Holiday Reads

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 31 December 2018

When I first began to take a serious interest in the history of ornithology, about 20 years ago, there were very few books on the topic. In 1975, Stresemann’s Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present was translated into English from the original 1951 German edition. Ernst Mayr added a chapter to that to bring it more or less up-to-date with respect largely to North American research, but besides some excellent edited works there was little else. This past year, in contrast, has seen the publication of  a dozen books—including three fascinating biographies—that have tapped the rich history of our discipline.

Months ago (see here), I fully intended to read and review on this blog each of those books by the end of the year. But here it is, the last day of the year, and I have barely started. Here, then, is a brief roundup up my holiday readings, both books and online, relevant to the history of ornithology, all published in 2018 except McGhie’s book on Henry Dresser, published in the closing days of 2017.


  • MoralEntanglementsBargheer S (2018) Moral Entanglements : Conserving Birds in Britain and Germany. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. This is both an historical account and a sociological analysis of two contrasting national approaches to the conservation of birds. While this is an interesting, somewhat stereotypical comparison of two cultures, I am not convinced that we learn very much about the needs of conservation now by looking at the moral underpinnings of conservation past. Thought provoking, at the very least.
  • Birkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury. Francis Willughby is little-known today, in part because he died in 1672 at the age of 36, before he wrote anything of note about birds. But with his friend and tutor, John Ray, Willughby tried to revolutionize natural history in the 17th century. After Willughby died, Ray published Ornithologia Tres Libris based on Willughby’s research and ideas. Birkhead argues well that Willughby was the first true ornithologists and their book the first encyclopedia of ornithology. This is Willughby’s story, told as an engaging narrative, with surprising insights into his work and achievements
  • CatesbyLegacyBrush MJ, Brush AH (2018) Mark Catesby’s Legacy: Natural History Then and Now. Charleston, SC: The Catesby Commemorative Trust. This is an unusual but very engaging book by the illustrator Martha Brush and her husband, Alan, who was editor of The Auk in the 1980s. It’s unusual because rather than just write about Catesby and his work, the Brushes traced Catesby’s travels, explored his writings, and assessing how the world that Catesby saw has changed in the past 250 years. And rather than reproducing Catesby’s (not very good) illustrations, Martha Brush has included 32 (very good) watercolours of species that Catesby described. While based on and inspired by Catesby’s work, the Brushes have made this book their own in a way that makes a unique connection between ornithology past and present.
  • Davis Jr WE, Boles WE, Recher HF, editors. (2018) Contributions to the History of Australasian Ornithology. Volume IV. Memoirs of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 23. This is the fourth volume in this series of Nuttall Club publications on the history of ornithology in the Australasian region, begun in 2008. I have not seen this one yet but I expect that, like the others, it will be detailed scholarly, and useful.
  • landfillDee T (2018) Landfill. Dorchester, Dorset: Little Toller Books, . An engaging account of the long association between gulls and humans in cities, inspired by the author’s experience banding (ringing) gulls at a landfill in Essex, UK. With gulls as his guide and inspiration, Dee takes us on a voyage through the Anthropocene and our long and bizarre association with waste.
  • Johnson KW (2018) The Feather Thief: Beauty, obsession, and the natural history heist of the century. London: Hutchinson. This is the true story of concert flautist Edwin Rist who stole almost 300 valuable bird specimens from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2008. Rist broke into the museum late one night and loaded up a suitcase with birds of paradise, cotingas, and other rare and colourful birds all so he could harvest their feathers to make expensive flies for salmon fishing. Rist was only 20 at the time and planned to sell the feathers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in part to fund his purchase of a golden flute. Johnson weaves this story around the origins of these specimens, many collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, and the obsessive fraternity of elite fly tiers. This is an easy read that is one many year-end best-books lists.
  • BelongingLewis D (2018) Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawaii. New Haven:Yale University Press. Focused on 4 birds — Small-billed Moa-Nalo, ‘O‘o, Palila, and Japanese White-Eye, Lewis describes the history of research and conservation of birds in Hawaii.
  • MacGhie 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 and ornithologists in the late 1800s. I have a written a full review for the January 2019 issue of The Auk: Ornithological Advances. See also here.
  • Moss S (2018) Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got their Names. London: Faber & Faber. Even though at least a dozen other books have been published on the origins of bird names, dating back to at least 1885 (see here), this one is surprisingly fresh, interesting and useful.
  • MynottMynott J (2018) Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mynott has produced an incredibly detailed, scholarly, and wide-ranging survey of man’s relations to and knowledge of birds in ancient Greece and Rome in particular. This is as much a cultural as an ornithological history of a long neglected aspect of ancient civilizations.
  • Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist, Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Every professional ornithologist knows about Nice’s pioneering research on song sparrows, and many have read her autobiography, but this is the first comprehensive biography of this amazing woman. Ogilvie has tapped a wide range of resources to produce this definitive, interesting and thoroughly readable account. I will be reviewing this book in detail in a forthcoming issue of Birding magazine. Highly recommended.
  • 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 some parts of one of the classics of early ornithology written ins 1622. Illustrated with contemporary watercolours from Olina’s day, but disappointingly superficial.


