Galápagos sojourn

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 26 February 2018

26 February 2018

Mr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey

My Dear Charles

Post Office Bay, Floreana

My apologies for not writing last Monday as I had suggested I might when I wrote to you on your birthday. We were still on the Santa Cruz II ‘steaming’ from Floreana to Baltra on Monday morning and there was no way yo get a message out. I thought of leaving a postcard for you in the barrel at Post Office Bay on Floreana but that might take months to get to you, or be stolen by a tourist.

We had a great visit to the Galápagos Islands, stopping on Baltra, Santa Cruz (Cerro Dragon and Puerto Ayora), Isabela (Punta Vincente Roca), Fernandina (Punta Espinoza), and Floreana (Punta Cormoran and Post Office Bay) to hike, snorkel and/or simply watch and photograph wildlife. I see from your Voyage of The Beagle that you, too, stopped on Charles Island (now called Floreana) and Albermarle (now Isabela), but you also went to Chatham Island (now San Cristobal) and James Island (now Santiago). Certainly, things have changed since you were in the islands in Sept-Oct 1835.


First, and maybe most strikingly, there are now a lot of people on the Galápagos Islands. There are now settlements on Santa Cruz, Baltra, San Cristobal, Floreana and Isabela, by far the largest being Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz with maybe 25,000 inhabitants (though ‘officially’ 15,000). On top of that a staggering 225,000 people visited the islands in 2015, by boat or plane. The islands are now almost entirely a national park, so travel is restricted to 54 sites on land and 62 for diving in the surrounding ocean. Visitors are limited to about 4 hours per site and must be accompanied by a trained guide.

Fortunately, the places we visited (except Puerto Ayora and vicinity) seemed to be in a relatively pristine state with well-marked trails, no trash, and abundant wildlife close at hand. The birds and reptiles are still exceptionally tame and the waters clear and teeming with life.

G. fortis with foot pox, on Baltra

The (your) finches were also common to abundant just about everywhere we went. They certainly have not been scared off by human developments as we saw them even inside the airport buildings on Baltra and throughout the town of Puerto Ayora. Even we seasoned ornithologists and birders found the species hard to distinguish on any given island so you are to be forgiven for not initially noticing the proliferation of finch species there. The downside of increased human traffic to the islands is that we saw a high incidence of foot pox in the finches on Baltra, and a parasitic nest fly (Philornis downsi) is now posing a serious threat to some finch populations [1]. The finches are so closely associated with humans in some places that there now signs posted to tell people not to feed the birds.

You will recall that John Gould identified 12 species of ‘Galápagos’ finches from your collections. There continues to be debate about how many finch species are actually on the islands, especially as we are now using new molecular tools to help distinguish evolutionarily stable populations that might be worth designating as distinct species. During the 20th century biologists often defined species as reproductively isolated populations (the ‘Biological Species Concept’) but that has proven to be difficult to test empirically and not always useful, in my opinion. At my count there are now at least a half dozen ways to define species and the debate continues in a lively (and I think very productive) fashion.

The Handbook of Birds of the World Online now lists 14 species of Geospiza, plus the Vegetarian Finch (Platyspiza crassirostris), the Grey Warbler-finch (Certhidea fusca), and the Green Warbler-finch (Certhidea olivacea) for a total of 17 species of Darwin’s Finches. I expect that DNA analysis will add to this total in the coming years.

Peter and Rosemary Grant also discovered an instance of speciation through hybridization of an immigrant male Geospiza conirostris from Española Island with a female resident Geospiza fortis on Daphne Major in 1981 [2]. The descendants of this pairing (the Big Bird Lineage, see below) have only mated with each other over the last 37 years. These birds are reproductively isolated from the resident population of G. fortis by their distinctive song. Odds are that this tiny population of the hybrid species will go extinct, but the documentation of this event has given us an insight into a form of speciation that you may not have anticipated, though it is likely to be quite rare.


