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].

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.


  • 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.


  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.

The Auk’s Auk

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

Brewster, Allen and Coues when they were young men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Auk covers beginning 1913, 1915, 1978 and 1998


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


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

whimsical suggestions (see footnote 6):

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

An Australian want supplied

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 30 July 2018

BoAPossibly more so than in other branches of natural history, ornithology has had a long history of provincialism. For most of the last 500 years, most people who studied (and watched) birds were most interested in, and mostly wrote about, the birds of their own region. Different countries and cultures often started their own national—and regional—bird groups and people usually wrote books about the birds in their region. I can see the point of regional field guides but regional bird books that detail plumages, breeding biologies, annual cycles and ranges do not seem to make much sense anymore.

Until fairly recently most bird books focussed on states, provinces, and, less often, countries. Writers about the history of ornithology generally also have their national biases. Various colleagues have told us, for example, that our own Ten Thousand Birds gave short shrift to the history of European, American, Japanese, Russian, Australian and Chinese ornithology. I took this as a good sign as everyone seemed to be equally offended, suggesting that we might actually have achieved something of a balanced coverage [1].

HBWv1The current millennium has embraced  gobalization, a trend that is gradually pushing back against that provincialism, much to the benefit of ornithology. Birds do not recognize political boundaries, so why should we when we study them? The success of xeno-canto, the Handbook of Birds of the World, the International Ornithological Congress [2] and its world checklist, ebird, and phylogenies encompassing all bird species worldwide [3] attest to the interest in—and value of—a global approach to ornithology. When I approached the AOS, about a year ago, to prepare this website and write these weekly blog posts on the history of ornithology, I insisted that it have a global (rather than American) scope, and they agreed enthusiastically.

That said, because I am Canadian and have not yet even been to much of Europe, Asia and Africa, my ‘American’ biases and the scope of what I write about will always display some provincialism. I hope to rectify that soon by soliciting contributions from ornithologists worldwide to make this website a truly global resource for the history of ornithology. With this post I will start a series on the beginnings of ornithological societies and journals outside the historical North American and European epicentre of bird study.


In 1987, when I stepped out of the airport building in Cairns on my first sabbatical and first visit to Australia, I knew right away that I had entered a different world. As I stood on a grassy median waiting for my rental camper, small flocks of spoonbills, Australian White Ibises, Masked Lapwings and Straw-necked Ibises wheeled about punctuated by a flock of parrots screaming past. I heard both a Kookaburra and a Pied Currawong in the distance. I actually thought for a moment that I was dreaming, still asleep in the plane somewhere over the south Pacific. Few bird experiences have left such a vivid impression on me and I realized right away that I really knew nothing about birds, despite almost 25 years of birding experience and ornithological research. When I saw 10,000 spectacled flying foxes stream over our camp at Yorkey’s Knob that evening, I wondered again if I was still dreaming.

Straw-necked Ibises

That experience, and subsequent field trips to Heron and Lizard Islands, the Atherton Tableland, New South Wales, and Shark Bay (WA) convinced me that naturalists like Eleanor Russell and Ian Rowley were quite right to observe that many Australian birds did not follow the rules derived from bird studies in Europe and the Americas. As Rowley and Russell, and later Andrew Cockburn and Raoul Mulder, and many others, have shown us, any general analysis that ignores Australian birds gives an incomplete picture of the factors that shape bird behaviours and ecologies—cooperative breeding in particular.

I sometimes wonder if the founders the Australian Ornithologists’ Union felt the same about the unique lessons to be learned by studying Australian birds. A closer look at the state of ornithology in the late 1800s, suggests to me that they may not have, in part because many of them were expat Brits, who seemed intent on importing European ornithology to the Australian shores [4].

Bassian Thrush nest/eggs

On the evening of 15 August 1896, 17 men [5] interested in natural history met at Britannia House , South Yarra (Melbourne),  Australia, for an ornithological dinner [6] and social. The table was decorated with heaps of local flowers (acacia and native heaths) surrounding a freshly collected nest and eggs of the Bassian Thrush [7]. The nest had been collected by A. J. Campbell, who organized the soirée and had, at that time, the largest collection (500 species) of eggs of Australian birds. Campbell read a paper on some of his experiences in the field, and showed lantern slides of birds and nests that he had seen in his travels. As the local newspaper reported: “Before breaking up the meeting resolved to form an Australian Ornithological Union, on similar lines to the British and American Ornithological Unions.” [8]

The group met again in 1897, 1899, and 1900, resolving then to form an official society to represent Australian ornithology. With the patronage of ‘Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York’ [9] the Australian Ornithological Union was founded in July 1901, to study and protect birds. Its first general meeting convened in Adelaide in October of that year, where they resolved that “The Objects of the Society are the advancement and popularization of the Science of Ornithology, the protection of useful and ornamental avifauna, and the publication of a magazine called The Emu” [10].

EMUTitlePageThe Emu began publication with that 1901 meeting, edited by A.J Campbell and H. Kendall, and is still going strong today, 117 years later. It was intended “to be “an outward and visible sign” of union, and should prove of value in the good cause. It will provide a recognized means of intercommunication between all interested in ornithology, whatever their branch of that study may be, and afford all an opportunity of recording facts and valuable observations, and of giving publicity to those and their own deductions. Thus bird students will be kept in touch with one another, original study will be aided, and an Australasian want supplied. [11]

That first issue introduced the society and the new journal but also contained papers on taxonomy, Emu feathers, bird protection, new specimens, whether birds were harmful or beneficial to agriculture, spring arrivals, bird behaviour and news of members, other journals and magazines, and exhibitions. While the content was somewhat different in emphasis from contemporary papers in The Auk and The Ibis, having generally more behavioural observations, there was still much about taxonomy and distributions, which dominated those other journals. Before The Emu, Australian ornithologists published mainly in The Ibis and The Victorian Naturalist, and there is no reason to expect that The Emu changed the kinds of papers published by Australians but rather just became a local venue focused on Australian birds. I was struck, however, by the quality and quantity of bird, nest and egg photos in those early issues [12].

