Elizabeth Gould and the Heads of Australian Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why illustrate only the heads in colour?

Himalayan Monal (Lophorus impejanus) from Himalayan Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

Square-tailed Kite (Circus jardinii) from Synopsis

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


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


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

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

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

What colour is a Blue Jay?

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

Charles Darwin clearly took his job as naturalist on the 5-year-long (1831-36) Beagle voyage quite seriously. Based on his own detailed accounts, he took every opportunity to explore extensively wherever they made landfall, collecting, describing and preserving all manner of plants and animals to take back to experts in England. These specimens and sightings eventually provided myriad examples that he used in his 11 famous books developing his ideas about natural selection, but were also the basis for formal descriptions of new species, and illustrations in publications by several of his correspondents [1].

Some of Werner’s blues in Syme (1821)

Because many of the species that Darwin collected were new to science, he was careful to record colours, especially those that might fade on specimens of fish and invertebrates preserved in ‘spirits’. To do this, he was keen to use a method that would allow him to record colours in a way that could be understood by others and reproduced accurately by artists reading his notes years later. For many of Darwin’s descriptions in his field notes, he used the colour swatches and names in Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours by Patrick Syme published in 1821.

We know that Darwin used that colour guide because The Reverend Leonard Jenyns, in the introduction to his 1842 volume on the fishes of Darwin’s Beagle Voyage, says: The colours, in the great majority of instances, were, fortunately, noticed by Mr. Darwin in the recent state [i.e. ‘fresh’]. The nomenclature employed by him for the purpose is that of Patrick Syme; and he informs me, that a comparison was always made with the book in hand, previous to the exact colour in any case being noted. [2]

Bird specimens—usually study skins—don’t often change much in colour because the pigments and feather nanostructures that created those colours are relatively stable over even centuries of careful preservation. Thus, Darwin used Werner’s Nomenclature for birds mainly when describing their soft parts (beaks, eyes, feet).

Abraham Gottlob Werner was a German geologist and mineralogist who worked at the Freiberg  Mining Academy in the late 1700s. In 1774, he published the first-ever textbook of mineralogy, and in that book presented a method for identifying minerals by their ‘key characteristics’, reminiscent of the ‘key characteristics’ of birds outlined by Ray and Willughby a century earlier [3]. For minerals, Werner considered those key characteristics to be colour and lustre, and he gave ‘formal’ names and descriptions to about 65 colours [4] that he thought would be useful for identifying different minerals.

An example of Syme’s botanical art, an apple tree

Patrick Syme, an art teacher and botanical artist, learned about Werner’s method from Robert Jameson, the professor of natural history at Edinburgh University. Jameson had studied with Werner and matched Werner’s colour descriptions with actual minerals. Syme used Jameson’s work as a starting point for his book, adding more than 40 colour swatches, names and descriptions to Werner’s original set, and identifying animals, vegetables and minerals that matched each colour swatch [5], as well as describing each colour in terms of other colours in Werner’s nomenclature. In all, 61 of the 110 colours are matched to birds. Here are three entries (COLOUR NAME description examples):

  • YELLOWISH WHITE snow white, with a very little lemon yellow and ash grey Egret; Hawthorn Blossom; Chalk and Tripoli
  • DUCK GREEN emerald green, with a little indigo blue, much gamboge yellow, and a little carmine red Neck of Mallard; Upper Disk of Yew Leaves; Ceylonite
  • AURORA RED tile red, with a little arterial blood red, and a slight tinge of carmine red Vent converts [sic] of Pied Wood-Pecker; Red on the Naked Apple; Red Orpiment

NewWernersEarlier this year, the Natural History Museum (UK) and the Smithsonian Institution (USA) published a facsimile of Werner’s Nomenclature, claiming on the partial dust jacket that this was “The book Charles Darwin used to describe colours in nature on his HMS Beagle Voyage” and that “This charming facsimile edition is the perfect gift for artists and scientists alike”. I teach about Darwin, so I bought one [6]. I am, however, a little disappointed with this book, for two reasons.

First, to make this reprint the publishers have apparently “drawn upon both the 1814 and the 1821 editions to create this newest volume, in which our primary objectives have been not only to reintroduce one of the world’s first systemic [sic] taxonomy [sic] of colors—108 in total—but also to achieve as close a match as possible between our color swatches and those in the original editions.” [7]. To my eye, the attempt to match colours here is an utter failure—in far too many instances at least two of the colour swatches on any page are indistinguishable either to my eye or to my colorimetric instruments. The publishers’ claim to ‘close approximations’ is simply not correct, as an examination of online versions of the 1821 volume will reveal [8]. Looking at any of the online versions will give you a better feel for Darwin’s experience with this book.

I assume that Syme had his books hand-coloured with water colours as was the usual practice in the early 1800s. Those colours often do change with time, but they do not have to, as many bird books from that era still have clear and vibrant colours even today. Syme was an artist so I expect that he was very careful to ensure that the copies of his book showed accurate and consistent colours in every copy, otherwise his book would not have been very useful. Darwin presumably had a relatively new copy of the 1821 edition with him on the Beagle [9]—surely he would not have bothered trying to use this new facsimile edition as the colour swatches are not readily distinguishable from one another.