Sadly, some of the tortoises that you recognized as being distinct species are now extinct due to hunting by sailors, collecting by museums, predation by introduced rats and cats, and habitat destruction by goats. It is estimated, for example, that 200,000 tortoises were taken from the islands before 1900. The tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) from Abingdon Island (now Pinta) went extinct only 6 years ago when the last male (“Lonesome George”) died in captivity at the (relatively young) age of just over 100 years. George was preserved as a taxidermic mount and is now on display at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora. Also now extinct is C. nigra from Floreana, which you saw and collected, was extinct by 1846 having been hunted mercilessly by sailors and the penal colony on that island; and C. phantastica from Narborough Island (now Fernandina) which is known only from a single specimen collected by Rollo Beck for the California Academy of Sciences in 1906. All of the other tortoise species are considered to be endangered or at least vulnerable with populations <10,000 each and some only in the 100s. There is hope, however, in restoring some of them by captive breeding and the eradication of predators.

Chelonoidis porteri in the ‘wild’ on Santa Cruz Island

As you might expect, your name is intimately associated with the Galápagos with an island (formerly Culpepper Island) now named after you, as well as a research station and a hostel in Puerto Ayora, a tortoise (C. darwini), and, of course, those finches.

Yr obd srvt



  • Darwin C (1840) The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R.N., during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Grant BR, Grant PR (2008) Fission and fusion of Darwin’s finches populations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363:2821–2829.
  • Kleindorfer S, Dudaniec RY (2006) Increasing prevalence of avian poxvirus in Darwin’s finches and its effect on male pairing success. Journal of Avian Biology 37:69–76.
  • Koop JAH, Kim PS, Knutie SA, Adler F, Clayton DH (2016) An introduced parasitic fly may lead to local extinction of Darwin’s finch populations. Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 511–518.


1. parasitic nest fly and foot pox: see Koop et al. 2016 on the fly and Kleindorfer and Dudaniek on the pox

2. speciation through hybridization: see Grant and Grant (2008)

IMAGES: Big Bird lineage from; Galapagos map from; Post Office Bay photo from Wikimedia Commons; all other photos by the author

Birthday wishes

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 12 February 2018

DarwinsgraveMr Charles Darwin
Westminster Abbey
20 Deans Yd
London SW1P 3PA

My Dear Charles (if I may)

Happy 209th birthday! 

I know that a few people have written to you [1] in the 132 years since you shuffled off this mortal coil, but I thought it high time we brought you up to date on the research inspired by those drab little finches that you collected in the Galápagos Islands. I am not really sure how long it takes for letters to reach you at your new address [2] but the current evidence suggests that it might take forever. But still…

You presumably know about the several Galápagos expeditions that took place during your lifetime. As soon as John Gould had figured out that there were actually 12 species of finches in your collection, and that there were different combinations of species on different islands, the floodgates were opened.

You will remember poor old Thomas Edmonstone [3] who went to the islands on HMS Herald in 1845. You had asked him specifically to collect finches from as many different islands as he could visit and to keep careful records as to which specimens were from which island, as you had not properly labelled all of your own finch specimens. Sadly, he died on that voyage and his records were virtually indecipherable.

Then Simeon Habel went out in 1868 and stayed for 6 months, making an extensive bird collection that ended up in Vienna. Percy Sclater and Osbert Salvin [4] published a little about that collection. Finally, your old nemesis, Luis Agassiz [5], went to the islands for only 9 days in 1873 but his crew still collected a lot of specimens for the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz, as you no doubt expected, could not see what all the fuss was about over the finches and remained a devout creationist.

