Early Birds

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

At the AOU (now AOS) meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2011, Peter Stettenheim [1] gave a talk on ‘Cultural Images of Birds: A neglected source of information’. He suggested that the many images of birds in prehistoric cave paintings, hieroglyphics, carvings, rock art, and mosaics might yield useful ornithological information about former ranges and the process of domestication. I was not entirely convinced by his examples but my attention was piqued when he showed what looked like two owls scratched into the wall of the Cave of the Trois-Frères in Ariège départment in the south of France. Like the more famous caves at Lascaux and Chauvet, Trois-Frères had many images of animals and symbols painted and etched on its walls 15,000 to 35,000 years ago in the  Upper Paleolithic period of human culture in western Europe.

The owls of Tros-Freres

Just before that conference, I had been in Ariège, near the Spanish border, doing research for three months out of the CNRS research station in Moulis, about 70 km SSW of Toulouse. During that field trip, I had visited the fabulous Grottes de Niaux, about 25 km due south of Foix, where I went on a tour of the magical paintings of aurochs, bison horses, deer and an even an ibex that adorned the walls deep into that cave. It seemed almost unbelievable that paleolithic peoples would have gone more than a kilometre into a cave to makes those paintings, even if they were done for shamanic rituals as is now supposed.

Paleolithic caves (open circles) in the south of France: T=Trois Fréres, P=Le Portel, N=Niaux, C=Chauvez, L=Lascaux

I did not see any paintings of birds in the cave at Niaux, and a quick search on the internet after I heard Stettenheim’s talk did not reveal any birds on the walls of the cave at Lascaux and only one—a very nice owl— at Chauvet [2]. I asked my colleague Alexis Chaine, a CNRS researcher at Moulis, whether he knew of any birds in cave paintings and he in turn asked the former director of the research station, Alain Mangin, who was a cave biology expert. Alain was reasonably certain that there was an owl in a cave on private property about 50 km east of Moulis so we asked him if we could get permission to explore that cave.  A year later that permission was granted so Alain, Alexis and I, led by two friends of the property owner, visited that private cave—called Le Portel—in June 2012.

Le Portel cave. LEFT Alexis Chaine (blue) & Alain Mangin (red) at the cave entrance; TOP RIGHT unlocking the caves; BOTTOM RIGHT my least favourite part of visiting the cave

To get to the cave entrance, we walked about 500 m through the forest to what looked like nothing more than a small hole beside a big rock. Inside the hole, a locked grate kept out intruders. We unlocked the grate and down we went, squeezing ourselves through the narrow entrance. I am somewhat claustrophobic so the descent into a small hole in the ground to crawl, slither and walk underground for a few hours in a dark place under thousands of tonnes of rock is not much fun for me. But, on the other hand, I have never been one to pass up on what seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. So in I went with headlamp, waterproof gear, and an iPhone that I knew would be no use underground except to take some pictures.

This, on the other hand, made the claustrophobia bearable

Within a half hour, we came across the first paintings of the usual bison, horses, and even what looked like a human. Then all of a sudden there it was, the owl, distinctive in both overall shape and its v-shaped bill. We saw maybe 50 paleolithic paintings in our three hours underground  but only the one bird. There have also been birds found in more recent cave paintings in Australia, but they are outnumbered by the mammals by at least 100 (or maybe even 1000) to 1 in cave art worldwide

The owl at Le Portel

When I told Stettenheim about this owl, he responded that “The owl image that you saw at Le Portel is new to me and very interesting. That cave is well known to paleo-archaeologists, but they seem to have noticed only the large mammals, never the bird. The occurrence of owls both here at and at Trois Frères indicates that the bird was important to the people who drew it.” 

Assuming that the animals shown in cave art were important to the people who painted them, I think we can conclude, from their rarity in the caves, that birds were actually not very important to paleolithic peoples, at least in Europe. For most prehistoric peoples, large mammals were probably the main source of animal protein. Birds were probably too small and too hard to catch–except when breeding at high densities–to be worth bothering with. The Inuit of northern Canada, for example, seemed to take birds for food only during the breeding season and only at dense colonies like those of murres and geese where eggs, offspring and adults could be gathered in numbers [3].

As Jeremy Mynott describes in his new book [4], it was not until cities and towns sprang up during what is called the Neolithic Revolution, about 5500 years ago, that humans really started to pay much attention to birds. And the rest is history, literally.