One major difference in the focus of ornithology in Australia compared to Europe and North America, was the need to gather basic information about Australian birds. As the editor of that first edition of The Emu said: “Nearly lOO known species have their nests and eggs still undescribed, and of a large proportion of our birds some phases at least of their life-history are unknown.” [13]. The pages of The Emu often contained such descriptions for years to come, at a time when only a handful of North American, and no European, still needed descriptions of their basic breeding biology.

It took more than a century of changes in technology, travel, trade and the accumulation of ornithological knowledge to fulfill the promise that the editors of the Emu made in 1901: “No country or clime — only the wide world itself — limits the work and enthusiasm of the true naturalist.” [14].


  • Campbell AJ, Kendall H [presumably] (1901) The Australian Ornithologists’ Union: Its origin. The Emu 1: 1-5.
  • Cockburn A (1998) Evolution of helping behavior in cooperatively breeding birds. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 29:141–177.

  • Mulder RA, Magrath MJL (1994) Timing of prenuptial molt as a sexually selected indicator of male quality in superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus). Behavioural Ecology 5:393–400.

  • Roblin L (2002) The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology 1901–-2001. Melbourne University Publishing.

  • Russell E, Rowley I (1988) Helper contributions to reproductive success in the splendid fairy-wren (Malurus splendens). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 22:131–140.


  1. balanced coverage in Ten Thousand BirdsI say this tongue in cheek as I am well aware that our treatment is biased and we pointed that out in our introduction. To our credit, I think we tried to give equivalent, if not equal, attention to the history of ornithology in Britain and North America, where all three authors had considerable experience.
  2. International Ornithological Congress: will hold its 27th meeting in Vancouver next month. I am not likely to be able to attend, but it looks like a fabulous meeting, and UBC Press will launch a new Birds of Nunavut, for which I wrote a couple of chapters and a few species accounts (more later on that example of provincialism).
  3. worldwide bird phylogenies: see here, here and (eventually) here
  4. importing European ornithology: I do not have any hard evidence for this but it would be worth looking at Roblin (2002) to see if she mentions this. I have ordered it and will report when I have read the book.
  5. 17 men: yes, they were all men, just as were the founders of the AOU,  BOU and DO-G in North America, Britain and Germany, respectively (see here and here for earlier posts on this topic). The Union was eventually established with 137 members, 6 of whom were women but even that small number was a remarkable achievement in those days.
  6. ornithological dinner: see here for more on this topic, in a different context
  7. Bassian Thrush: (Zoothera lunulata) was called the Ground or Mountain Thrush in the late 1800s. The nest was large and covered with moss; the eggs are a pale greyish with dense red-brown maculation
  8. quotation from local newspaper: from Campbell and Kendall 1901, page 1
  9. Duke and Duchess: visited Australia in 1901 as part of an ‘Empire Tour’ following the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament of Australia. When they returned to England,  they became the Prince and Princess of Wales, and later, in 1910, King George V and Queen Mary. when Edward VII died.
  10. quotation about the first general meeting: from The Emu 1:33, presumably written by the editors
  11. quotation about the purpose of The Emu: from page 5 in Campbell and Kendall 1901
  12. photos in first issue of The Emu: in contrast the entire 1901 volume of The Auk contained only photos of nests and eggs, and none of birds save a Pine Grosbeak on a nest. The Ibis had a couple of bird photos but excelled with line drawings of anatomy and coloured illustrations of birds.
  13. unknown species quote: from editorial note before page 1 in The Emu 1
  14. quotation about no limits to the naturalist: from editorial note at bottom of p 8 in Campbell and Kendall 1901

IMAGES: Bassian Thrush nest and eggs photo by A.J. Campbell (Museums Victoria,; book and journal covers in the public domain; Straw-necked Ibises photo by Cyrus Ray Macey, Wikimedia Commons.

The Utmost Harmony

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 9 April 2018

I gave my first research talk at a ‘big’ international conference at the AOU meeting at Haverford College (Pennsylvania) in 1976. I talked about my work on Mexican hummingbirds and I was nervous, in part because Frank Gill—who was then doing great work on hummingbirds—was talking right before me. The chair of our session was some old guy with unruly grey hair. Though I really wanted to hear Frank’s talk, I was too busy thinking about what I was going to say to actually pay attention to his words. Until, that is, when he finished answering a couple of questions. As he was about to leave the stage, Frank said to the chair “Thanks, Ernst”. “OMG”, I thought [1], “that’s Ernst Mayr, and I may not survive this.”

Ernst Mayr ca 1976

I completed my presentation on autopilot, out of sheer terror. But Professor Mayr asked me a couple of excellent questions and thereby, very graciously, put me at ease and made my presentation seem like a success. I had been to a few AOU meetings before but that incident convinced me that I had found my academic home. It seemed that everyone from the most famous—Mayr and Gill—to the greenest student (me) could talk about birds in an environment characterized by the utmost harmony.