  • Biodiversity Heritage Library: a vast and growing collection of historically significant works on all aspects of biology. In addition to the earliest years of ornithological journals like the Auk, The Ibis, The Condor and The Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, among others. This is a very convenient and rich resource of rare old books on birds. [see here]
  • Birding New Jersey—The Experience of Birding: This excellent blog, written by Rick Wright, often has posts relevant to the history of ornithology. In 2018, for example Rick wrote about the origins of some common and scientific names of birds, when the first Whooping Crane was purchased for the London Zoo (1858), the superb contributions to ornithology by the virtually unknown François Levaillant and Magnus von Wright, and the early exploits of both Audubon and Vieillot.   [see here]
  • Matthew R. Halley’s website: among other things Halley maintains an archive [here] of material that he has gathered on the history of science, largely ornithology


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

  • 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.

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)

Ray of Light

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 December 2017

Last Wednesday, 29 November, was the 390th anniversary of the birth of John Wray, exactly one week later than the birthday of his student, friend, collaborator, and benefactor Francis Willughby (on 22 November) who was 7 years younger. Wray changed his surname to Ray when he was 43 years old having decided then that that was really the ancestral spelling. Ray and Willughby are not (yet) household names for students of ornithology, but they should be for they really founded the discipline in the English-speaking world during the late Renaissance of 17th century England.

Ray was the subject of a major biography by Charles Raven published in 1942, a book that has been called “one of the great works in the history of science” but that book is old enough that most ornithologists are not aware of it. Ray published books on birds, mammals, fishes, insects, and plants, and has a book publisher (The Ray Society), a natural scientists’ club at Cambridge (John Ray Society), and a science-Christian educational charity (John Ray Initiative) named in his honour. In contrast, Willughby, until recently, has achieved little more than a passing mention in many of the recent books on the history of ornithology.

Willughby and Ray met at Cambridge where Ray was Willughby’s tutor. There they developed a shared interest in natural history—Ray was particularly focused on plants while Willughby’s specialty was animals. At first Ray and Willughby went on excursions around southern Britain, spending some time on the west coast studying seabirds in 1662. Then, from 1663 to 1665, they travelled around continental Europe collecting specimens, illustrations, and information about plants and animals with the express purpose of taking a new approach to natural history (which they did in spades). They embarked on that expedition with Philip Skippon and Nathaniel Bacon and met many naturalists en route, including  Martin Lister in Montpellier, France. Thus began a long history of young Cambridge and Oxford students undertaking natural history expeditions to interesting places, many of them later becoming noted ornithologists, including Julian Huxley, Niko Tinbergen, David Lack and Reynold Bray. Willughby and Ray also engaged in extensive correspondence with Skippon and Lister after their expedition, gathering more information for their books from them and other British naturalists. Nathaniel Bacon went to Virginia where he fomented revolution.

When they returned from their travels, Willughby, who was independently wealthy, provided the financial support so that he and Ray could devote full time to organizing their notes and collections with a look to publishing several books. Their goal was to publish comprehensive treatises on different taxa based on some of their new approaches to natural history: detailed descriptions of external features and internal anatomy, a focus on observation and analysis rather than rumour and hearsay, a listing of ‘characteristic marks’ that would help the reader distinguish one species from another, and illustrations of as many species as possible. They also broke from tradition by organizing taxa based on similarity of appearance and anatomy rather than solely on the organisms’ habitats or ways of life.

Willughby died of pleurisy at the age of 36, before they had finished a single volume, so Ray took up the task of bringing Willughby’s first volume—on birds— to print, based on Willughby’s extensive notes and drafts. This 489-page volume was published in Latin in 1676 with the title Francisci Willughbeii…Ornithologiae libri tres [The ornithology of Francis Willughby in three books], hereafter Ornithology [1]. The three ‘books’ in this single volume are: I. De Avibus in genere [Birds in General] on pages 1-23, II. De Avibus Majoribus [Land Birds] on pages 25-198 [2], and III. De Avibus Aquaticus [Aquatic Birds] on pages 199-295, followed by an Appendix, an index, and 77 black and white plates.