My second disappointment is with the purple prose of the introductory note by the publishers, two pages describing the original book and how (they think) Darwin must have used it. They say, for example that “Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s writing”. Precision, maybe, but there are not many who find Darwin’s writing to be generally lyrical [10]. Most important, though, Darwin did not actually use Werner’s nomenclature in his ‘writing’ as it does not appear in any of his books. I expect that Darwin saw no need to use the technical terms for colours in his general descriptions of animals and plants in books intended for a popular audience, even though he used them in his notes accompanying collected specimens [11]. When describing the Rough-faced Shag (Phalacrocorax carunculatus), for example, Darwin wrote (with Werner’s colour names in quotes): Cormorant: skin round eyes “Campanula blue” cockles at base of upper mandible “saffron & gamboge yellow”.— Mark between eyes & corner of mouth “orpiment orange”. [12]. Thus the publishers’ claim that “At some points the great naturalist seemed to draw almost painterly pleasure from the fastidiousness of the Werner taxonomy…” [7] seems largely to have been written to entice the unsuspecting reader into buying the book.

Unlike the old joke “Who was buried in Grant’s Tomb?”, the title of this essay is a serious question. It is not enough to say that a Blue Jay is blue—we ornithologists want to know exactly what kind of blue. Blue Jays, Bluebirds, Blue Tits, Blue Swallows, and Blue Mockingbirds, for example, are all different shades of blue [13].

Using my copy of this new facsimile of Werner’s Nomenclature with its faulty colour renditions, I would say that a Blue Jay is Ultramarine Blue, but using the copy at Darwin online or the reconstructed colour swatches here, I think the bast match is Indigo Blue. Berlin Blue is described by Syme as matching the ‘Wing Feathers of Jay’ referring to the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), and different from most of the plumage of the Blue Jay, but very similar to the colour of its secondaries.

Blue (L) and Eurasian Jays (R) with some of the properly colour-matched blue swatches in Syme’s (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours

Ornithologists have played a large part in the categorization and naming of colours for the past 350 years. This should not really be too surprising as birds are colourful, their colour vision is fairly similar to ours [14], and we use colours to distinguish among species, subspecies, sexes, ages and the health of birds. Birds probably use colours in a similar fashion.


  • Birkhead T (2018) The wonderful Mr Willughby. The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Gould J (1838) Birds. Part 3 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.
  • Jenyns L (1842) Fish. Part 4 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith Elder and Co.
  • Keynes R, editor (2000) Charles Darwin’s zoology notes & specimen lists from H.M.S. Beagle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.
  • Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. London: John Martyn.
  • Syme P (1821) Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, with additions, arranged so as to render it highly useful to the arts and sciences, particularly zoology, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and morbid anatomy. Annexed to which are examples selected from well-known objects in the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms. Second edition. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood and T. Cadell.
  • Werner AG (1874) Von den äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Foßilien. [Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils]. Leipzig: Crusius.


  1. publications based on Darwin’s specimens and observations: see, for example, Jenyns (1842) and Gould (1838)
  2. Jenyns quotation: see Jenyns 1842 page x (Introduction)
  3. key characteristics: these were an important innovation in ornithology, introduced in Ray (1676 and 1678); see Birkhead (2018)
  4. Werner’s colours: Syme (1821) is not perfectly clear on which colours were Werner’s and which ones he added. At least 64 were definitely Werner’s but there may have been as many as 68 shown in Syme’s book.
  5. animals, vegetables, minerals: most of the 110 colour swatches have examples from at least two of these groups but there are many blanks in Syme’s tables, presumably because he could not find a close match, which is surprising for birds at least.
  6. buying a copy of the new edition of Werner’s Nomenclature: the partial dust jacket lists it at $14.95 US, ISBN 978-1-58834-62-6
  7. quotation about the facsimile edition: this is from the last paragraph of ‘A Note on the New Edition’ at the front of this reprint. Who writes this stuff? ‘Systemic’ usually refers to the body—I think they meant ‘systematic’; ‘taxonomy’ should be plural; and there are 110 swatches in this book, not 108.
  8. online versions: there are copies of the original 1821 version here and here, and a wonderful website by Nicholas Rougeux about the book and its colours here. On that site, Rougeux has some very nice posters for sale, and provides a downloadable database of information on all of the colours in Syme’s book, including his best estimate of the hex code for each colour
  9. Darwin’s Beagle copy: Darwin online implies that this is the copy now in the Huntington Library and available here online
  10. Darwin’s writing lyrical: to be sure, Darwin occasionally crafted some wonderful turns of phrase, but for the most part his books are detailed, descriptive and heavy going by today’s standards.
  11. absence of Werner nomenclature in Darwin’s books: to determine this I searched for 20 of the 110 colour names in Syme’s book, using the Darwin online search engine, as well as searching for “Werner” and “Syme”. The only times that those words appeared in anything written by Darwin were in his zoology notes and specimen lists (see Keynes 2000).
  12. Darwin’s description of cormorant: see page 396, entry 1756 in Keynes (2000)
  13. shades of blue: I am using the word ‘shade’ here to encompass the three more technical terms—hue, chroma, brightness—to describe a colour
  14. bird colour vision similar to ours: although birds see colours into the ultraviolet and can probably distinguish more colours than we can, their colour vision is more similar to ours than is the colour vision of virtually any other animal, save some primates