It has always been pretty clear to me that the finches fascinated you. Even in your notes from the Beagle voyage you could already tell that they were closely related to some mainland species and realized that they were all related, even if, at the time, you thought that many of the finches on different islands were just morphologically differentiated races of the same species. As you said in your ‘Ornithological Notes‘:

These birds are closely allied in appearance to the Thenca of Chile or Callandra of la Plata. In their habits I cannot point out a single difference; — They are lively inquisitive, active run fast, frequent houses to pick the meat of the Tortoise, which is hung up, — sing tolerably well; are said to build a simple open nest. — are very tame, a character in common with the other birds…I have specimens from four of the larger Islands; the two above enumerated, and (female. Albermarle Isd.) & (male: James Isd). — The specimens from Chatham & Albermarle Isd appear to be the same; but the other two are different. In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable… When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. (Darwin 1963)

In 1888 and 1891, Zera L. Tanner took several naturalists (including Aggasiz’ son Alexander) on his fisheries research ship USFC Albatross to the islands to collect specimens. The bird specimens in those collections, as well those of Habel and Bauer and Adams in 1891, were studied by the great American ornithologist Robert Ridgway [6] and published in his Birds of the Galapagos Archipelago in 1896. Ridgway recognized that despite all of the previous visits to the islands, not much was really known about the finches still:

Not a single island of the group can be said to have been exhaustively explored, and few of the species are known in all their various phases in fact, many are known only from a few specimens in female or immature dress. No observations have been made upon the attitude the different species of Geospiza maintain toward one another tending to show how far the differences observable, or thought to be observable, in dried specimens indicate the actual grouping in species of living individuals. The anomaly of individuals adult as to plumage but with bills suggesting immaturity’, and of others which show exactly the reverse, remains to be explained and there are other questions which only protracted field-studies by a competent investigator can decide. Until all these present mysteries are solved, theories and generalizations are necessarily futile. (Ridgway 1897: 459-460)

Rollo Beck

The indefatigable Rollo Beck of California was the next ornithologist to make collections in the Galeapagos when he was sent there by Lord Walter Rothschild [7]  specifically to collect tortoises that were sent back to Rothschild’s collection at Tring (UK). Beck was sent back to the islands in 1905 to collect for the California Academy of Sciences, and stayed for a whole year. He shipped 78,000 specimens (including 8688 birds [8]) back to the Cal Academy, a third of which were finches.

Percy Lowe went out in 1936 but declared in his paper published in The Ibis that the finches were all a kind of hybrid swarm with no clear evidence of speciation. He did, however, call the birds ‘Darwin’s Finches’ and you will undoubtedly be delighted to know that that name endures to this day despite a few subsequent publications calling them ‘Galapagos Finches’.

LackDFIn 1938-39, a school teacher named David Lack spent four months on the islands studying the behaviour of the fiches, followed by a few months studying the extensive collection of specimens at the Cal Academy. Lack was already a well-known, if amateur, ornithologist having participated in some ornithological expeditions and published a few papers. Lack was appointed Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in 1945, a position he held until he died in 1973. In 1940 he published the results of his Galápagos studies in a paper in Nature and later, in 1947, in a book called Darwin’s Finches. Lack really established the finches as model organisms for the study of evolution.

To some extent inspired by Lack’s book, Robert Bowman [9]—a Queen’s University graduate—went first went to the Galápagos in 1956 and returned several times to conduct a series of studies designed in part to show that Lack was mistaken about the role of competition in the evolution of the finches. Bob did his PhD at UC Berkeley, carefully describing the skulls and jaw musculature of the finches. Later he studied their songs and concluded that those species that coexisted in the same island differed as much in their songs as they did in their bills, and that the songs probably reduced the incidence of ‘cross-breeding’ as you called it.

Finally (though not actually the end of the story), a personal note. In the fall of 1973, my PhD advisor, Peter Grant, who was then studying competition in microtine rodents, came into our grad student office and asked me if I’d like to go to the Galápagos to suss out the finches as a possible focus for my thesis research. I had just started a PhD program at McGill University a couple of months earlier and was thinking then that I wanted to return to Newfoundland or the high arctic, as I had worked studying seabirds for the Canadian Wildlife Service in both places in the preceding summer. Peter and his postdoc BeakIan Abbott were going to the Galápagos for a few weeks mainly to study the interactions between the birds and the seeds of Tribulus, which formed a large part of their diet. For several reasons I declined, but Peter (with Ian and his wife, Lynette) went and was enchanted, thereby beginning the longest running—and today probably best known—series of studies of ‘your’ finches. His work was the subject of a Pulitzer prize winning book called The Beak of the Finch. I am certain that you would be stunned by the quality and breadth of the work that Peter, his wife Rosemary, and their students and colleagues have accomplished in the intervening 45 years.