Indeed, that’s how someone [2] described the first AOU meeting, in a report in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 1883:

The session of the Convention occupied three days, and was marked throughout with the utmost harmony; at adjournment…hearty expressions of satisfaction with the results of the session were heard from all who had shared in its deliberations. The general good feeling rose to a degree of enthusiasm auguring well for the future work and prosperity of the Union, the organization of which, under such auspicious circumstances, cannot fail to mark an important era in the progress of ornithology in America. [3]

He was right, that first convention did augur well for the future work of the ‘Union’—and it has gone from strength to strength over the past 135 years. The AOU was the gifted child of the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 1883 and the proud parent (along with the Cooper Ornithological Society) of the American Ornithological Society (AOS) in 2016.

El Conquistador Hotel, Tucson, Where the 2nd AOS meeting is about to begin on 11 April 2018

Today I am in Tucson waiting for the start of the 2nd annual AOS meeting. I am anticipating some great science, some reconnecting with old friends, and seeing some interesting birds. I am not really a birder and especially not a twitcher, so I will not make the trek to Madera Canyon to see the Elegant Trogon reported there last week. This morning though, I watched  a pair of Verdins building a nest, and spent an hour in the midst of a dozen pairs of courting Great-tailed Grackles. I always prefer watching behaviour over searching for rarities. But I digress.

That first AOU meeting in 1883 was the result of a letter sent on 1 August 1883 by three officials [4] of the Nuttall Ornithological Club to 46 American and 2 Canadian ornithologists,


You are cordially invited to attend a Convention of American Ornithologists, tiobe held in New York City, beginning on Seotember 26, 1883, for the ourpose of founding an AMERICAN ORNITHOLOGISTS UNION, upon a basis similar to that of the “British Ornithologists Union”…The object of the Union will be the promotion of social and scientific intercourse between American ornithologsts, and their cooperation in whatever may tend to the advancement of Ornithology in North America…” [3]

Twenty-one men attended the 3-day conference in the library if the American Museum of Natural History. They declared themselves to be founders of the AOU, along with Spencer Fullerton Baird and J A Allen who were unable to attend. Their first order of business was to establish a constitiution for the new society followed by the election of other ornigthologists—all men as far as I can tell—to various classes of membership: 21 Foreign, 20 Corresponding, and 81 Associate in addition to the 47 Active members that included the Founders.

They also established six committees that nicely reflected 5 of the major ornithological interests of the day: Classification of North American Birds, Migration, Avian Anatomy, Oölogy, and Faunal Areas. The sixth committee was charged “to investigate the eligibilibity or ineligibility of the European House Sparrow in North America”. I do not know what that sixth committee eventually decided, but it is clear from events over the next century that the House Sparrow did not care.


  • Anonymous (1883) The American Ornithologists’ Union. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 8: 221-226


1. OMG: I did not, of course, think that in 1976, as it did not enter the slang lexicon for another 20 years

2.  someone described that first AOU meeting: see Anonymous (1883); normally i would have assumed it was the editor of the journal but that was J A Allen who was ill and could not attend the meeting

3. quotations from Anonymous (1883)

4, three Nuttall Club officials: were J A Allen (editor of the Nuttall Bulletin), Elliott Coues (associate editor) and William Brewster (President of the Nuttall Club)

2017: An historic year for ornithology

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 1 January 2018

The year that ended yesterday was an historic one for ornithology, with the first meeting of the newly formed American Ornithological Society (AOS) in East Lansing, Michigan. As a student of the history of ornithology, I know how hard it is to predict the future of our discipline (i.e. impossible), or to even guess correctly how well research published during the past year will be regarded 10, 50 or 100 years from now. In 1981, Bill Gates is alleged to have said that he did not see why anyone would ever need more than 640 kb of memory in a personal computer. While that story may be apocryphal, it undoubtedly resonates because it reflects our personal experience with crystal ball gazing.

Even so, it is hard for me to imagine that the new AOS is not a move in the right direction, maybe eventually embracing ornithological societies throughout the western hemisphere. We have already reaped some of the benefits of that merger in the new journal structure, new websites and social media, and new initiatives for funding and outreach. More on the 2017 AOS conference below, but first a very personal listing of a few events in 2017 that made news in ornithology.


The history of ornithology is, in my opinion, best viewed through the lives of people who study birds, as it is they who made the discoveries and often inadvertently set a course for the future. The Auk and The Ibis, as well as other journals, regularly publish formal obituaries of ornithologists, but I am hoping in the future that we can publish some more personal accounts on this blog. Sometimes—but too rarely—personal accounts do get published in our journals (see for example, Jon Ahlquist’s obituary for Charles Sibley).

I am also hoping that many senior ornithologists will contribute their own memoirs to a series we will be launching this year at the AOS meeting in Tucson. I did not know personally all of the ornithologists who died in 2017, but each of the following influenced me and my research in profound ways: Amotz Zahavi (b 1928), Patrick Bateson (b 1938), Wesley (Bud) Lanyon (1926), Harry Carter (b 1956), François Vuilleumier (b 1938), and Chandler Robbins (b 1918). All of them have or will likely soon be remembered in more formal obituaries in the journals—I have listed a few under Sources, below—but I would be happy to publish more personal accounts on this blog. Send me an email if you are interested in contributing.


ScienceCover2017Birds were on the covers of the highest profile journals of general science (Science, PNAS, but—notably—not Nature) and biology (Current Biology, Proceedings of the Royal Society B) no less than 8 times in 2017, reflecting the continuing interest and influence of ornithology.