IMAGES: Syme’s apple painting and the European Jay photo from Wikimedia Commons; Blue Jay by Bruce Lyon; Syme’s book cover, photo by the author; Syme’s book contents from Darwin online and Nicholas Rougeux’s website

The Invisible Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruffs displaying from Dresser (1871-82)

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

telephone switchboard ca 1900

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

The Birds of …

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 27 August 2018

Books on the birds of this or that region have been exceptionally popular for the last 200 years or more. Once travel to foreign lands became feasible—as early as the 1500s—there was clearly a desire for naturalists to write about—and read about—the birds that might be encountered in different countries. One of my old birding buddies had a library of hundreds of these books—his ‘dream books’. Whether or not he actually planned to visit all of those places was not the point—it was just fun for him to learn about what might see if he did actually travel to those distant lands.

Historia Naturalis Brasiliae

By my count on a couple of used bookseller websites, there may be as many as 1000 ‘Birds of…’ books available, from the birds of continents and countries, to states and provinces, to biomes and habitats, and eventually evolving into field guides to the birds of virtually every country on earth. There appears, for example, to be a ‘Birds of…’ book for every American state and Canadian province [1], and in many cases several for each region.

The first work of this genre to be published was probably Georg Marcgraf’s section on birds, Qui agit de Avibus, in Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae published in 1648. Several other books about birds were published in the 16th and 17th centuries but this is the only one I could find that was specifically about the birds of a particular country or region , at least as indicated by the title. Marcgraf died in 1644 so his research was written up by Willem Piso with Marcgraf as the (albeit posthumous) coauthor.

Jacana from Marcgraf 1648

Marcgraf’s bird section in Historia Naturalis Brasiliae is a masterpiece that was THE authority on South American birds for the next two centuries. Even the paintings are pretty good given the quality of bird art in books by his contemporaries, and each species gets a separate account. Unfortunately for most scientists today, Marcgraf’s work is in Latin [2] and relatively inaccessible. It would really be worth translating into English and republishing if only for its historical value.

As far as I can tell the next regional bird books to be published were Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731 to 1743 and Eleazar Albin’s A Natural History of British Song Birds in 1731. Albin’s was probably the first regional bird book to be exclusively about birds. The 18th and, particularly the 19th, centuries saw a flourishing of regional bird books in Europe and North America with books on British Birds alone appearing every few years in the late 1800s [3].

BoNlaunchLast week, at the International Ornithological Congress in Vancouver, UBC Press launched a new book, Birds of Nunavut [4], a 2-volume work containing species accounts and subject chapters, profusely illustrated with photos of birds, habitats, nests, eggs, and chicks. The book contains full species accounts of 150 breeding, and 145 non-breeding species that summarize life histories appearances, ranges, conservation status, and research conducted in Nunavut.

While this new book is likely to be of tremendous use to libraries, schools and environmental biologists in northern Canada, it may be an—albeit very fine—example of a dying genre of bird books. With the ready availability of information about birds on the internet—at Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Birds of North America Online, xeno-canto, ebird, for example—I really do not see much point in regional books that publish extensive information on life histories, appearance, ranges and songs. That information on the internet is likely to be more extensive, more up-to-date, and more readily searchable than could be achieved in a printed book. A few regional bird books—like Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond’s Birds of Northern Melanesia—seemed to herald a change in regional bird books by focusing on broad patterns as well as ecological and evolutionary analyses. But not many authors have risen to that challenge.

Despite my reservations, I have little doubt that books on the Birds of … will continue to be published at regular intervals. I do most of my reading on my tablet but still, when it comes to reading about—and dreaming about—birds, nothing beats a good book.


  • Albin E (1731) A Natural History of Birds: illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates, curiously engraven from the life (v. 1). London: Printed for the author and sold by William Innys in St. Paul’s Church yard, John Clarke under the Royal-Exchange, Cornhill, and John Brindley at the King’s Arms in New Bond-Street.

  • Catesby M (1731–43). The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London: Privately published.

  • Marcgraf G. (1648) Qui agit de avibus. in Piso, W, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. Lugdunum Batavorum and Amstelodami: Apud Franciscum Hackium and Apud Lud. Elzevirium.

  • Mayr E, Diamond JM (2001) The birds of northern Melanesia: speciation, ecology & biogeography. New York: Oxford University Press.

