

speirs
Doris & Murray Speirs

Dr Speirs was married to Doris Heustis Speirs, who I met only once, at their home in Pickering, just east of Toronto. This was on a weekend birding/photography outing with my friends George Peck and Jim Richards. As we left the Speirs’s home, I commented that Doris really knew her birds. To which they replied “Yes, and she also founded the nice bird club”. “Interesting,” I said, “but what’s so nice about it”. They laughed: “No, no. It’s the Margaret Nice Bird Club, named after that famous woman ornithologist, and it’s open only to women.”

At a dinner with the Speirs on 10 Jan 1952, the biogeographer Miklos Udvardy was appalled to learn that his wife Maud would not be allowed to attend that evening’s meeting of the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC). Murray and Miklos were going, but the club was ‘men only’ [3]. Udvardy’s response was priceless: “Is this the fourteenth century?” He then suggested to Doris that she start an ornithological club of her own, for women only [4].

A week later, Doris had lunch with two friends—Irma Metcalfe and Marjorie Lawrence Meredith—interested in birds, and they decided to start just such a club. They chose to call it the Margaret Morse Nice Ornithological Club (MMNOC), in honour of one of the pioneers of behavioural and evolutionary ecology of birds, a renowned ornithologist, and, in those days, one of the few well-known women who studied birds. They limited membership to 12 women, and their little club flourished for the next 35 years.

Doris met Margaret Nice at the American Ornithologists Union meeting in October 1938 in Washington, DC. At that meeting, Margaret was one of four speakers in a symposium— ‘The Individual vs. the Species in Behavior Studies’ [5]. Her paper ‘The Social Kumpan in the Song Sparrow’ was published in The Auk in 1939 and pays homage to her friend Konrad Lorenz and his foundational ideas about social interactions. Based on her own studies of the Song Sparrow, Nice’s paper and her participation in the symposium illustrate her stature as one of the leading American ornithologists of the day. Doris was enthralled with meeting Nice and wrote to her brother about their conversation about Doris’s own research: “…she questioned me on my research with evidently a sincere and even keen interest, as though I could really contribute to her knowledge of bird behaviour by my observations. Her simplicity, her deep humility and sense of awe and wonder were evidences of her greatness.” [6]

Thus began a lifelong friendship and an obvious reason for the name that Doris gave to her bird club. Here is Nice on that friendship in a letter to Speirs: I feel that the study of ornithology is a wonderful game in which strong sympathy and fellowship reign between the serious participants: we are friends and glad to help one another. We have high standards for our science and we want beginners to realize this [7]. Nice visited the Speirs home several times, and there got the inspiration for her seminal review on avian incubation periods, published in The Condor in 1954. The Speirs maintained a fabulous ornithological library in their home and Nice began exploring their books to see what some writers, as far back as Aristotle, had to say about incubation. She noticed, for example, that new bird books often reported different incubation periods for the same species [8].

nicecoverIn 1979, a few years after Nice died, the MMNOC published her autobiography Research is a Passion with Me as a tribute to their patron saint. It’s not often—not often enough—that scientists, and particularly ornithologists, write their own stories and those by Charles Darwin, Margaret Nice and others are a treasure trove for historians of science about how the authors viewed themselves. One must, of course, read an autobiography with that in mind as the authors do have a certain bias, may leave out the unflattering bits, and have no real appreciation for the historical (in retrospect) context of their lives and research contributions. All that said, Nice’s autobiography is—as is Darwin’s—a wonderful read and was, for me, an inspiration. It was published, and I read it, in the year that I completed my PhD and it reminded me once again that it was OK to be passionate about research, and that persevering in the face of great odds was (or at least could be) very rewarding [9].

ogilviecoverSoon I will be reviewing a new full-length biography of Margaret Morse Nice in Birding magazine. This book—For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (University of Oklahoma Press)—was published in September 2018 and is the first biography of this remarkable woman. While Nice’s autobiography gave us lots of insights into her life and research, Ogilvie’s book is richer with detail and context. Ogilvie was Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma where much of Nice’s archives are housed, and she appears to have read everything that Nice ever wrote including letters, manuscripts, and publications, as well as talking to many of Nice’s relatives, friends and colleagues. Ogilvie chronicles an important period in biology, when women often struggled to do research and to obtain some recognition for their many accomplishments. In part, because of women like Margaret Morse Nice and Doris Huestis Speirs, they witnessed a sea change in the roles and prominence of women to ornithology during their lifetimes.