I estimate that there were about 21,000 papers published on birds in 2017. That’s more papers than were published on birds from Aristotle to the beginning of the 20th century. Clearly nobody could (or would want to) keep abreast of the ornithological literature the way that Elliott Coues, Alfred Newton and Casey Wood once did in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That makes me wonder if scientists now rely more than ever on books and review articles to get a sense of their discipline.

AOS 2017

At the inaugural meeting of the AOS, in early August 2017, the slide show below was used to introduce the society and conference. Jen Owen (Michigan State University) put this show together to show some of the early history of the AOU and COS, and their development that culminated in the modern AOS.

My first AOU meeting was in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1966 when I was still a teenager. I travelled from Toronto to Duluth with my Royal Ontario Museum friends and mentors, Jim Baillie and Rolph Davis, in Rolph’s brand new Ford Mustang, getting stopped only once for speeding! While I felt very welcome at that conference, and learned a lot, I was taken aback that there were so few young people there and so few women (see also here). That was the year that the AOU first offered their Marcy Brady Tucker Award to provide travel subsidies ‘to assist a few promising young ornithologists’ to attend the annual meeting. I am not sure how many awards were given in 1966 (I did not apply) but I feel that was the beginning of a new era for the AOU.

I have not been to all of the AOU meetings in the intervening 50 years, but the 2017 AOS meeting was certainly one of the best of a very good lot. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the science and both the abundance and enthusiasm of young ornithologists in attendance. The three presentations by winners of our early professional awards—Michael Butler, Richard Ton, and Nancy Chen—were absolutely outstanding, for example. I sat in front of a well-known geneticist who said ‘wow’ twice and gasped once during Nancy Chen’s talk!

It would not be much of a stretch to predict that the 2018 meeting in Tucson will also be excellent.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


  • Ahlquist JE (1999) Charles G. Sibley: A commentary on 30 years of collaboration. Auk 116:856–860.

  • Brush A (2017) François Vuilleumier, 1938–2017. The Auk 134: 776-777.
  • Clutton-Brock T, Ridley A (2017) Obituary: Amotz Zahavi 1928–2017, Behavioral Ecology 28: 1195–1197,
  • Davies N (2018), Sir Patrick Bateson 1938–2017. Ibis 160: 253–254. doi:10.1111/ibi.12550

  • James FC (2017), Chandler Seymour Robbins (1918–2017). Ibis 159: 940–941. doi:10.1111/ibi.12518
  • Sheppard JM, Dawson DK, and Sauer JR (2017) Chandler S. Robbins, 1918–2017. The Auk 134: 935-938.

IMAGES: all of the images in this slideshow are in the public domain, or in the archives of the AOS History Committee. They are used here for educational purposes and may not be copied or used without permission from Jen Owen and/or the AOS History Committee.

Pigeon Coup

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 27 November 2017

When I was a young teenager I spent my Saturday mornings during the school year at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). I was there to attend the weekly meeting of the Toronto Junior Field Naturalists’ Club, but often stayed afterward to explore the public galleries. I particularly loved the dioramas of birds and mammals as they took me to distant places and bygone times that I could only dream or read about. In those days, there were virtually no nature documentaries on TV and precious few in the theatres [1].

Of all those superb dioramas, my favourite was the Passenger Pigeon, showing immense flocks (painted) descending into a forest clearing scattered with pigeons (mounted specimens) foraging on the acorns:

The scene reproduced depicts an April morning in the 1860s near Forks of Credit, Ontario…The visitor inspecting the exhibit should imagine himself standing at the edge of an old beech-maple forest overlooking the pioneer’s clearing. The scene is as we might have found it in the 1860s. The great pigeon flight is underway and will perhaps continue throughout the day. [2]

That diorama was opened to the public in 1935, the brainchild of Lester L. Snyder, the curator of birds, and constructed and painted by E. B. S. Logier who had joined the museum as illustrator in 1915. My memories of those dioramas came flooding back a couple of weeks ago when I saw the names Mark Peck and Allan Baker [3]—both from the ROM—among the authors of a new paper out of Berth Shapiro’s lab (UC Santa Cruz) on Passenger Pigeons published in Science, but more on that in a minute.

13662-Passenger Pigeon-retouched
Painted backdrop of the Passenger Pigeon diorama at the ROM (1935-1981)

Standing in front of that diorama I can remember thinking that a bird that had once been that abundant could not possibly be extinct. After all, Peterson’s Field Guide still illustrated them (in  a head and shoulders vignette on p 181 of my copy) so maybe he thought the bird might still be seen. My teen birding buddies and I spent many an afternoon naively scouring flocks of Mourning Doves just in case. After all, bison were also once extremely abundant, and hunted relentlessly, but were still round, albeit in small numbers.

I was also heartened by the fact that even if the species was really extinct, there must be thousands of specimens in museum collections that could be used for further study, since the ROM alone appeared to have so many that they could fill a diorama with mounted specimens alone. When I mentioned this to my friend and mentor Jim Baillie, assistant curator of birds at the ROM, he just laughed and told me there were only about 1500 specimens worldwide, of a species that once numbered in the billions. The reason for this wealth of specimens at the ROM, he said, was that they had been the beneficiaries of what he considered to be a major coup, when a local naturalist, musician and businessman [4], Paul Hahn, had decided—shortly after the Passenger Pigeon went extinct in 1914—to donate to the ROM as many specimens as he could locate, as a way “to ensure that future generations would know at least how handsome a bird it was.” [5]

Paul Hahn

Hahn was born in Germany in 1875 but moved to Toronto with his family in 1898. In 1902 he saw his first Passenger Pigeon, a mounted specimen in a farmhouse north of the city and decided then to “set about gathering as many as possible of the mounted birds scattered around the country, both for the sake of future students and with the intention of preserving at least some specimens of a bird that would probably soon be extinct.” [5]. He presented his first specimen to the ROM in 1918 and had donated 70 by the time he died in 1962.