  •  Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors (2018) The Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press


  1. books for every state and province: I did not search for all 60 regions but instead randomly sampled 12 titles on Amazon and each one yielded a half dozen books or more
  2. Marcgraf’s work is in Latin: like many students of my generation, I studied Latin for 5 years in high school and one in university. While I have found that education to be immensely useful, and I can read Marcgraf’s work, a good translation requires a proper Latin scholar.
  3. Books on British Birds: a quick survey of online bookstores yielded more than 30 books with ‘British Birds in the tile published between 1750 and 1900
  4. Birds of Nunavut: see also here. I wrote a couple of chapters and 11 species accounts for this book so I am not the least bit impartial.

Being Francis Willughby

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 16 July 2018

Last week I posted a list of recently published books relevant to the history of ornithology. This week I will begin to review them, one at a time, as I finish reading each one. I am a slow reader, so don’t expect me to finish before the end of the year.

This first review is about a very recent book by my friend, colleague and collaborator, Tim Birkhead, at the University of Sheffield. Tim and I have been friends for 30 years, so this review comes to you with a host of disclaimers and biases [1]. One distinct advantage of writing a book review on a blog—rather than for a scientific journal or the popular press—is that I can write in a less formal, more intimate, and ultimately, I hope, more interesting format.

So, here’s a book published in May 2018, by Bloomsbury, who have published some of Tim’s other recent books, as well as the entire Harry Potter series.

WMWBirkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr. Willughby. London: Bloomsbury

About 20 years ago, Tim wrote to me to ask who I thought was the first real ornithologist. He knew that I knew that Aristotle, Frederick II, and Aldrovandi (and others) had written about birds a long time ago, but he wanted to know who I thought had actually written about ornithology in a way that provided the foundation for development of our discipline. 

I guessed John Ray, who had written Ornithologia Tres Libris in 1676 and that was exactly what Tim was thinking, too. But I think he was more than a little surprised that I had even heard about that book.

I had actually spent a couple of hours with the English edition of Ray’s Ornithologia in the rare book collection at McGill University in 1974. I started my PhD at McGill in the fall of 1973 and soon began spending every Friday morning in their fabulous Blacker-Wood Library of Ornithology and Zoology. There weren’t many of us interested in birds at McGill so I usually had the place to myself and got to know the new Blacker-Wood librarian, Eleanor MacLean, quite well. One day she asked if I’d like to see the rare book collection and that’s where I saw 3 copies of the English edition of Ray published in 1678, one of which had all the birds in colour.

Ray1678coverWhen, more than 25 years later, I told Tim about this experience, he thought I must have been mistaken about the coloured edition because the book was not hand coloured. When we visited the library in 2008, sure enough both the hand-coloured book—and Eleanor MacLean—were still there. That unique copy of this book was ostensibly given to Samuel Pepys by Ray himself, and had been purchased by the library’s founder, Casey Wood, in 1922 [2].

Tim was convinced that Ray’s book was an under appreciated masterpiece, so he used it as the foundation for his first book on the history of ornithology *The Wisdom of Birds*, the title of which is a paean to Ray’s best-known work, *The Wisdom of God* [3].

Tim was also convinced that Francis Willugby’s contributions to the book were also under appreciated, to the point that Willughby was virtually unknown, and largely ignored in the history of science in general and ornithology in particular. Willughby and Ray were friends and collaborators but Willughby died when he was only 36, before he had published anything about birds, leaving Ray to write up his research on natural history, comprising books about birds, fishes and insects based on their 20 years of study and exploration focussed on natural history.

Ray published the Latin edition of the book giving full credit to Willughby’s contributions in the preface, but—possibly feeling a bit guilty—put Willughby’s name in the title of the English edition The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. 

In retrospect that title says it all to me—this is Francis Willughby’s contribution to ornithology, written by his collaborator John Ray after Willughby’s untimely death. Many others seemed to have missed that point, Tim told me, giving full credit to the ‘genius’ John Ray and relegating Willughby to the dustbin of history. 

In 1943, the Reverend Charles Raven seemed to have put the final nail in Willughby’s coffin with his detailed and fawning biography of Ray, largely dismissing Willughby as a helper who died before he could make any useful contribution.

To learn more about the relatively unknown Willughby, Tim secured funding from the Leverhulme Trust (UK) to assemble an international coterie of scholars with expertise in the life, times and interests of Francis Willughby. The first product of that collaboration was a scholarly, edited volume on Willughby pulling together all of the known facts [4]. Even though Willughby’s notebooks and archives have largely disappeared in the almost 350 years since he died, there was much to be learned, and that volume is comprehensive. Tim’s new book is based on that project, bringing Willughby to life for a more general audience, and much, much more.

Pepys coloured Orn pl XXWillughby and Ray met at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1653, where the 18-year-old Willughby was a student and Ray—some 8 years his senior—was his tutor. They seemed to hit it off right away as they shared a passion for natural history and became friends despite the large gap in their social status—Willughby was wealthy and Ray a poor blacksmith’s son. Together they explored the local area with the occasional trip farther afield in southern England, with Ray focussing on botany and Willughby on zoology. But general ideas about natural history, the demarcation and identification of organisms, and thoughts about how to group them logically were their common ground.