Title pages of the Latin (1676) and English (1678) editions of Ornithology

The Appendix in Ornithology is particularly notable because it describes ‘species’ for which they could obtain no evidence, explaining in detail their skepticism about the very existence of these birds:

Containing Such birds as we expect for fabulous, or such as are too briefly and inaccurately described to give us a full and sufficient knowledge of them, taken out of Franc. Hernandez especially. [3]

Willughby and Ray insisted on clear evidence before they would give credence to any species that they included in the main text of Ornithology. In fact they were wrong about many of the birds listed in that Appendix but good for them for being skeptical.

Two years later Ray published an English translation of Ornithology enhanced with some additional information sent to him by his correspondents, and large new sections on bird catching (fowling) and falconry. Those new sections mirrored the foundations of bird study in Europe where falconry and fowling—along with keeping songbirds in cages—were the primary connections that most people had with birds.

Plates 1 (left) and 77 (right) of Ornithology

Anyone with an interest in birds should read Ray’s Willughby’s Ornithology. I marvel at the astuteness of the authors’ writing more than three centuries ago in an age when the first journals of science had just begun publication, and many people still thought that swallows overwintered in the mud, that the Harpy and the Phoenix were real, and that all birds had been created a few thousand years previously by an almighty deity.  This volume and many of Ray’s 22 other books [4] are available for reading or download from the Biodiversity Heritage Library online.

WMWexhibitionFrancis Willughby’s genius and contributions to ornithology (and Ornithology), and his myriad insights with respect to natural history, games, dictionaries and the study of language are highlighted in a new exhibition at the University of Sheffield (13 Nov 2017-28 Feb 2018; more information here), and in both an academic volume published in 2016 and a forthcoming trade book by Tim Birkhead. I will ask Tim to write a post about that new book when it comes out next spring.

I think that Ray and Willughby had an approach to natural history that is still valuable today: they went on expeditions with friends, they learned from and exchanged information with like-minded naturalists through voluminous correspondence, and they did not hesitate to think outside the box. With Twitter, Instagram and Messaging dominating our interactions these days, we sometimes forget about the value of corresponding with our colleagues even in the few sentences of enquiry or enlightenment that can be encompassed in a short email. 🙂


  • Birkhead TR, editor (2016) Virtuoso by Nature: the Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Leiden: Brill.
  • Egerton FN (2003) A history of the ecological sciences, Part 18: John Ray and his associates Francis Willughby and William Derham. Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 86:301–313 <PDF available here>
  • Raius J (1676) Francisci Willughbeii de Middleton in agro Warwicensi, Armigeri, e Regia Societate, Ornithologiae Libri Tres: in quibus Aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè describuntur, descriptiones iconibus elegantissimis & vivarum Avium simillimis, Aeri incisis illustrantur. London: John Martyn. <read at Google Books here>
  • Ray J (1678) The ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the county of Warwick Esq; Fellow of the Royal Society. In three books. Wherein all the birds hitherto known, being reduced into a method sutable [sic] to their natures, are accurately described. The descriptions illustrated by most elegant figures, nearly resembling the live birds, engraven in LXXVIII copper plates. Translated Into English, and enlarged with many additions throughout the whole work: To which are added, three considerable discourses, I. Of the art of fowling: with a description of several nets in two large copper plates. II. Of the ordering of Singing Birds. III. Of falconry. London: John Martyn. <read or download at BDHL here>
  • Ray J (1713) Synopsis methodica avium & piscium: opus posthumum. vol. 1: Avium vol. 2: Piscium. [Synopsis of birds and fishes]. London: William Innys. <read or download at BDHL here>


  1. The full titles are given in the reference sources above and give a better picture of what this book is about and how Ray credited Willughby with the basis for the book.
  2. The English titles of these sections are from Ray’s translation of 1678
  3. Quotation from Ray 1678:385 where it is appears as the subtitle to the Appendix.
  4. Ray published several books on plants that were largely based on his own collections and investigations and provided what is considered to be the first definition of a biological species concept. He published one more book on birds, posthumously in 1713, in Latin, but I cannot (yet) tell whether that book was his own work done since Ornithology or a compilation of further notes and observations from Willughby’s legacy.

IMAGES: all images from Ornithology are in the public domain, copied from Biodiversity Heritage Library or Google Books online. Exhibition poster courtesy Amanda Bernstein, Rare Books Librarian, University of Sheffield.