As a result of Hahn’s generosity, the ROM had 124 Passenger Pigeon skins and mounts by 1962, more than any other collection worldwide. I know this because in 1957 Mr Hahn started compiling a list of all the specimens of 7 extinct (our nearly so) bird species [6] held in museums and private collections around the world. Hahn died before his list could be published but Baillie took up the task, seeing it through to print in 1963 as a book Where is that Vanished Bird? That book lists every specimen (including skeletons) known to Hahn [7], its date and place of collection, its sex, the collector, and the current collection in which it was held.

One of the Passenger Pigeon mounts at the Royal Ontario Museum

The first Passenger Pigeon specimen whose collection date was known was a male taken in the Carolinas in about 1810, housed with one other specimen (a female, from Georgia collected in 1821) in the Zooligische Museum in Berlin. The Naumann Museum in Köthen that Tim Birkhead wrote about last week also had a male, collected in about 1830 (locality unknown).

The recent Science paper made good use of the ROM collection of Passenger Pigeons, analyzing the DNA extracted from the toe pads of 84 specimens, 63 of which were from the ROM. Analyzing both nuclear and mitochondrial genes, the researchers confirmed that the Passenger Pigeon had surprisingly low genetic diversity. This low diversity is unexpected because large populations are predicted from theory to be genetically diverse, and you don’t get larger bird populations than those of the Passenger Pigeon. To explain this loss of diversity, the authors argued that it was driven by high rates of dispersal and adaptive evolution that removed harmful mutations. Such low diversity would have made the species particularly susceptible to disease or environmental change, two factors that might have doomed the species once populations had been decimated by hunting. This study also concluded, based on some sophisticated genomic analyses, that Passenger Pigeon populations had probably persisted at extremely high numbers for 20,00 years or more before the 1800s [8].

The Passenger Pigeon diorama at the ROM was dismantled in 1981, in part because it was showing its age, but also because the age of dioramas was over, replaced in part by the ubiquitous nature shows in TV. That saddens me but I am more than ever convinced that clubs for young field naturalists, and museums that store and preserve specimens, deserve our unending support.


  • Hahn P (1963) Where is that Vanished Bird? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  • Hung C-M, Shaner P-JL, Zink RM, Liu W-C, Chu T-C, Hiuang W-S et al. (2014) Drastic population fluctuations explain the rapid extinction of the passenger pigeon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Scienes USA 111:10636–10641.

  • Murray GGR, Soares AER, Novac BJ, Schaefer NK, Cahill JA, Baker AJ et al. (2017) Natural selection shaped the rise and fall of passenger pigeon genomic diversity. Science 358:951–954.


1. The first nature documentaries on TV were a series called Fur and Feathers on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) channel in 1955-56, in black and white (of course). By 1960, Disney had produced 14 movies in its True-Life Adventures series, including the The Living Desert, The Secrets of Life, African Lion, and White Wilderness all of which enthralled my naturalist friends and I when they played at our local theatre.

2. Text from the ROM’s Passenger Pigeon diorama, courtesy Mark Peck, 22 Nov 2017.

3. Mark Peck is Ornithology Technician at the ROM, where Allan Baker (1943-2014) worked for 42 years as both a curator of birds and eventually head of their Department of Natural History.

4. Hahn was an accomplished cellist who played with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He also founded Paul Hahn Pianos in Toronto in 1913, a company that is still in business today.

5. Quotations from Hahn 1963:1.

6. As of 1962: skins and mounts of 1532 Passenger Pigeons, 365 Eskimo Curlews, 78 Great Auks, 720 Carolina Parakeets, 413 Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, 54 Labrador Ducks and 309 Whooping Cranes (Hahn 1963).

7. Beginning in 1957 he sent out questionnaires to people and museums that he thought might know or know about those specimens. He got more than 1000 response.

8. Based on DNA samples from only 3 Passenger Pigeons, Hung et al. (2014) performed a different genomic analysis and concluded that population sizes had fluctuated dramatically—only occasionally reaching numbers in the billions—thereby increasing its risk of extinction during population lows. Evaluating the conclusions of these two studies is above my pay grade but I expect that both labs will argue that their analyses are correct.

IMAGES: ROM photos by Brian Boyle, courtesy of Mark Peck (both at the ROM); Paul Hahn from the Paul Hahn & Co. website at

What is a species? How the German Ornithologists’ Society (DO-G) began

Guest Post

BY: Karl Schulze-Hagen, Mönchengladbach, Germany | 30 Oct 2017

3 J. Ornithol Vol 1 - title pageThe very first paper published in the Journal für Ornithologie, in 1853, was written by the Dresden zoologist Ludwig Reichenbach (1793-1879). That paper {On the concept of species in ornithology} [see footnote 1] is a bit long-winded and difficult to comprehend by today’s standards, but it is historically important because it was the seed around which a newly formed society for the natural sciences—the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (DO-G)—would crystallize. The DO-G {German Ornithologists’ Society} was the first  scientific ornithological society and one of the first taxon-based scientific societies world-wide.