SOURCES

  • Darwin F, ed. (1887) The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray.
  • Falls JB (1990) Doris Huestis Speirs 1894 – 1989. Picoides 4: 3-4
  • Iron J, Pittaway R (2010) Who was Mrs. Gordon Mills? TOC Newletter, January 2010, pp 2-3
  • Nice MM (1939) The social kumpan and the Song Sparrow. The Auk 56: 255–262.
  • Nice MM (1954) Problems of incubation periods in North American birds. The Condor 56:173–197.

  • Nice MM (1979) Research Is a Passion with Me: The Autobiography of a Bird Lover. Dundurn.

  • Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Footnotes

  1. Murray Speirs’s reputation: Dr Speirs and his wife Doris took several local young naturalists under their wings and often took them out birding. I am grateful to Jim Richards for several insights about the Speirs and their generosity, in an email to me on 27 January 2019.
  2. first-year lab reports: I almost failed first-year Botany for always drawing accurately what I saw under the microscope, instead of what I was supposed to see. These experiences were transformative for me as I vowed to never penalize my own students—if I should ever became a professor, which seemed unlikely in those days as I was doing poorly in my courses—for describing exactly what they saw even if it seemed incorrect or unorthodox
  3. men only: I had been to a few meetings of the TOC as a guest of my older friends, and often wondered why no women ever attended.
  4. ornithological club for women: for more details see Miles Hearn’s blog here
  5. symposium speakers: the other speakers were Francis H. Herrick, Frederick Lincoln, and G. K. Noble
  6. Doris Speirs quotation: from Olgilvie 2018 page 220
  7. Margaret Nice quotation: from Nice 1979 page 268
  8. Nice on incubation periods: see Ogilvie 2019 pages 214-217 for more details
  9. on persevering: although I had been very privileged to do my PhD with a great scientist at an outstanding institution, the prospects for an academic appointment in Canada in those days, at least in my field, were zero. Over a period of more than 5 years around 1980 there was not a single academic job that I could apply for in Canada, and my interests were quite broad.

IMAGES: the Speirs from Iron and Pittaway (2010) colour-corrected; book covers by the author.

A very queer little fish: Bernard Brent, Charles Darwin, and elusive canaries

BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 14 January 2019

trbredcanaryTwenty years ago when I was writing The Red Canary—the story of how in the 1920s a bird enthusiast and a biology teacher created a red canary—I needed to include an overview of the history of canary domestication. To obtain the necessary information, I started to collect eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books on canary breeding. As this was before many of these books became available on-line, I regularly checked for editions available at local and international booksellers.

bpb1863
Brent in 1863

Charles Darwin’s book The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication, from 1868, provided an overview of variation, selective breeding and the process of domestication. In it, he covered the domestication of dogs, cats, pigeons, chickens, and (briefly) the canary. As his main source of information on the canary, Darwin cited a book by Bernard Brent [1]. Brent was a shipbuilder who was also a pigeon, poultry and cage bird enthusiast. He lived not far from Darwin and was a regular contributor to the Cottage Gardener [2] to which Darwin subscribed.

I eventually obtained a wide range of books on canaries, but Brent’s book, The Canary, British Finches, and some other Birds, eluded me. Despite regular inspection of the on-line second bookshops over several years, I never once saw Brent’s book offered for sale. Although this was slightly frustrating, it was not a major obstacle for my research since, I was able to use the copy once owned by Darwin himself, in the Cambridge University Library.

The apparent scarcity of Brent’s book made me suspect that only a few copies had been printed, but it also made me wonder whether Brent might not have been highly rated by the cage-bird cognoscenti. This view was reinforced, when I discovered that Brent had made a mistake—and one that Darwin repeated in Variation [3]—when he claimed that there existed a feather-footed breed of canaries. Brent had obtained this information from a mistranslation of the word ‘duvet’ (meaning down feathers) as ‘rough-footed’ (for unknown reasons) in the English edition of a well-known book about canaries by the French author J-C. Hervieux [4].  In his book, Brent wrote: “The rough-footed or feather-legged Canaries now seem to be very scarce, if the breed is not altogether lost, as I do not remember having seen but one, and that many years back.” [5] This suggests that he thought he may have seen one, which, of course, he could not have done as they do not exist.

brent's canaries plates
Brent’s canaries (1864)

My scouring of the on-line second-hand bookshops identified some twenty other books on canaries that Darwin could have cited in Variation, so why did he use Brent? The main reason I think was that Brent was one of first to enumerate and illustrate the different canary breeds. The drawings aren’t great (see illustration to the left [6]), but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. A further five or ten years were to pass before images of the different breeds in colour became available (see below).