I am actually in Ecuador today in the cloud forest nw of Quito, watching birds with a couple of old friends, Tim Birkhead (sperm competition [10], history of ornithology) and David McDonald (manakins). Tim and I will fly [11] to Baltra on Thursday the 15th to tour the islands for a few days. I will send you some photos and field notes next Monday from our trip. That post might be delayed by a day or two depending upon the quality of the internet connection [12] on our boat or in Guayaquil. I know you did not get to the mainland of Ecuador in 1835 but I think that history has shown that your time was better spent in the Galápagos.

Yr obd svt

Bob Montgomerie


  • Darwin CR (1963) Ornithological notes. Barlow N. , editor. British Museum (Natural History) Bulletin, Historical Series 2: 201–278.
  • Lack D (1947) Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Lowe PR(1936) XV.—The finches of the Galapagos in relation to Darwin’s conception of species. Ibis 78: 310–321, doi:10.1111/j.1474-919x.1936.tb03376.x

  • Ridgway R (1897) Birds of the Galápagos archipelago. Proceedings of the U. S. Nayional Museum 19:459–670.

  • Sclater PL, Salvin O (1870) Characters of new species of birds collected by Dr Habel in the Galapagos Islands. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 38:322–323.

  • Ridgway R (1897) Birds of the Galápagos archipelago. Proceedings of the U. S. National Museum 19:459–670.



1. see photo at the top, but also, if you modern readers of this post are familiar with the what3words app or website, Darwin is at, or very close to, salsa.snap.finger

2. see for example a letter from Jerry Coyne on the Oxford Press blog in 2009 here; and a letter from Frank Gannon in EMBO Reports, also in 2009, here

3. 1825-1846; sometimes spelled Edmonston; he was accidentally shot in the head after landing in Peru, right after visiting the Galapagos 

4. Sclater (1829-1913) and Salvin (1835-1898) were both prominent 19th century English ornithologists who were original members of the BOU and editors of The Ibis. Together they published the first paper to appear in The Ibis

5. Agassiz(1807-1873) was born and raised in Switzerland but moved to the USA in 1847 and eventually became professor of zoology at Harvard where he founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

6. Ridgway (1850-1929) was one of the founders of the AOU (now AOS) and was president of the AOU from 1898-1900

7.  Rothschild (1868-1937) was a wealthy collector who donated his Tring estate to the British Museum, where it is now a division of the Natural History Museum and sold his bird specimens to the American Museum of Natural History, thereby establishing the AMNH as a leading ornithological centre worldwide.

8. About 2500 of these were finches in the genus Geospiza alone (data from VertNet accessed on 4 Feb 2018)

9. Bowman (1925-2006) first went to the islands as a grad student, then several more times during his long career as a professor at San Francisco State University until he retired in 1988.

10. It wasn’t until 1970 that Geoff Parker added this interesting way that males compete to your list of important mechanisms of selection.

11. I don’t know if you are aware that we humans can now fly from place to place in giant buses with wings called airplanes, making it possible to get from my home in Canada to the Galápagos in less than a day. The first airplane flew to the Galapagos in 1934 to rescue a naturalist who had contracted appendicitis.

12. I don’t even know where to start explaining this. It’s like the mail without the paper, and messages are transferred instantly (which is both a boon and a curse) across the ether, so you are actually likely to encounter them wherever you are.