Following the example of entomologists and conchologists, the German ornithologists wanted to found their own society and publish a journal of their own. Before they could publish a journal, however, they wanted to have clear definitions and rules for their field of endeavour [2]. The dominant question of the day was, “What is a species?”. This controversial subject had been debated constantly in Germany since 1822, when the Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte {Society of German Naturalists and Physicians} was founded. The meetings of that society provided the German ornithologists with an opportunity to exchange ideas.

Almost a quarter of a century passed before those ornithologists could finally gather for their own meeting—in 1845in the small town of Köthen in central Germany. But why Köthen? In the neighborhood of this rural Residenzstadt—where the local aristocratic rulers had their residence—lay the modest farmstead of the autodidact Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780-1857). Naumann’s 12-volume Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands {Natural History of the Birds of Germany} had just been completed the previous year. At over 7000 pages and 337 plates, it was then the world’s most complete description of a

2 Naumann, JF 1822 (From JFN Naturgeschichte, Vol 2, Frontispice)
Naumann in 1822, self portrait

regional fauna. This gigantic work “{gave the impulse to the existing but scattered forces of German ornithology to finally come together. Everywhere the work encouraged others to further research}” [3]. It was Naumann who urged “{a meeting with a few friends of ornithology}” [4]. So Naumann became the spiritus rector of German ornithology, and it was in his honor that its first assembly was held in Köthen. Presumably due to the political turbulence of 1848 in Germany that it wasn’t until 1850 that the DO-G was finally constituted, in Leipzig, with Naumann as its first President.

The production of a dedicated journal for the DO-G proved troublesome. An earlier German ornithological journal, Rhea, edited by F. A. Ludwig Thienemann (1793-1858), ceased publishing in 1848 after only two issues. This was followed by another short-lived bird journal, Naumannia, produced in 1849 by Eduard Baldamus (1812-1893), an energetic and passionate Naumann admirer. It was to be a further four years before the first issue of today’s Journal für Ornithologie (JfO) appeared, under the editorship of Jean Cabanis (1816-1906).

In the JfO’s volumes, now spanning 158 years, the historical development of ornithology can be traced. On the first page of that first issue, the future framework was established in a Prospectus: “{In as varied a diversity as possible …. treatises dealing with the entire range of ornithological subjects will be published, including paleontology and physiology. Specific and general ornithology, systematics and oology. ….. Monographs, description of new species, faunas, geographical distribution, and life histories, including consideration of the mental [‘psychisch’ in German, literally ‘of the soul’!] capabilities of birds}”. [3]

From the very beginning, German ornithology consisted of two strands: taxonomy or systematics, and avian biology. Perhaps surprisingly, both subdivisions of the field were given equal space in the Journal—while the first volume began with an article outlining a basic definition of ‘species’, it ended with two contributions from Constantin Gloger (1803-1863)—one on host-species choice in the Cuckoo and the other on interspecific copulation in ducks.

But the problem troubling all ornithologists of the day—the question of what a species is—remained unresolved. The 10th DO-G conference, in 1856 and again in Köthen, revolved around this conundrum alone [5]. For several days Naumann, Christian Ludwig Brehm (1787-1864), Baldamus, Gloger, Charles Lucien Bonaparte (1803-1857) and other colleagues debated the topic. Finally they agreed on a provisional definition: “{Individuals forming a community on the basis of common descent or for the purpose of reproduction can be regarded as belonging to the same species.}“ [3]

In 1856, Darwin’s On The Origin of Species had yet to appear in print. Neither was it foreseeable that a century later Ernst Mayr (1904-2005)—an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist who grew up in Germany but worked in the USA—would have a lasting influence on our current thinking with his own biological species concept.


  • Cabanis J (1853) Prospectus. Journal für Ornithologie 1: 1-4.
  • Naumann JA (1820-1844) Naturgeschichte der Vögel Deutschlands: nach eigenen Erfahrungen entworfen. 12 volumes. Leizig: G. Fleischer.

  • Reichenbach L (1853) Über den Begriff der Art in der Ornithologie. Journal für Ornithologie 1:5–15.
  • Schalow H (1901) Ein Rückblick auf die Geschichte der Deutschen Ornithologischen Gesellschaft. Journal für Ornithologie 49: 6-25.


  1. quotations and titles enclosed in curly brackets {} are English translations of the original German
  2. see Cabanis (1853)
  3. quotation from Schalow H (1901)
  4. quotation from Bezzel E (1988) Die Vesammlungen deutscher Ornithologen 1845-1987: Ein Streifzug durch die Geschichte der Deutschen Ornithologen-Gesellschaft. Journal für Ornithologie 129. Sonderheft: 2-21.
  5. see Schalow (1901)

reedwarblersKarl Schulze-Hagen, MD, is a member of the Advisory Committee of the DO-G. He has written extensively about birds and the history of ornithology, and is coauthor (with Bernd Leisler) of a book on the European reed warblers. Their Reed Warblers: Diversity in a Uniform Bird Family was published in 2011 by KNNV Publ. (available from Amazon here) and won the BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year award in 2012.