  • Lorblanchet M (1995) Les Grottes Ornées de la Préhistoire: nouveaux regards. Paris: Editions Errance.
  • Lucas AM, Stettenheim PR (1972) Avian anatomy: integument. Parts I and II. Agriculture Handbook 362. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture.
  • Mynott J (2018) Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Sandars N (1992) Prehistoric Art in Europe, 2nd Edition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Sieveking A, Sieveking G (1962) The Caves of France and Northern Spain: a guide. London: Vista Books.


  1. Peter Stettenheim: (1928-2013) was an expert on the integument (including feathers) of birds (see Lucas and Stettenheim 1972). He was also editor of The Condor and one of the driving forces in the establishment of the Birds of North America series, now online here
  2. birds in other paleolithic caves: there is a bird-like totem painted on  the wall at Lascaux, but it appears to be a staff or statue with a bird figure at the top, rather than a representation of a specific bird species
  3. prehistoric Inuit hunting birds: see this previous post for example
  4. new book: see Mynott (2018), which is now in my queue of books to read and review on this blog

IMAGES: all photos from Le Portel by the author; map modified from one online here; owls at Tros-Frères from Lorblanchet (1995) available with additional information here

Lives lived

Guest Post
BY: Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 5 February 2018

Ornithologists are people too! When Bob Montgomerie, Jo Wimpenny and I wrote Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin (2014) our aim was to make the history of ornithology interesting, or at least more interesting than is usually the case, by focusing on the lives of ornithologists, with all their foibles, enthusiasms and idiosyncrasies. And what an intriguing and exciting bunch many of them proved to be!

Finding biographical information was sometimes easy, sometimes difficult, depending on how famous, or in some cases, infamous, the person was. Celebrated ornithologists typically receive multiple obituaries, including those published in the journals of the societies to which they belonged. Others have written their own biographies, including David Lack —one the twentieth-century’s most outstanding ornithologists — who some years before he died composed his own obituary for the Ibis. Margaret Morse Nice, famous for her song sparrow studies, wrote a much longer autobiographical account, Research is a Passion with Me, undoubtedly because she had lots to write (whereas David Lack felt he’d led an uneventful life [2]).


Many less famous ornithologists, both then and now, lead lives absent of major discoveries or disputes, making it much less likely that they’ll receive obituaries or biographies. Writing a biography of such individuals often requires time-consuming research that can be both frustrating and fascinating — rather like fishing: rarely a bite, but when you hook something, wonderfully satisfying.

Several years ago, I became interested in how in the 1920s, a biology high-school teacher Hans Duncker, who with the help of an amateur bird-keeper, created a red canary. What a mission — both mine and his! As a native German Duncker, wrote nothing in English, and I, unable to read German, created a self-inflicted challenge that would have been impossible without the help of two good friends: Karl Schulze-Hagen and Goetz Palfner, who could translate the German for me. Much of Duncker’s history was hidden away in various archives and, because of his war-time activities, not readily available, even to German researchers.

IMG_6213As the history of ornithology becomes an increasingly respectable and relevant research topic, more and more ornithologists see writing biographies as a worthwhile exercise. Some recent examples include: Mearns and Mearns’s John Kirk Townsend; Hale’s Sacred Ibis: the Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram; Nelson & Elliott‘s The Curious Mr Catesby; McGhie’s Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology.

IMG_6215A recent innovation, fuelled and facilitated by technology is the self-published autobiography. Examples here include those by Bryan Nelson [3], famous for his comparative studies of gannets and boobies, and by David Snow, who pioneered the study of frugivory, sexual selection and avian mating systems, beautifully summarized in his wonderfully perceptive book, The Web of Adaptation.

Biographies and obituaries do something different from autobiographies, although an autobiography is a useful resource for a biographer. A self-published autobiography allows the author to use whatever illustrations they want and to emphasise those aspects of their life that they consider most important, with the attendant risk that they may try to create their own memorial; write too much or, if left too late, fail to recall all that is relevant. Publishing, whether privately or professionally, in hard-copy or on-line safeguards a biography; written accounts left for the family often go missing.