The First Penguins

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 23 Oct 2017

While preparing a talk [1] last week about the early history of ornithology in North America, I wondered who might have been the first to describe and identify a bird on this continent. As far as I can tell, that was Jacques Cartier when he wrote, in 1534, about the ‘Apponat‘ (originally in French but here in English translation [2]):

whose numbers are so great as to be incredible, unless one has seen them; for although the island is about a league in circumference, it is so exceedingly full of birds that one would think they had been stowed there Some of these birds are as large as geese, being black and white with beak like a crows. They are always in the water, not being able to fly in the air, inasmuch as they have only small wings about the size of half one‘s hand, with which however they move as quickly along the water as the other birds fly through the air. And these birds are so fat that it is marvellous. We call them apponatsand our two longboats were laden with them as with stones in less than half an hour. Of these, each of our ships salted four or five casks, not counting those we were able to eat fresh

Cartier also recorded seeing Margaulx (Gannets) and Godertz (probably Common Murres) but the apponat referred to here is the Great Auk (Puinguinis impennis). “Apponath” was what the local Newfoundland natives (i.e. Beothuks) called this bird. On his second trip to Isle des Oyseaux, a year later, Cartier wrote “The island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without perceiving that any of them had been removed” [2].

The “isle of birds” (Isle des Oyseaux) referred to in that passage above, was called ‘Penguin Island’  in the 1600s and  was ‘officially’ called ‘Funk Island’ by the late 1700s. Cartier was not the first to visit this island, as Gaspar Corte-Real stopped there in 1501, and it is shown on two maps by Pedro Reinel—one in 1504 where he calls it ‘Y Dos Saues’ and the other in 1520 where it is labelled ‘Yihas das Aves’. The map below by John Mason was made around 1617 and clearly shows ‘Penguin Island’ off the northwest coast on Newfoundland. This map was drawn upside down (for some unknown reason), so Penguin Island is on the lower left margin.


There is some debate about where the word ‘penguin’ came from, though we can be certain that it was what Europeans called the Great Auk, centuries before any of the birds that we now call penguins had been ‘discovered’. The three most commonly suggested—but very different—origins for the word ‘penguin’, as applied to the Great Auk, are:

  1. Great_Auk_Thomas_Bewick_1804derived from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn‘, where ‘pen’ is their word for head (or headland) and ‘gwyn’ means white, referring either to the white patch on the bird’s head, or the fact that a headland full of Great Auks looks white. The Welsh (and other Europeans) would have known this bird long before they found it in North America, as it bred (and was slaughtered) across the eastern North Atlantic from Iceland thorough Great Britain and Norway to as far south as Spain. In 1577, Francis Fletcher, a clergyman who travelled with Sir Francis Drake, wrote in his log about the southern hemisphere penguins [3]: “Infinite were the Numbers of the foule, wch the Welsh men name Pengwin & Maglanus tearmed them Geese.” This seems to me fairly convincing evidence for the word’s origin.
  2. derived from the name ‘pin-winged’, referring to the lack of real wing feathers on this flightless bird. I like this explanation though the consensus seems to be that it is incorrect.
  3. derived from the Latin pinguis, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘plump’

There is quite a good online debate about these origins here, if you are interested, and the several books now published on the Great Auk variously mention and discuss where the word ‘penguin‘ came from.

Probably the first European to see what we now call penguins was the explorer Bartholomeu Diaz, from Portugal, who reached the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) in 1488, but he never mentioned these birds in his notes. The first mention of southern hemisphere penguins is probably in the travel book of Álvaro Velho who rounded the Cape of Good Hope with Vasco da Gama in 1497. He called them ‘otilicarios’ [opticians?] and said that (again in rough translation): “They are as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings. These birds, of which we slaughtered as many as we could, cried like jackass.”

So the Great Auk was the first ‘penguin’. Presumably it seemed logical at the time to call the southern hemisphere flightless oceanic birds ‘penguins‘, as well, because they looked and behaved so much like the Great Auk. Hunted relentlessly, the Great Auk had disappeared from Funk Island by 1800—where the ‘funk’ but not the bird remains to this day. The last individual was killed in Iceland in 1844, leaving its current genus name Puinguinis as the final remnant of its life as the first penguin.