Small Groups of Men

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 9 Oct 2017

Just a week ago the Deutsche Ornithologen-Gesellschaft (DO-G; German Ornithologists’ Society) celebrated its 150th anniversary at the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Halle (Saale) near Leipzig, Germany. The DO-G was actually founded in Leipzig by three men—Johann Friedrich Naumann, August Carl Eduard Baldamus and Eugen Ferdinand von Homeyer—in 1850, so the reason for their 150th anniversary conference being held in 2017 will be explained in LogoDOG_181110_300_gera later post. I did not attend last week’s anniversary conference, but my friend and colleague Tim Birkhead (Univ Sheffield) gave a keynote presentation on the history of ornithology.

The DO-G is the oldest ornithological Society in the world and one of the first scientific societies devoted to Zoology. The first society devoted solely to zoology was the Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826. Societies devoted to science in general had been around since the 1600s, but it was not until the 1800s that more focussed societies—like those devoted to birds—appeared on the scene.  The DO-G also publishes the oldest ornithological journal that is still publishing and has a long history of excellence and leadership in ornithology.

During the latter half of the 1800s, the BOU (1858), the Nuttall Ornithological Club (1873), the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (1879), the AOU (1883) and COS (1893)—now amalgamated as the AOS in 2016, the British Ornithologists’ Club (1892), the Wilson Ornithological Society (1888), and the Avicultural Society (1894) were all founded for the study of birds. There were undoubtedly others established at a more regional level.

ORNIS (1824) the first ornithological journal

Why did the 1800s see such a flourishing of interest in ornithology? Certainly people had been interested in the science of ornithology since the 1600s (Willughby and Ray, Belon, Aldrovandi, etc) but maybe there was just not enough interest locally for there to be a critical mass to meet. Certainly the exchange of ideas in scientific societies was, and still is, paramount: “Like their European predecessors, American societies were the outgrowth of gatherings of small groups of men of mutual interests, most of them amateur rather than professional scientists and scholars.” (Gibson 1982). Some ornithological societies, like the Nuttall OC, were founded explicitly for the publication of journals, but most started a journal several years later, and some—like the DO-G—were even preceded by a journal.

I am delighted to be associated with societies, like the AOS, that have evolved and blossomed from those early beginnings, particularly as they are no longer composed solely of ‘small groups of men’. Even in the 1960s, I sometimes attended meetings of two bird/scientific clubs in my home town—the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC) and the Brodie Club—where women were not welcome (until 1980 at the TOC!), where most of the men were at least middle-aged, and just about everyone smoked. Such misogyny—in this case in the form of social exclusion—seems bizarre today but was typical of all ornithological societies in the early years. Although women’s contributions to ornithology before as recently as the 1960s were relatively few, we do well to honour their perseverance in the face of such discrimination and their outstanding early contributions to ornithological research, science writing and bird illustration.


  • Aldrovandi U (1599) Ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae. Bologna: Apud Franciscum de Franciscis Senensem
  • Belon P (1555) L’Histoire de la Nature des Oiseaux. Paris: Gilles Corrozet.
  • Gibson SS (1982). Scientific societies and exchange: a facet of the history of scientific communication. The Journal of Library History 17, 144–163.
  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.

The Sparrow Question

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 2 Oct 2017

John Gould’s House Sparrow 1873

When I visited England at the beginning of last month, the English House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) was notable for its scarcity. I spent a week in London, Sheffield and the Peak District and only once heard the familiar and once ubiquitous jib-jib (see recent post) in a small park near St Pancras International in central London. Just as well that we don’t call it the ‘English’ Sparrow anymore. Actually they have far from disappeared from the English landscape but their population size did drop by about half from the 1970s to the 1990s, having more-or-less stabilized at present-day numbers by the turn of the millennium.

The precipitous decline in House Sparrow populations in the UK has been well-documented but the causes are thought to be complex—changes in farming practices reducing food availability, competition with other birds, loss of nest sites in cities. and the usual problems with pesticides. Once considered a pest, this species is now of conservation concern in the UK and Europe. North American Breeding Bird Survey data also show a similar decline in numbers from 1966-2004 with a loss of about 2% per year continent-wide.

Because it was so common and readily breeds in nest boxes, the House Sparrow became a model bird species for studies in behaviour and ecology in the latter half of the 20th century, along with species like the Zebra Finch, Rock Pigeon, Red-winged Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, and Pied Flycatcher. Because it was introduced to North America in the 1850s and spread rapidly across the continent, the House Sparrow was/is considered to be a pest and is not protected by the Migratory Birds Convention Act. This may be one reason that large collections of this bird were possible in the 1960s and 70s for the purpose of looking for morphological evolution (adaptation and drift) across the continent, among other things. The species is still common enough to be the focus of several exciting research programs in both North America and Europe, and has been the subject of more than 5000 papers, at least two ‘recent’ science-based books, and an AOU Ornithological Monograph.


A new paper by Matthew Holmes in the Journal of the History of Biology documents an interesting and largely forgotten period of debate about the House Sparrow in the UK in the late 1800s, one that ushered in a new research discipline called ‘Economic Ornithology’: “Economic ornithology would examine the economic impact of birds on agriculture, a topic neglected by ‘‘recognized text-books on ornithology’’ which only provided readers with ‘‘vague and agriculturally useless statements’’ (Cathcart, 1892).

