The Utmost Harmony

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

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

Ernst Mayr ca 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

3. quotations from Anonymous (1883)

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

Snow in the Mountains

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 September 2017

Snow on the Pyrenees looking SSW from Arrout up the Biros Valley 17 Sept 2017

I had no sooner posted last week’s piece about David and Elizabeth Lack in the Pyrenees when there were barn swallows everywhere in the Biros Valley. Until then I had seen no sign of the sort of visible migrations described by the Lacks, possibly because mid-September is a bit too early for that. For the Lacks, there really never was any question about swallows crossing the high mountains: “When we went to the Pyrenees we supposed that it was quite unsettled whether small passerine birds other than hirundines migrate through high mountains.”

I am still in the Pyrenees as I write this on 21 September so I thought it  might be worth telling a little more about the Lacks’ explorations and observations.

The Lacks finished their 1950 visit to the Pyrenees with 12 days (15~26 Oct) on the Atlantic coast near St Jean de Luz. On 22-23 October they witnessed two reverse migrations of Skylarks, albeit at a small scale, with a total of 41 and 14 birds on those two days, respectively, heading northeast across the Bay of Biscay. On both days they saw flocks of Skylarks heading in the normal direction for fall migration—southwest—so this reverse migration was both distinctive and puzzling. On one occasion: “a party of Skylarks crossing the bay N.E. on a reversed migration met Chaffinches travelling S.W. by W. and turned round and went with them for a few seconds before continuing N.E.” , suggesting that some species were going the right way at the time.

On their 1949 trip they had seen a massive reverse migration of swallows, possibly triggered by a change in the weather: “The rapidly descending birds looked like a black snowstorm. This reversed movement was presumably due to the birds meeting cloud or a strong headwind. After 16.30 the southward movement greatly slackened, and it ceased about 17.00, when the wind changed to the north and mild warm air blew up the valley…It may be suggested that the above movement started in good weather on a broad front over the high ridges, and that sudden rain brought the birds down and concentrated them in the valley”. The causes of other reverse migrations that they saw were not so obvious, as in the previous example of Skylarks.

The Lacks also recorded some interesting instances of what they called ‘social behaviour’, where individuals waited to join flocks of their own or other species before crossing water. “If, however, a Blue Tit was travelling singly it did not cross [the bay at St Jean de Luz], but dropped down to the tamarisks by the shore and waited for the next migrating party, when it rose up steeply to join them and crossed with them.” 

Throughout their publications about the 1945-1950 field work they took pains to point out that their observations and conclusions were preliminary. Were they just being cautious, or was this an early example of realizing the need for what we now call ‘replicability’? I wonder if they were worried that the migrations they had seen in the mountain passes were abnormal events?

David Snow, perhaps while still a DPhil student

The Lacks could not return to the Pyrenees in 1951, so David asked David Snow [1]—a DPhil (= PhD) student at Oxford’s Edward Grey Institute—to return to the Pyrenees in the fall of 1951 to make some further observations at specific sites. Thus, Snow visited Gavarnie in the High Pyrenees from 18-25 September and Col de Puymoren in the eastern Pyrenees near Andorra from 29 Sept-4 Oct 1951. Like the Lacks, he saw thousands of songbirds and swallows flying south close to the ground through the montane passes. But he also saw lots of migrants high above the mountains: “On 4 October 1951, with a N.E. wind, D. W. Snow saw a big broad-front movement high over the Puymorens area…Many of the birds were so high that they could not be seen with the naked eye. Their direction of travel was uninfluenced by the contours.”

Neither the Lacks nor David Snow mentioned there being snow in the high mountains on any of their visits in the autumns of 1949-51. In 2017, however, lots of snow fell during the week of 17 September (see photo at top). Does such early snow hinder migration through the passes? Does it make songbirds more visible to predators? I suspect that the migrations through the mountains are so traditional (i.e. instinctive) that nothing stops the birds even in there face of increased mortality when the ground is covered with snow.


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


David W Snow (1924-2009) was a distinguished British ornithologist, probably most famous for his work on oilbirds and manakins in Trinidad. He was also editor of the Ibis, director of the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos, editor of the Ibis, Director of Research for the British Trust for Ornithology and recipient of the AOU’s Brewster Medal with his wife Barbara, President of the British Ornithological Union and recipient of their Godman-Salvin Medal.

IMAGES: photo of Pyrenees by Bob Montgomerie; photo of David Snow from an obituary in The Guardian 18 March 2009, photo source unknown.


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.