  • Cook R (1993) The Voyages of Jacques Cartier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Gaskell J (2001) Who Killed the Great Auk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Grieve S (1885) The great auk, or garefowl (Alca impennis, Linn.): Its history, archaeology, and remains. London: TC Jack. [available here]

  • Thier K (2007) Of Picts and penguins—Celtic languages in the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. pp 246-259 in Tristram HLC (ed.) The Celtic Languages in Contact. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press


  1. On Sat 19 Oct 2017, I gave a talk called ‘Discovering Birds in the Great White North‘ as part of a Bird Festival at the lovely Ruthven Park National Historic Site in the Niagara Region of Ontario. That talk drew material from a chapter I wrote on the History of Ornithology in Nunavut for a forthcoming book on the birds of Nunavut.
  2. This quote is from Cook 1993:xvii
  3. This quote is from Thier 2007:255

Grandeur and Novelty

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 September 2017

How do small land birds migrate past high mountain ranges? This is not a question that has often been asked in the Americas because most of the big mountain ranges run north-south. But in Europe, where the Alps and the Pyrenees would seem to be a formidable barrier to migration (see map below), this issue was controversial in the 1920s. De Burg and von Tschusi, for example, argued that birds crossed the mountains, while Bretscher and von Lucanus claimed, largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence, that passerine birds must migrate through the foothills and coastal areas at the East and west ends if those montane barriers (see Lack and Lack 1953 for references).

Western Europe with mountain ranges in black (from Lack and Lack 1953)

The debate was mainly about visible diurnal migration where birds fly close to the ground and might suffer hypoxia and increased predation risk when crossing barren mountain tops. Visible migration of songbirds is not often discussed in the Americas but is both common and well-recorded in Europe.

In 1949, David [1] and Elizabeth Lack went to the French Pyrenees to collect some data that they thought might help to answer this question. David was all about data and evidence and had already made a name for himself with detailed studies of European robins and Darwin’s finches.

Elizabeth had been to St Jean de Luz on the Atlantic coast of France (see map below) to visit an aunt in October 1945 and 1947 where she saw “extremely large numbers of Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs migrating inland about a mile from the sea” (Lack and Lack 1953: 271). There is a 4-km wide region of lowlands and foothills there where small birds might funnel south rather than crossing the high Pyrenees. Presumably inspired by those observations, the Lacks returned from 18 Sept – 7 Oct 1949 to travel a little more widely–from the Atlantic coast to Gavarnie in the high Pyrenees–to make a more systematic study. They had been married only two months earlier so this was something of a birding honeymoon [2]. On that trip in 1949, they found that “Many of our initial ideas proved wrong; we often watched for too long in the wrong place or for too short a time in what we later found was the right place” (Lack and Lack 1953: 271-272).

To make a more informed survey, they returned in 1950 on a small grant from the Royal Society to visit the most promising locales. This time, at Gavarnie, they hit pay dirt: “Once in a lifetime perhaps, the ecologist is translated back into a naturalist, through chancing on a spectacle which combines grandeur with novelty. Such was our fortune at the Port de Gavarnie on 13 October 1950.” (Lack and Lack 1951).

On that date, the Lacks hiked the 5 km from their lodging at Gavarnie (see map below) up into the rocky gorge at Port de Gavarnie (also called Port de Boucharo in France or Puerto de Bujaruelo on the Spanish side). There they discovered a major southward migration of passerines, pigeons, doves, and insects, revealing for the first time (at least to scientists) how small birds crossed the mountains. In hindsight, the answer seems obvious–they crossed in the lowest local mountain passes.  Presumably bird catchers had known this for centuries.

The scientific evidence from the 1920s, though, seemed equivocal or possibly even untrustworthy: “De Burg said that he had tens of thousands of such records, but he was so emphatic, and equally emphatic on various other matters in some of which he was wrong, that we treated his evidence too lightly.” (Lack and Lack 1953: 296).