With the encouragement and assistance of several friends, Willughby and Ray sought to develop a universal language of words and symbols to describe any organism [5], to compile a description of all of the known species in several large groups [6], and to formulate a classification system that would group together similar species in a hierarchical fashion [7].

On completing their studies at Cambridge, they, and two friends, embarked on a long tour of Europe, starting in the Low Countries. Travelling on foot, horseback, and, presumably, horse-drawn carriage, they gradually worked their way through Germany, Italy and Spain, before returning home. Along the way they explored woodlands, fields and waterways, haunted local markets for exotic species, visited learned naturalists and inspected their collections, and bought drawings and paintings of animals and plants whenever they could. They returned to England [8] with a treasure trove of material and set to work right away to get it organized with a goal to publish on each major grouping.

When Willughby died in 1672, they still had not written anything publishable, but they must have been close to putting pen to paper. Ray immediately began preparing a book on ornithology based on Willughby’s notes and ideas. Willughby, for example, hit on the idea that each species must have distinctive ‘characteristic marks’ that could be used to identify it conclusively, years before Roger Tory Peterson used this principle in his wildly successful series of field guides. I assume that Ray started with birds as a memorial to his friend and benefactor’s too-short life. Within two years of publishing the original book in Latin, he produced an expanded English edition, presumably to reach a wider audience, and, this time, giving proper credit to Willughby in the title. Among his many other works, Ray eventually wrote up Willughby’s notes on the fishes and insects as separate books, both in Latin and both only acknowledging Willughby’s help, as he had in the Latin Ornithologia.

To make the best of the limited information available on Willughby, and to make his new book more interesting and accessible, Tim infuses the text with his own experiences that parallel Willughby’s. Like Willughby, Tim dissected some of the same birds so that he could see first-hand what Willughby must have experienced. Tim has also been to many of the places where Willughby travelled both in England and Europe, read many of the same books, and studied many of the same birds in the field. In a few places he describes some of Willughby’s experiences in an attempt to recreate Willughby’s voice and experience—in essence, being Francis Willughby—to enliven the text. The result—history, biography, ideas and birds—is, in a word, wonderful.


  • Birkhead TR (2008) The wisdom of birds: an illustrated history of ornithology. London: Bloomsbury.
  • Birkhead TR, editor (2016) Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Leiden: Brill
  • Birkhead TR, Charmantier I, Smith PJ, Montgomerie R. (2018) Willughby’s Buzzard: names and misnomers of the European Honey-buzzard (Pernis apivorus). Archives of Natural History 45: 80-91.
  • Montgomerie R, Birkhead TR. 2009. Samuel Pepys’s hand-coloured copy of John Ray’s ‘The Ornithology of Francis, Willughby’ (1678). Journal of Ornithology 150:883-891.


1. disclaimers and biases: as Tim developed this project we discussed it often and I read some bits of the manuscript for him as the writing progressed. We also wrote two papers Germaine to the topic (Montgomerie and Birkhead 2009, Birkhead et al. 2018) but I was not part of the Leverhulme Trust project nor had I seen most of this book before beginning to read it about a month ago.

2. hand-coloured edition: see Montgomerie and Birkhead (2009) for more details

3. Wisdom of God: this is considered by many (non-biologists) to be Ray’s most important work, in which he interprets the natural world as evidence of God’s design. Such an interpreation was the goal of natural philosophy in the 1600s and Ray might well be considered to be the finest example of that approach

4. edited volume on Willughby: see Birkhead (2016) 

5. universal language of natural history: they were encouraged in this endeavour mainly by their friend John Wilkins, but like the much later attempt by others to invent a universal language—Esperanto—this was a complete failure and they soon abandoned the idea, much to our benefit today.

6. descriptions of species: they focussed largely in birds, fishes, insects and flowering plants. There existed previous descriptions (Aldrovandi, Belon, etc) but these tended to be of local fauna, were mainly focused on external features, and could rarely be used for positive identification. Willughby and Ray, on the other hand, recognized that internal anatomy, habitats, song, and behaviour could all be used to distinguish species. 

7. classification systems: while still crude by today’s standards, Linnaeus acknowledged their work in developing his own enduring system a century later. Willughby and Ray, for example, started by dividing all birds into land birds and water birds, then within each group made smaller grouping based on bills, feet, internal anatomy and size.

8. returned to England: Willughby returned to the family estate at Middleton Hall, and provided the funds for He and Ray to devote full time to their natural history work, even after Willughby died.

Summertime and the Birdin’ is easy

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

Most of my birder friends don’t do much birding in the summer unless they are involved in breeding bird surveys. Once the flush of spring migration, Global Big Days, and the frenzy of territory establishment have passed, most of them spend the summer months from mid-June to mid-August catching up on their reading, bringing their e-bird lists up-to-date, and planning birding trips for the fall.