The debate centred around the sparrow’s influence on agricultural with one side claiming disaster and the other that the bird was at worst harmless, at best beneficial because it consumed insect pests. Thousands of sparrows were slaughtered in the late 1800s both in a vain attempt at control and to collect data on the sparrow’s diet. The House Sparrow, like all good pests, was oblivious to these control attempts and continued to thrive despite widespread concern: “Local meetings of agricultural societies and so-called ‘‘sparrow clubs’’ uniformly condemned sparrows’ consumption of crops. Once labelled as ‘‘vermin,’’ non-productive species were freely persecuted in the fields of Victorian Britain…” A farmer, Charles Newman, encapsulated the attitudes of the day in 1861: “No doubt many persons are opposed to their [sparrows’] destruction, considering that this feathered race were created for some wise purpose. Such was undoubtedly the case in the original order. But the Great Creator made man to rule over the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field, leaving it to his judgment to destroy such that were found more destructive than beneficial.”

In this new paper, Holmes argues that “Nineteenth-century naturalists of all stripes were driven by an overarching sense of purpose, or participation in a grand intellectual endeavour. Acquiring and systematising knowledge gleaned from study of the natural world was associated with moral, religious and social wellbeing.” By the early 20th century this kind of ‘natural history’ had given way to economic ornithology and a general shift to evidence-based science. By the beginning of the 21st century ‘natural history’ was firmly grounded in evidence such that most field biologists are now proud to call themselves natural historians.

Anderson TR (2006) Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow: from genes to populations. Oxford University Press, Oxford
Cathcart AF (1892) ‘Agriculturally economic ornithology.’ The Times, 16 May.
Holmes M (2017) The sparrow question: social and scientific accord in Britain, 1850–1900. Journal of the History of Biology 50:645-671
Kendeigh SC, ed. (1973) A Symposium on the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and European Tree Sparrow (P. montanus) in North America. Ornithological Monograph No. 14
Summers-Smith JD (1963) The House Sparrow. Collins New Naturalist Series Monograph No.19, London

Great Lakes Ornithological Club

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 7 Aug 2017

One of the pictures on the poster I displayed at the AOS booth at the conference last week showed 5 men who called themselves the Great Lakes Ornithological Club.

Great Lakes Ornithological Club at Point Pelee in 1909

The GLOC began in the early 1900s when a group of six friends—from Ontario and Michigan—who were interested in birds decided that they would benefit from occasional meetings where they could watch birds and exchange ideas. The photo above includes five of them, from left to right: James S. Wallace, Bradshaw H. Swales, William E. Saunders, James H. Fleming and Percy A. Taverner (seated front right). Maybe the sixth man, A. Brooker Klugh, took the picture. Taverner and Swales lived in Detroit, Michigan at the time and the others were from Guelph, Kingston, London and Toronto, Ontario. In 1905, they built the small cabin shown in the photo at Point Pelee and that became their clubhouse. Their club never took on any new members and finally disbanded in 1927 shortly after Wallace died.

Early on they decided they needed a ‘journal’ to keep track of and disseminate their ideas and so established a ‘bulletin’ to circulate among the members. As described by Fleming (1939):

The procedure was simple—any member with an idea relating to birds wrote it out on a sheet of eight by ten inch paper, and posted it to the secretary in an especially printed envelope marked “Printer’s Mss.” The secretary, if so inclined, added comments on a separate sheet of paper and forwarded the bulletin to the next member and so on in rotation, till it reached the original sender who removed his contribution and forwarded the remaining manuscript to the secretary who also removed his from the file and added any new matter that had come to hand with his comments but always on a fresh sheet of paper, thus the bulletin passed in rotation to the six members but never grew too bulky.

Little did they know they were anticipating the modern blog post (with comments). Their little bulletin was especially active from 1905-1909 and provided a means for the club to discuss issues of “migration routes, injurious species, the mild winter of 1905-6, and even subspecies” (Fleming 1939: 42).

Four of these men are well enough known that I will devote later blog posts to each of them. Taverner was the only one to become a professional ornithologist being appointed to the National Museum of Canada (Ottawa) in 1912, a position he held until he retired in 1942. He was actually trained and first employed as an architect in Chicago, Detroit and Ottawa but I have no doubt that the GLOC was the genesis of his career in ornithology.

Taverner’s hand-drawn map of Pt Pelee

The GLOC also had a hand in the establishment of Point Pelee National Park—one of the world’s great birding sites—in 1918, and in the Migratory Birds Convention Act in 1916, but those, too, are stories for another day. Although they were all, at least at the start, amateur ornithologists, the GLOC had some influence on early 20th century American ornithology, publishing more than 400 papers in The Auk, The Condor and other journals in their lifetimes and making substantial contributions of specimens, libraries, and time to the National Museum of Canada, the US National Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum. Fleming (1939) felt that the GLOC’s main contributions were to better understand migration routes and the annual cycles of birds, two topics that are still of great interest if the myriad excellent papers at last week’s AOS conference are any indication (and they are!).

I think that the GLOC may have been one of very few local bird clubs that drew members from two different countries, showing early on that science and ornithology seamlessly transcend political boundaries, like the AOS of today. There must have been thousands of these little bird clubs in the history of ornithology worldwide, each with its own story and contribution to the growth and development of bird study. If you know of one that you would like me to write about (or would like to contribute a post about) let me know in the comments.

If you are interested, you can read more about the GLOC in Fleming (1939) and Taverner and Swales (1907).


Fleming JH (1939) The Great Lakes Ornithological Club. The Wilson Bulletin 51:42-43

Taverner PA (1934) Birds of Canada. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa.

Taverner PA, Swales BH (1907) The birds of Point Pelee. The Wilson Bulletin 19:37-54

IMAGES: Photo of GLOC: photographer unknown. Original photograph from James L. Baillie, now in the collection of James Richards of Orono, Ontario. Used with permission. Map: from Taverner and Swales (1907)