Darwin knew Brent personally. They first met after Darwin became interested in the artificial selection of pigeons in 1855 and attended a fanciers’ meeting in London [7]. After this initial encounter Darwin wrote to his son William referring to Brent as “a very queer [meaning unusual] little fish”,  adding that “all pigeon fanciers are little men, I begin to think” [8]. Brent was indeed small in stature [9] and, according to Darwin. both “a very obliging kind man, but very crotchetty” [10] and “eccentric” [11]. Nevertheless, Brent and Darwin corresponded and Brent visited Darwin’s home [12] and became Darwin’s chief source of poultry information [13], as well  providing other details such as the breeding canary-finch hybrids [14]. It is also possible that Brent gave Darwin the copy of his Canary book.

img_7783 (1)
Canary breeds (Anon 1873)

Last week, some fifteen years after The Red Canary was published, I was looking for another old bird book on-line. Failing to find it reminded me of my earlier quest for Brent’s book. I looked again, and to my amazement, there was copy in a bookshop on England’s south coast. I couldn’t resist it—hence the inspiration for this essay.

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1873) Canaries: their Varieties and Points. London: Dean.
  • Birkhead TR (2003) The Red Canary. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson [published in the USA as A Brand New Bird. New York: Basic Books; and reprinted by Bloomsbury, London in 2014].
  • Brent BP (1855) The Cottage Gardener 15: 16 Oct pages 42-43, 13 Nov pages 115-116, and  11 December pages 184-185
  • Brent BP (1864) The canary, British finches, and some other birds: including directions for their management and breeding in the cage and aviary ; as well as the treatment of their diseases; with numerous illustrations. London: Journal of Horticulture & Cottage Gardener Office.
  • Darwin C (1868) The Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication. London: John Murray.
  • Hervieux de Chanteloup J-C (1718) A New Treatise of Canary Birds.  London: Bernard Lintot, London. [Available here. This is an English translation of Hervieux de Chanteloup J-CC (1709) Nouveau traité des Serins de Canarie. Paris: Claude Prodhomme. Available here]
  • Irwin R (1951) British Bird Books: an index to British ornithology, A.D. 1481 to A.D. 1948. London: Grafton & Co.
  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A Bibliography of British Ornithology from the Earliest Times to the End of 1912, including biographical accounts of the principal writers and bibliographies of their published works. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited.

  • Wood CA (1931) An Introduction to the  Literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press.


Footnotes

  1. a book by Bernard Brent: still not available anywhere online. Brent’s book is not listed in any of the bibliographies in my library, including: Wood (19310, Irwin (1951), and Mullens & Swan (1917). This is, in itself, is a quite telling indication of the scarcity of Brent’s. book. In 1878, Brent’s book sold for 1s. 6d. [the equivalent of US$11.15 in today’s currency]. Bernard Peirce Brent (1822-1867) lived at Bessels Green, Riverhead, in 1857, only 15 km from Darwin’s house in Downe, Kent
  2. The Cottage Gardener: from 1849-1855 published under this name for volumes 1-15 [vol 1-11 available here, but vol 15 with Brent’s article curiously unavailable online] then from 1861-1871 as Journal of horticulture, cottage gardener and country gentlemen with the new series starting with volume 1 in 1861 [vols 1-4, 6-8, 19-21, and 23  available here]
  3. Darwin repeated in Variation: as a result this mistake was repeated by others, trusting Darwin
  4. J-C. Hervieux: Jean-Claude Hervieux de Chanteloup (1683-1747) was inspecteur des bois à batir [timber inspector] in Paris, and looked after canaries owned by the Princesse de Condé who lived in the palace at Chantilly and to whom Hervieux dedicated his book
  5. two quotations: from Brent 1864, page 22
  6. Brent’s illustrations: the drawings are from Brent (1864) but I have added the names that he used
  7. attended a pigeon fanciers’ meeting in London: Darwin attended a meeting of the Columbarian Society, near London Bridge, on the 29 November 1855.
  8. quotation: see Darwin Correspondence Project Corr 5: 509
  9. small in stature: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 119
  10. “…very crochetty”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 13, Suppl. : 443 [see here]
  11. “eccentric”: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 15: 337 [see here]
  12. Brent visited Darwin’s home: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 247
  13. Darwin’s chief source of poultry information: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 60 n6
  14. breeding canary-finch hybrids: see Darwin Correspondence Project, Corr. 5: 470