Acadian Flycatcher nest & eggs, Rondeau Prov Park, Ontario, 1969

It wasn’t always like this. For many bird enthusiasts, the summer months were the most exciting, because that’s when birds were nesting and egg-collecting was an all-consuming hobby. Even as recently as the 1970s, my old friend George Peck [1] and I spent most of our summer weekends haunting the woods and fields around Toronto in search of nests and eggs to photograph. George was what I might call a reformed öologist—an egg collector—who turned his attention to photographing rather than collecting birds’ eggs when that hobby became not only illegal [2] but scorned and prosecutable in the 1960s. George was a professional veterinarian who was well aware that prosecution for egg-collecting would destroy his career.


When I first met George in the mid 1960s he still had his boyhood egg collection, as it was still legal to possess one then, even though you could not legally collect wild birds’ eggs. With the advent of Kodachrome II and decent colour photography George made it his goal—his life list, if you will—to photograph the nest and eggs of every North American breeding bird, and to building the Ontario Nest Record Scheme into one of the largest and most accurate records of nesting birds ever compiled. George called himself a nidiologist, a term I never hear anymore.

Back in the day—as in the late 1800s—hundreds, no thousands, of men and boys (rarely women) would spend their spare time in summers hunting for birds’s nests and collecting eggs, for fun, for profit, or for science. Some wealthy men—like Walter Rothschild and Johnny Dupont—made huge collections that became the nucleus of many of the large collections in museums today. 

coverAnd there was money to be made because often the wealthiest of collectors did not go into the field at all, but amassed their collections through barter and purchase. For some men, egg collecting was an important source of seasonal income, and thousands of eggs were bought and sold both in personal transactions and by dealers. One dealer, Watkins & Doncaster [3], in 1900, would sell you a Golden Eagle egg for 18/6 ($119.64 in today’s $US), or a Honey Buzzard egg for 7/0 ($45.36 today) [4]. Even the egg of a common British garden bird like the Blackbird would cost 7d (54 cents). As you might expect, price was driven by supply and demand, and demand was driven by the rarity of the bird and the egg pattern [5]. Even given the vendor’s markup, a man could make a decent wage collecting birds’ eggs during the summer.



I would never advocate a return to egg-collecting as a hobby or a vocation, but as I have mentioned before, the great—and scientifically important and useful—egg collections of the world have stagnated, having added precious few specimens for decades. Many of them are also poorly curated, protected, and catalogued, though recently I have seen some  renewed interest on the part of museum curators.

As a working scientist, I can’t even watch birds or record their songs without approval from our Animal Care Committee, let alone find nests and photograph eggs. The general public, of course, is not so restricted, but there is little amateur interest in nests and eggs anymore. Done carefully, and maybe under permit, there would seem to be some value in a renewed interest in nidiology, but that might be too fraught with conservation issues to be very attractive to most people.

There are, of course, always books to read in the summer, and this year there is a superb crop of books for those interested in reading about birds. I have the following pile of books relevant to the history of ornithology on my desk, and will write reviews of most of them in the coming weeks. For now, just a brief description of each book is about.

  • WMWBirkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury. [Francis Willughy and John Ray tried to revolutionize natural history in the 17th century. Their classic Ornithologia Tres Libris was really the first encyclopedia of ornithology, with detailed description of all the species known to them. Willughby died when he was only 36, so Ray wrote up all of their findings in classic works on ornithology, fishes and insects. Ray got most of the glory….until now]
  • Brunner B (2017) Birdmania: A remarkable passion for birds. Vancouver: Greystone Books. [A somewhat eclectic compilation of interesting stories about some of the characters that populate the history of ornithology.]
  • Johnson KW (2018) The Feather Thief: Beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century. London: Hutchinson. [The intriguing story of Edwin List who stole valuable bird specimens from the British Museum to get feathers to make expensive flies for fishing]
  • dresserMacGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, books and business. Manchester: Manchester University Press [While the focus here is on the life of Henry Dresser, from Manchester, UK, this book is a superb window on the state of ornithology in the late 1800s]
  • Olina GP (2018) Pasta for Nightingales: A 17th century handbook of bird-care and Folklore. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press [this is the first English translation, by Kate Clayton, of one of the classics of early ornithology written ins 1622. Replete with contemporary watercolours from Olina’s day.]
  • skelZalasiewicz J, Williams M (2018) Skeletons: The frame of life. Oxford: Oxford University Press [Despite the cover photo, there is not much in this book about birds, but what there is is fascinating, and nicely places birds in the evolution of skeletons. I have already reviewed this book for Times Higher Education in the 14-20 June 2018 issue]


  1. George Peck: was mentioned in my previous posts here, here and here
  2. egg-collecting illegal: In the UK the Protection of Birds Act of 1954 made the colection of birds’ eggs illegal. In tNorth America, that protection began with the Migratory Birds Treaty Act of 1918, but egg collecting continued largely unprosecuted until the UK act of the 1950s. The history of these laws and their enforcement is definitely complex and will be the subject of a later post
  3. Watkins & Doncaster: established in 1874, is still in business, though they no longer sell birds’ eggs. They moved from their location on The Strand in London in 1956, and are now in Hertfordshire (and, of course, on the internet)
  4. egg prices: are listed as shillings/pence in their catalog. I used this site to convert those amounts to today’s currency.
  5. rarity of egg pattern: see here for my previous post on an interesting and rare egg pattern

Much Ado About a Cockatoo (reposted)

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

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

Marginal cockatoos (numbers indicate folio pages)

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

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

  1. Frederick_II_and_eagle
    Frederick II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Land and marine trade routes in mediaeval times.