I would urge all ornithologists to write an account of your life; keep it concise, personal, with plenty of images, and provide some context about the places and times in which you have lived [5]


  • IMG_6214Anderson TR (2013) The Life of David Lack. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Birkhead TR (2003) The Red Canary. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie R (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hale WG (2016) Sacred Ibis: The Ornithology of Canon Henry Baker Tristram, DD, FRS. Durham, UK: Sacristy Press.
  • Lack D (1973) My life as an amateur ornithologist. Ibis 115:422
  • McGhie HA (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Mearns B, Mearns R (2007) John Kirk Townsend: Collector of Audubon’s birds and mammals. Dumfries, Scotland: published by the authors
  • Nelson JB (2013) On the rocks. Peterborough, UK: Langford Press
  • Nelson EC, Elliott DJ (2015) The curious Mister Catesby: a “truly ingenious” naturalist explores new worlds. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press
  • Nice MM (1979) Research is a Passion with Me. Toronto: Nice Ornithological Club.
  • Snow DW (1976) The Web of Adaptation. New York: Quadrangle
  • Snow DW (2008) Birds in our Life. York, UK: William Sessions Ltd
  • Thorpe WH (1974) David Lambert Lack 1910-1973. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 20: 271–293.


  1. David Lack (1910-1973) was Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology (EGI) at Oxford from 1945 to 1973.
  2. see Thorpe (1974) and Anderson (2013).
  3. John Bryan Nelson (1932-2105) was a professor at Aberdeen University in Scotland from 1969 to 1985
  4. David Snow (1924-2009) was a noted ornithologist who worked for the New York Zoological Society, the Charles Darwin Research Station (Galapagos), the British Trust for ornithology, and the Natural History Museum. He was president of the BOU from 1987 to 1990 and editor of The Ibis and the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club.
  5. The AOS is embarking on an initiative to publish a series of Ornithological Memoirs that will be autobiographies of (usually) senior ornithologists. We expect to begin publication in 2018, so start writing! We will post more details in March and will be sending out invitations to contribute but you do not need to be invited as we will consider any submission. [RDM]

Discovering Francis Willughby

BY Tim Birkhead, University of Sheffield | 16 Oct 2017

Willughby003Francis Willughby (1635-1672), an English ornithologist, is far from well-known. He died at just 36, so his  groundbreaking books on birds, fish and insects were all completed and subsequently published by his life-long friend and one-time undergraduate tutor, John Ray.

A brilliant academic and prolific writer, Ray rather eclipsed Francis Willughby. When I wrote The Wisdom of Birds, I applauded Ray’s work, and indeed, my book’s title was chosen to reflect his remarkable insights into bird biology in Ray’s own book The Wisdom of God.

To obtain a portrait of Francis Willughby for my new book, I visited the Willughby family home. While there, I made a complimentary remark about John Ray and was told, rather firmly, that it was Francis Willughby rather than Ray who was the genius. That rebuke made me realise just how much Willughby had been ignored and I wondered if he deserved some more attention. To learn more about Francis Willughby, I obtained funds from the Leverhulme Trust for what they called an ‘International Network’ grant. That generous funding allowed me to join forces with a number of science historians for what would become one of the most engaging and stimulating projects of my entire career.

Plate XX from Ray (1678)

Willughby’s role as an ornithologist was well known, because the first of his books completed by Ray was entitled The Ornithology of Francis Willughby, published (in Latin) in 1676 then in an extended English edition two years later. In contrast, Willughby’s work on the fishes, Historia Piscium, and insects, Historia Insectorum, were published only in Latin, and Willughby is not even mentioned on the title page of the insect book.

It is ironic that John Ray laboured so hard and so long to bring his friend’s works to public attention as all of those volumes seemed to highlight Ray’s talents more than Willughby’s. In addition, most of Willughby’s papers were lost as they were passed back and forth between different colleagues of Ray’s. Without those papers, we knew that our investigation of Willughby’s life was going to be a challenge.

The assembled team—Isabelle Charmantier, David Cram, Meghan Doherty, Mark Greengrass, Daisy Hildyard, Dorothy Johnston, Sachiko Kusukawa, Brian Ogilivie, William Poole, Chris Preston, Anna Marie Roos, Richard Serjeantson and Paul Smith—was absolutely remarkable in discovering a vast amount of previously unknown information. The reason we were able to do so much was mainly because we had access to the “Willughby Archive” (referred to as the Middleton Collection, held at the University of Nottinghan) that had not previously been examined in detail. This archive holds Willughby’s commonplace book, some letters, his herbarium, and collections of wildlife paintings that he accumulated—a true treasure trove.

As well as being a pioneer in the scientific revolution, Willughby—we discovered—was an accomplished mathematician, with a fascination for games of chance (such as dice and cards). He was also intrigued by language and at Cambridge as an undergraduate he experimented in “chymistry”—a blend of chemistry and alchemy—much as Isaac Newton had done.