IMAGES: Red Canary cover by the author; Brent portrait from a site summarizing his family tree and relation to Isaac Newton [here]; canaries from Brent (1864) and Anon (1873) are from the author’s copies

007

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 7 January 2019

A couple of years ago, my family and I had an early morning stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, en route to our spring bolthole in the French Pyrenees.  As we stumbled bleary-eyed to the end of the passport and customs lines, a tall, burly passport control agent took us aside and rather gruffly asked me “Are you with Her Majesty’s Secret Service?” My eloquent response was “Huh?”, to which he even more loudly repeated what he had just said. Passport control agents make me nervous at the best of times, so I blurted out the only response I could think of: “No, sir, I work for Queen’s University, not the Queen. There must be some mix-up.” He scowled, then broke into a broad smile and said, “No, I am just kidding, you are in seat 007.” Who knew that border agents had a sense of humour?

james-bond-ornitho_1403072c
Bond, James Bond

I was reminded of that incident when I read, last week, that the real James Bond—the ornithologist, James Bond—was born on 4 January 1900. The story of Ian Fleming adopting the name ‘James Bond’ for his fictional hero is well-known (see the Wikipedia link, above) so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, at least from an ornithological perspective, the real James Bond is more interesting.

In the obituary that he wrote for The Auk, Kenneth Parkes said that Bond “was a bridge between the centuries in his ornithology as in his lifespan” [1]. I interpret this as meaning his approach to ornithological collections bridged the 19th (Victorian) and 20th century approaches. I consider there to be at least 4 distinct periods of ‘museum’ work in ornithology which I would call: (1) the Curiosity period where individual natural historians maintained small cabinets of curiosity and the focus was on identification and discovery, (2) the Victorian period where large collections were most often amassed by wealthy men who were largely self-taught, and the focus was on classification based on subjective comparison of specimens, (3) the Qualitative period where those private collections moved to museums and the focus was on distributions and zoogeography,  obtaining series of specimens to study the extent of within and between species variation, and (4) the present Quantitative period where museum collections are used to obtain data information about colours, shapes, sizes, and genetics of birds to test hypotheses about evolutionary change and anthropogenic influences. In many ways Bond bridged the Victorian and Qualitative periods.

rmds
de Schauensee

Bond grew up in Philadelphia but spent 8 years in England before graduating from Cambridge in 1922. Although he was always interested in natural history, his first job was in the foreign exchange department of a bank in Philadelphia. He quit that job in 1925 to pursue his interest in birds by joining the staff at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Almost right away he was to accompany Rudolphe Meyer de Schauensee on a bird collecting expedition to the lower Amazon of Brazil, from 10 Feb – 26 May 1926. de Schauensee was exactly one year younger than Bond, but was already a curator of birds at The Academy. On that expedition, they collected 500 birds and a few mammal specimens, and obtained valuable information [2] on species distributions and abundances . Even though they were outside the main part of the breeding season, they found and described the nests of several species, a topic (nidification) that became one of Bond’s life-long interests.

Many aspects of that expedition and Bond’s early career typify what I have called Victorian ornithology in that the major goals were to build up collections in museums, to learn about distributions of species, and to gather information relevant to systematic relationships among species. Bond, in particular, thought that the study of nesting habits might provide useful clues to systematic relationships. Also, like most Victorian ornithologists both Bond and de Schauensee had no formal training in science beyond an undergraduate education and worked at the museum without salary as both had independent wealth.