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


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

  • Frederick II (~1245) De arte venandi cum avibus. Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, codex Ms. Pal. Lat. 1071.
  • Kinzelbach R (2008) Modi auium – Die Vogelarten im Falkenbuch des Kaisers Friedrich II’. pp 62–135 in Vol 2 of Kaisers Friedrich II 1194–1250: Welt und Kultur des Mittelmeerraums (ed. Ermete K, Mamoun Fansa M, and Carsten Ritzau C). Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.
  • Rowley, I. (2018). Cockatoos (Cacatuidae). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from https://www.hbw.com/node/52255 on 2 July 2018).
  • Stresemann E (1975) Ornithology from Aristotle to the present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

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

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


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

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

The First Textbook of Ornithology?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 7 April 2018

Despite their association with school courses, and the ready availability of information online, textbooks have long been—and still are—useful for working ornithologists. The OED says that a textbook is : A book used as a standard work for the study of a particular subject. By that definition, textbooks of ornithology have been with us for almost eight centuries, and are still immensely useful to student and professional ornithologists. Throughout my professional life I have maintained a small collection of hard-copy textbooks—statistics, ornithology, behavioural ecology, evolution, genetics, biochemistry—that I refer to all the time when writing scientific papers and articles, even though the majority of what I read is online or in PDFs.

The first ornithology textbook, arguably, was written by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen sometime around 1248 CE. Its title, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, is often translated as The Art of Falconry, which is reasonable, but the title is more correctly translated as The Art of Hunting with Birds. As the title suggests, the book is largely focussed on methods for using falcons to hunt, but the first chapter is essentially a textbook of ornithology.


Frederick II had quite the resumé as he was consecutively King of Sicily, Germany, Burgundy, Italy, and Jerusalem, with a simultaneous stint as Holy Roman Emperor in the 30 years before he died at the age of 56. He has often been referred to as stupor mundi et immutator mirabilis (‘astonishment of the world and marvellous transformer’) and his accomplishments, conquests, writings, insights, and arrogance were all truly astonishing. As was his fathering of at least 19 children with four ‘wives’ and no fewer than eight mistresses. Frederick is said to have kept at least 50 falcons at court, and falconry was clearly his favourite hobby, after procreation.

From Manfred’s illuminated manuscript

Frederick’s original manuscript (a codex) disappeared during the 1248 Siege of Parma, Italy, but there are several early copies of that original—in two different versions, one of two ‘books’ and the other of six—now held in at least 12 libraries in Europe. The earliest of these were commissioned and probably edited by Frederick’s son Manfred, who was also a keen falconer.

All of those early copies are manuscripts, handwritten codices. One of the best-known is an illuminated codex of the two-book version, now in the Vatican Library. The pictures from that illuminated manuscript are often shown in books and articles about the early history of ornithology [1]. The text of the six-book version is presumably better known for it has been translated into French, German and English over a 700-year period after the original Latin codex was written.

In the six-book version, the first book is a general treatment on the anatomy and lives of birds, describing Frederick’s extensive observations and experiments. Frederick was truly a ‘Renaissance Man’, about 300 years before his time, as he based his writings on direct observation of the natural world rather than relying on an ‘authority’ like Aristotle (with whom Frederick often disagreed). When he could not make a direct observation himself, Frederick consulted with experts and often used inductive reasoning to make his conclusions.

Frederick was an inveterate experimenter and his experiments with humans were horrible, to say the least. He also tried to see if chicken eggs could hatch by the heat of the sun alone [2], and whether blindfolded vultures could find food, to see if they had a keen sense of smell. Like Audubon [3], six centuries later, Frederick concluded, incorrectly, that:

A vulture is not attracted to his carrion food by his sense of smell, although some writers maintain that he is, but relies on his eyesight. We have ourselves many times experimented and observed that an assemblage of seeled [eyelids stitched shut] vultures, whose noses were not stopped up, did not scent the meat cast before them. [4]

Frederick’s book 1 of the six-book edition is a remarkable, and remarkably accurate, treatise on the ecology, behaviour and anatomy of birds in 56 chapters. In chapter 46 (Of the Colors of Avian Plumage), for example, he notes that some species change colour with age, that some species change the colours of their plumage and soft parts for the breeding season, that herons acquire a powder down just prior to mating, and that there are ecological differences between precocial and altricial offspring.

The remainder of the book focuses on falcons, with an introduction to book 1 about falconry as a noble pursuit, book 2 on how to catch and train birds of prey, book 3 about the different kinds of lures used by falconers, book 4 on how to hunt cranes with Gyrfalcons, book 5 on hunting herons with Sacre Falcons, and the final book on hunting water birds with Peregrines.