Port de Gavarnie is a 50-m wide pass through the rocky crags at about 2300 m elevation in the mountains that form the physical and political border between France and Spain. On the French side, the pass is at the south end of a 30-km long valley from the plains to the north; on the Spanish side the route south from the Port descends both southeast and southwest into the lowlands of Spain.

In the space of 3 hours in the morning of 13 October, the Lacks watched 795 small passerines (goldfinches, chaffinches, linnets, serins,  meadow pipits, white wagtails, and short-toed larks) fly through the pass south of Gavarnie. Later that day 440 wood pigeons and 61 stock doves passed through, followed by butterflies, dragonflies and syrphid flies in the afternoon at the rate of “several thousand an hour”.

Instead of the usual ‘Introduction’ heading for the beginning of their 1951 paper the Lacks called that section ‘Excelsior’, a Latin word meaning ‘ever upward’ or ‘even higher’. I am not sure whether they were referring to the migrants or their discovery but David was never shy about introducing a little poetry into his writing. About the Pyrenean discovery, he later said “The most remarkable days for a naturalist combine grandeur with novelty, the beautiful with the rare or unexpected. As a boy, such experiences came to me seeing for the first time a new kind of bird…As I grew older , such memorable days became much rarer, for though the beauty was still there, the unexpected was gone…But there was one much later occasion, just after my fortieth birthday, when in lovely autumn weather amid superb scenery, a deeply impressive spectacle was combined not merely with knowledge that no one had written of it before, but that one of the puzzles of migration was solved. This happened on October 13th, 1950′ (Anderson 2013: 111).


Anderson T (2013) The Life if David Lack: father if evolutionary ecology. Oxford Univ Press, Oxford.

Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: ornithology since Darwin. Princeton Univ Press, Princeton, NJ.

Lack D, Lack E (1951) Migration of insects and birds through a Pyrenean pass. J. Animal Ecology 20:63-67.

Lack D, Lack E (1953) Visible migration through the Pyrenees: an autumn reconnaissance. Ibis 95:271-309.


[1] David Lambert Lack (1910-1973) was one of the most influential ornithologists of the 20th century, revolutionizing both ornithology and ecology by taking an evolutionary approach to behaviour, ecology and life histories.

[2] David’s friend and mentor Julian Huxley (1887-1975) also took his new wife Juliette on a somewhat less successful birding honeymoon. Juliette later wrote that Julian seemed more interested in the love life of the great crested grebe (Birkhead et al 2014).

NOTE: I was inspired to write this post as I am currently doing field work at CNRS Moulis in the Pyrenees about half way between Gavarnie and Puymorens. Photo below shows the view up the Biros Valley to the top of the Pyrenees in this region. I have not yet seen the sort of migration documented by the Lacks but the mountains here are much lower 1500 m) and the birds may cross on a broader front.


Tools for Studying Birds

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 Aug 2017

I bought a new pair of binos last week, from the incomparable Pelee Wings Nature Store near Point Pelee (the subject of a recent blog post) in Ontario. This is my 7th pair in more than half a century of watching and studying birds, and maybe the best (Swarovski Pocket CL 8×25); certainly the finest for their small size.

Binoculars are such an important tool for bird study that you could not really be a field ornithologist today without them. For too long, I relied on cheap bins until my friend (and at the time, postdoc), Geoff Hill, admonished me for using a toy to do professional work. And he was right—the Bushnell Elites (ca 1993) that he shamed me into buying allowed me to read color bands and examine individual plumage variation like never before.

Binoculars were not invented by or for birders, but eventually became the quintessential, discipline-defining tool for ornithologists. In his 1997 book, Image and Logic, the experimental physicist and science historian, Peter Galison, suggested that tools might be the main engine of scientific revolution, and not ideas as had earlier been suggested by Thomas Kuhn (1962) in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Binoculars from the American Civil War

People studying birds slowly added binoculars to their field kits when they became commercially available but there is no indication that binoculars were in any way revolutionary for ornithology. Binoculars (as opposed to binocular telescopes) came on the market in the mid-1800s and at first figured prominently in military and astronomical applications, but not in bird studies. Even Edmund Selous’s 1900 classic Bird Watching, which arguably invented the hobby,  makes no mention of binoculars and the first reference I can find for their use in a bird study does not appear until 1923.