Bond is certainly best known for his work on the zoogeography of Caribbean birds, which soon became his main life-long interest. The second (1947) edition of his Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies [3] was illustrated with line drawings by Earl Poole and the third (1963) with spectacular plates by Don Eckleberry. That guide was, of course, how the novelist and birdwatcher, Ian Fleming, came across his name while on holiday at his estate on Jamaica. Bond revised the 6th edition of his field guide just before he died and it is still—30 years later, and more than 70 years after the 1947 edition—in print and available on Amazon.

covers
Covers of editions 1-6, left to right (1936, 1947, 1974, 1980, 1985, 1993)

Bond’s research on Caribbean birds was more typical of the Qualitative period of museum ornithology in that he used his specimens to develop ideas about the zoogeography of Caribbean birds. David Lack once suggested to him that the avifaunal boundary that he had described between the birds of Tobago and those of the Lesser Antilles should be called Bond’s Line. Good idea!

bonds-line
the West Indies faunal region showing how it does not include Tobago (from Bond 1993)

Bond remained on the staff at The Academy for the rest of his career, publishing more than 30 papers on birds of the Caribbean islands. By the mid-1960s, he was well known as the inspiration for the name of Ian Fleming’s hero. On one of his trips to Jamaica he met Ian Fleming who gave him a copy of his novel You Only Live Twice, inscribed, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”. [4]

baby white pelican
a ‘fleming’ White Pelican

Before they visited Bond on Jamaica, Ian Fleming replied to a letter from Bond’s wife Mary concerning his use of her husband’s name for his swashbuckling, womanizing hero: ”It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born. In return, I can only offer you or James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purposes you may think fit. Perhaps one day your husband will discover a particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion by calling it Ian Fleming.” [5] It’s probably too late to expect the discovery of new and suitably horrible species of bird, but maybe we should call particularly ugly bird chicks ‘flemings’. Those of White Pelican would get my vote [6].

SOURCES

  • Anonymous (1989) James Bond, Ornithologist, 89; Fleming Adopted Name for 007. New York Times, 17 Feb 1989, page D19
  • Bond J (1947) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. New York: MacMillan.
  • Bond J (1993) Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Parkes K  (1989). In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106: 718–720.
  • Ripley SD (1986) In Memoriam: Rudolph Meyer de Schauensee. The Auk 103: 204-206
  • Stone W (1928) On a collection of birds from the Para Region, eastern Brazil. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 80: 149-176
  • Salvador RB, Tomotani BM (2015) The birds of James Bond. Journal of Geek Studies 2: 1-9 [accessed online 5 Jan 2019 here]

Footnotes

  1. quotation: from Parkes 1989 page 718
  2. obtained valuable information: their observations and findings were published by Witmer Stone (1928) who was, at the time, the senior scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Director 1925-1928 and Curator of Vertebrates 1918-1936
  3. Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies: the first edition was published in 1936 as Birds of the West Indies and Bond reverted to that title in for editions 3-6. The first two editions had no colour plates so were not in the same genre as modern field guides.
  4. inscription by Ian Fleming: reported in The Telegraph (UK) for 2 Dec 2008 [see here] when the book was sold at auction for £50,000
  5. Ian Fleming quotation: from Bond’s obituary in the New York Times (anonymous 1989)
  6. white pelican chicks: This suggestion was inspired by a brilliant graduate course term paper written almost 40 years ago by Bruce Lyon (now a prof at UC Santa Cruz) entitled ‘Why are baby pelicans so ugly?’

IMAGES: Bond from The Paris Review 26 Nov 2012; de Schauensee from Ripley (1986); covers from various bookseller sites; Bond Line from Bond (1993); pelican photo courtesy Bruce Lyon

The Auk’s Auk

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

ThreeMen
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.

Auks2

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:

Auks4
The Auk covers beginning 1913, 1915, 1978 and 1998

SOURCES

  • 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

Footnotes

  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].

Untitled

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].

Bee_hummingbird_(Mellisuga_helenae)_adult_male_in_flight
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.

GtCarib
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:

ornithology
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

SOURCES

  • 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.


Footnotes

  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].

2Erwin_Stresemann_1919
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.

1Stresemann
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.

SOURCES

  • 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.

Footnotes

  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 Amazon.de (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.

GouldHeads
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?

Lophophores
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.

GouldOutlines
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.

GouldHAWK
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.

SOURCES

  • 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.

Footnotes

  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.

BirdNameJournals
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]

IbisCOVER
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)]
IbisCovers
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.

SOURCES

  • 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.

Footnotes

  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

446px-Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Hermés,_N372.2A
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.

Savigny
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.

CuvierIBIS
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.

SOURCES

  • 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]

Footnotes

  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.