Frederick fought wars with the Pope and was variously labelled a heretic, the antichrist, and the devil. Not surprisingly, then, his work was suppressed (hidden?) by the Catholic Church and remained virtually unknown to those interested in birds for the next 350 years. In the early 14th century, the two-book codex was translated into French, and in 1596 the Latin version was first printed and made more widely available. It was not, however, even mentioned in the ornithological works of Gesner and Aldrovandi in the 16th century, and gets only a brief quotation in the 17th in the descriptions of falcons in Ray’s Ornithology.

Title page of Wood and Fyfe 1943

Frederick’s codex was rediscovered in 1700s when one Latin edition and two German translations of the 2-book version were produced, including a copy with useful notes by Johann Gottlob Schneider in 1788 [5]. Even then, Frederick’s work was largely ignored, getting only a passing mention in Newton’s Dictionary of Birds in the late 1800s. Then, in the 1930s, Marjorie Fyfe and the indefatigable Casey Wood embarked on an English translation of the Latin six-book version. That translation and much additional material was published ina book in 1943, a year after Wood died. This is a remarkable book that deserves a separate essay of its own.

So was The Art of Falconry really the first textbook of ornithology? Looking at the content you would have to say ‘yes’. But is it really a textbook if nobody read it or used it for study (‘If a tree falls in a forest…?’). By that criterion the answer would have to be an emphatic ‘no’, and John Ray’s Ornithology would be a better candidate for the title of first ornithology textbook. The first edition of Ornithology was published in Latin in 1676, presumably in that language because it was intended for scholars. At the urging of his colleagues, however, Ray immediately produced a somewhat expanded English version in 1678, a version that became THE textbook of ornithology for the next 200 years, and is still worth reading today. Wood and Fyfe’s translation of Frederick is also worth reading and the 1961 reprint is still available on Amazon at $100 US.


  • Aldrovandi U (1599) Ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae. Bologna: Apud Franciscum de Franciscis Senensem.

  • Birkhead TR (2008) The wisdom of birds: an illustrated history of ornithology. London: Bloomsbury.

  • Birkhead T (2012) Bird Sense. UK: Bloomsbury.

  • Brunner B (2017) Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

  • Gesner C (1555) Historia Animalium. Liber 3 qui est de avium natura. Frankfurt: Andreae Cambieriano.

  • Haskins CH (1921) The “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus” of the Emperor Frederick II. English Historical Review 36: 334 – 355.

  • Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.

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

  • Walters M (2004) A concise history of ornithology. London: Christopher Helm.

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


  1. pictures from the illuminated manuscript: in Walters (2003), Birkhead (2008), Brunner (2017)
  2. eggs hatching from heat of sun: see Wood and Fyfe 1943 page 53. Haskins (1921: 342) suggests that the experiments were conducted on ostrich eggs, but Frederick makes it clear here that he was (incorrectly) certain that ostriches did not incubate their eggs for fear of breaking them, and instead they were incubated by the sun. He goes on to say that in Egypt the eggs of the barnyard fowl had been observed to be incubated by the heat of the sun. He says he summoned experts from Egypt to test this but he does not record what they discovered.
  3. Audubon’s experiments with the vulture’s sense of smell: see Birkhead (2012)
  4. quotation about vultures: from page 22 of the English translation by Wood and Fyfe (1943)
  5. Latin edition and German translations: see Wood and Fyfe (1943: lvii)

A Bird’s Eye View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arthur Head’s paintings of the fundus oculi of Great Black-backed Gull (left) and African Penguin (right) showing the pecten (black) and retina (red or brown). From Wood (1917)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

3. Quotations: from Wood 1917 page 7

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

Books about Books about Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mullens WH (1908) A list of books relating to British Birds published before the year 1815. Hasting and St Leonard’s Natural History Society, Occasional Publications No. 3:1-34. [A pamphlet that became the basis for his further publications listed below]
  • Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A bibliography of British ornithology from the earliest times to the end of 1912. London: Macmillan. [Available here. The most comprehensive listing of books and papers on British birds, essentially completing the task that Coues had begun 40 years earlier]
  • Zimmer JT (1926) Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 239, 240 Vol. xvi:1–706. [Available here. Like Casey Wood’s work, below, this is a comprehensive annotated listing of the publications held in a superb ornithological library at the Field Museum in Chicago]
The Edward Ayer Library
  • Wood CA (1931) An introduction to the literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press. [Available here. Casey Wood was not related to the Wood brothers (as far as I can tell) but did a magnificent job of listing and summarizing all of the books on birds in the extensive ornithological library that he established at McGill University in Montreal. Wood includes in this volume, chapters full of historical information on early ornithology gleaned, I assume, from the books in this marvellous library.]
  • PittieCOVERPittie A (2010). Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology—-A Bibliography. Permanent Black: India. [A comprehensive, annotated listing of about 1,700 books that contain information about the birds of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Includes a brief overview of the history of ornithology in the region since 1700 and short biographies of about 200 prominent ornithologists whose books are included in the annotated list.]

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

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