What other iconic bird study tools might have spawned revolutions in ornithology? Certainly many great discoveries about birds have been made with light and electron microscopes, tape recorders, computers and software, and DNA sequencers, but none of these were invented for or used almost exclusively by ornithologists.

Here is my short-list for essential tools that ornithology ‘owns’ in addition to binoculars and spotting scopes—tools that I think revolutionised ornithology:

  • metal and colour bands (rings): numbered metal bands were first made and used by a Danish schoolteacher, Hans Christian Mortensen, in 1899; colored markers (silver threads) were used by Audubon in 1803 but color bands as we know them today appear to have been first used in 1909 when Louis Gain (1913) put “some celluloid rings of various colors” on the legs of Adelie Penguins on Petermann Island, Antarctica; the rest, as they say, is history.
  • mist nets: mistnets were in widespread use to catch birds for food in Japan for at least three centuries before Oliver L. Austin used them to catch migrants in 1947. (Was he the first ornithologist to use these nets to study birds?) By the 1960s mist nets were in widespread use at banding (ringing) stations in North America and Europe, and had become an essential tool for field ornithology.
  • sound spectrographs, sonographs, sonograms: although developed at Bell Labs during WWII to break codes and identify aircraft by their sounds, even the first paper reporting on the technology showed spectrograms of five bird species (Potter 1945). By 1948, bird researchers from all over the world were ordering Sona-graphs from Kay Electric Co. (an offshoot of Bell labs).
  • radio transmitters and telemetry/geolocators/PIT and RFID tags/MOTUS: there are myriad electronic devices that can be attached to birds to find out where they are or have been. First used in the early 1970s for bird studies, these devices have been instrumental in determining both local movements and long distance migrations.
  • parabola/shotgun microphones: while the principle of focusing sound/light/radiation with a parabola was know for centuries, the first parabolas for bird song recording were made at Cornell University in the 1930s. In the 1960s, Dan Gibson, a wildlife cinematographer from Toronto, marketed a plexiglas version that became an essential tool for recording bird songs.
  • DNA fingerprinting (multilocus, microsatellite): first developed by Alec Jeffreys in 1984, and applied immediately to a human immigration case involving disputed family membership (Jeffreys 1985). It took only a couple of years before the first paper was published using DNA fingerprints to evaluate paternity in a wild bird, the House Sparrow (Wetton et al 1987). Paternity analysis certainly revolutionised studies of bird mating systems and mate choice.
  • portable color spectrometers (spectroradiometers): while ornithologists are a tiny fraction of the scientists who use relatively inexpensive, portable spectroradiometers in their research, their introduction in the early 1990s revolutionised the study of bird coloration
  • ebird: this online checklist system, launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society is already revolutionising our view of bird distribution and migration patterns in the western hemisphere (example here)

We will explore the history of these tools in more depth later. I am sure there are other tools that have changed the history of bird study, and I welcome your suggestions. With respect to ornithology, we know that both Kuhn and Galison were right (see also Dyson 2012), as the revolutions that have shaped the discipline have been fuelled by both new ideas and new tools.


Dyson FJ (2012) Is science mostly driven by ideas or by tools? Science 338:1426

Gain L (1913) The penguins of the Antarctic regions. Smithsonian Institution Annual Report 1912:473-482

Galison P (1997) Image and Logic: A material culture of microphysics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Jeffreys AJ (1985) Positive identification of an immigration test-case using human DNA fingerprints. Nature 317:818-819

Kuhn TS (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Potter RK (1945) Visible patterns of sound. Science 102:463-470

Selous E (1901) Bird Watching. JM Dent & Company, London.

Wetton JH, Carter RE, Parkin DT, Walters D (1987) Demographic study of a wild house sparrow population by DNA fingerprinting. Nature 327:147-149

IMAGE: binoculars from