The end products of our research project are two books: an edited academic volume Virtuoso by Nature: The scientific worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635–1672) published in 2016, and a forthcoming popular book The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist that will be published in 2018.


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

  • Birkhead TR (2016) Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Leiden: Brill

  • Birkhead TR (2018) The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The first true ornithologist. London: Bloomsbury.

  • 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.

  • Ray J (1691) The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation. London: S. Smith.
  • Ray J (1710) Historia Insectorum. London: A. & J. Churchill.

  • Willughby F (1686). Historia Piscium. Oxford: Theatro Sheldoniano.

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.


What’s in a (bird’s) name?

BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 September 2017

My old friend and mentor Jim Baillie [1] used to delight in the fact that many of the birds we’d see in our birding trips around southern Ontario would say their name: killdeer, curlew, godwit, whip-poor-will, owl, crow, raven, flicker, phoebe, pewee, chickadee, (jay; but see below), veery, pipit, towhee, and bobolink.

Jim sometimes gave his own nicknames to birds, reflecting their songs or calls. My favourite was ‘jib-jib’, his name for the English (now House) Sparrow. Even in his field notes he called them ‘jib-jibs’.


Naming birds by the sounds they make seems very natural to me, but how common is it, really? In English-speaking North America (Canada and USA), there are 10 more common birds that can be added to the list above: kittiwake, murre, quail, kiskadee, willet, pauraque, bobwhite, chuck-will’s widow, poorwill, dickcissel.

Such names are often called onomatopoeic because they imitate, if only vaguely, the sound that the bird makes. In North America, it seems obvious, at least to me, that the Blue Jay calls its name “jay, jay, jay” but in fact the origin of that name is probably not onomatopeoic. The Jay, now called the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), was the first bird to be called a jay in English and that name derived from its Old French name “jai” which means ‘gay’ or ‘merry’ possibly referring to the bird’s boisterous antics around humans and predators. Others have suggested that the French word referred to their sparkling plumage colours.

In the UK, there at least 18 onomatopoeic names (excluding the jay): kittiwake, smew, crake, skua, curlew, godwit, whimbrel, quail, owlpipit, cuckoo, gull, crow, raven, chough, rook, twite, and pipit. The bold names were obviouly applied to North American birds by early naturalists and explorers, as there use in Europe predates that in North America.

And in Australia/New Zealand only 7 species have onomatopoeic names: currawong, kiwi, boobook, kookaburra, weka, takahe, kea.

For the rest if the world, however, the English names of birds derived from their vocalizations are surprisingly rare. In a quick(!) survey of the entire world list of 10,000 species (and more than 1000 ‘kinds’ of birds distinguished by their English ‘surnames’), I could find only 8 English names that seem to be onomatopoeic: koel, nene, go-away bird, motmot, coua, potoo, piopio and toucan [2]. Given that at least two-thirds of the world’s birds live in Asia, Africa and the Americas south of the USA, the difference in the incidence if onomatopoeic bird names is striking.

This raises some questions

  1. Is the naming of birds by their sounds a distinctly English-speaking tradition?
  2. Why are such names applied only to a few species, when there are many other common birds that could be named for their sounds? Why no ‘jib-jib’, for example, arguably one of the most familiar birds in England for centuries (though not any more)?
  3. Why didn’t English-speaking explorers and early ornithologists give onomatopoeic English names to new birds that they discovered in foreign lands?

Birds were given English names for lots of other reasons including taste (pitohui), foraging mode (berrypecker), appearance (redshank), vocalizations (screamer), places (Cape May Warbler) and people (King of Saxony Bird of Paradise). Sometimes the names were, in retrospect, misnomers, and potentially misleading. Part of the charm of birds, for me at least, is in the diversity of their common names. The recent trend to change those names to something more descriptive is, I think, unfortunate.


Lockwood WB 1984 The Oxford Book of British Bird Names. Oxford University Press, Oxford

Swainson C 1886 The folk lore and provincial names of British Birds. Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach


  1. jlb
    Jim Baillie

    James L. Baillie (1904-1970) was assistant curator of birds at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for almost 50 years (Cringan 2006)

  2. I am reasonably confident that I have listed most of the onomatopoeic English bird names from the UK, Canada and the USA, but my lists from the rest of the world might not be very complete. Let me know.
Cringan AJ (2006) Once upon a time in American ornithology. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 118: 427-429