Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 8 July 2019
Last week I showed a banner the role of some prominent women in the history of ornithology. We prepared that large banner to display at the recent AOS conference in Anchorage, but I thought it worth posting here for those of you who were not at that conference or were just too busy to stop and read the details. Almost immediately after I posted it, a couple of friends and colleagues wrote to say something like “Wait, what? You made a banner on the role of women in ornithology where you mentioned pioneers like Brina Kessel but then you did not include her in your timeline!”
The reason for that apparent oversight is that we made a separate banner about Dr Kessel—shown below—in part to highlight her pioneering work studying Alaskan birds. We also wanted to celebrate her incredible bequest to the AOS, one that will provide travel funds, research grants and more to AOS members, in perpetuity. I have written previously about Brina Kessel here and here.
In addition to the Kessel and Women banners, we also made a banner celebrating diversity in ornithology. We have come a long way since ornithological societies were run by and comprised of small groups of white men, and this diversity banner was designed to celebrate how far we have come to embracing the diversity of genders, cultures, races, ages, and experiences in the AOS. That banner, shown immediately below with the other two, is a mosaic of photographs of ornithologists composed into the image of a willow ptarmigan, the state bird of Alaska.
Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 2 July 2019
I have been in Alaska for most of the last month, doing field work on St Paul Island (in the Pribilofs), and at Ukpeaġvik (formerly Barrow) on the north slope, then at the terrific AOS conference in Anchorage. At the AOS meeting we presented a couple of large banners celebrating women in particular, and diversity in general, in ornithology. Here is the ‘women in ornithology’ banner for those of you who were not at the conference, or, like me, ran out of time to actually read anything.
Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 3 June 2019
In the fall of 1973, shortly after starting my PhD at McGill University, I decided that I wanted to study a community of hummingbirds in western Mexico. During his own PhD research, my supervisor (major professor), Peter Grant, had discovered an apparent case of character displacement in the bill lengths of two hummingbird species on the Islas Tres Marìas, about 50 km off the Pacific coast at San Blas, Nayarit. Hummingbirds seemed a good choice—both then and now—for a field study as they were abundant, fairly easy to watch, and could be attracted to feeders. Most important for my study, it seemed at least possible to quantify the energetic costs and benefits of their foraging activities and how bill size might influence those costs and benefits.
My initial excitement about this project was seriously dampened when I discovered that what I thought was the only field guide to Mexican birds was the one that Peter had used during his field work in the mid-1960s — Emmet Reid Blake’s Birds of Mexico, first published in 1952. Blake’s guide included some drawings but nothing really as useful as the field guides to North American birds that I was so familiar with. Asking around , I learned that two new guides to Mexican birds had been published in 1972—Irby Davis’s Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Central America and Ernest P. Edwards’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico —both with colour plates.
I ordered them both but when they arrived I saw that field identification was still going to be tough. One of my focal species—Cinnamon Hummingbird—was distinctive and easy, but the other was the Broad-billed hummingbird which looked to me very similar to a half dozen other species that I expected to encounter. From today’s perspective that now feels like I was being overly cautious but at the time I had only ever seen the Ruby-throated hummingbird and the vast array of tropical species made their identification seem bewildering complex. I learned to watch birds with Peterson’s Eastern Guide and Robbins’s Golden Guide in hand so even those new Mexican guides seemed primitive in comparison.
By early October, I had pretty much decided to study gulls in Newfoundland for my PhD when I had one of those life-defining coincidences. My fellow graduate students and I drove from Montreal to Cape Cod to attend the AOU meeting in Provincetown. I told various people about my research dilemma and most commiserated with the problems of field identification in the tropics. Then, in a break between talks, I went to the vendors’ tables and there was the latest Peterson Field Guide—Peterson and Chalif’s A Field Guide to Mexican Birds. The book had actually been published in January 1973 but there was no internet in those days and we usually only found out about new books when the publisher sent around flyers, or we heard by word of mouth.
The new Peterson Guide was perfect for me as it put field identification in terms that I was familiar with—great illustrations, arrows indicating key field marks on every bird , and brief, clear descriptions. A quick look at the relevant plates told me that I would have no trouble identifying all the hummingbirds I was likely to encounter in western Mexico. The following June (1974), my colleague Neil Brown and I drove from Montreal to San Blas in June 1974 to begin our PhD research—he studying Thryothorus wren songs in the nearby highlands at Tepic, and I working on the foraging ecology of hummingbirds along the coast. With the Peterson guide in hand, we made a discovery on our way south through Sinaloa that showed how a previous study of Neil’s wrens had probably misidentified them, possibly because those wrens had been too hard to positively identify in the field.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that field guides made bird-watching popular, and continue to attract people to the hobby and to professional ornithology. The very first real field guide—small enough to carry, with details on rapid identification—was probably Florence Augusta Merriam‘s Birds Through an Opera-Glass, published in 1889 by The Chautauqua Press . Florence was encouraged by her parents and her aunt to study natural history and both she and her brother (C. Hart Merriam) became prominent ornithologists.
While attending Smith College (1882-1886), Florence began to write articles on bird protection for Audubon Magazine, and founded the Smith College Audubon Society. She was very interested in studying live birds rather than collecting them for museums. As a result, she one of the first people to suggest watching birds through binoculars to study their behaviour, rather than shooting them: “When going to watch birds, provided with opera-glass and note-book, and dressed in inconspicuous colors, proceed to some good birdy place, — the bushy bank of a stream or an old juniper pasture, — and sit down in the undergrowth or against a concealing tree-trunk, with your back to the sun, to look and listen in silence.” [5}
Florence’s guide covered 70 species of land birds common to eastern North America, with a few species illustrated with woodcuts from Baird, Brewster and Ridgway’s History of North American Birds published in 1874. It seems to me that she intended her book to be a guide to bird-watching rather than a guide to identification to be used in the field: “Carry a pocket note-book, and above all, take an opera or field glass with you…watching them closely, comparing them carefully, and writing down, while in the field, all the characteristics of every new bird seen” . That sounds like she is advocating taking notes so that species can be figured out back home, with her book in hand. It would be interesting to know if anyone actually used this book as a field guide back in the day. Some parts of her book would have been useful to the novice trying to identify birds that they encountered—like the drawings and some of the descriptions—but the focus is more on methods and the details of her encounters with each species.
She begins, for example, with a short chapter on how to watch birds and figure out which species is which. She suggests using the abundant and familiar American Robin as point of departure for size, colour, songs, habitats and habits: “Begin with the commonest birds, and train your ears and eyes by pigeon-holing every bird you see and every song you hear. Classify roughly at first, — the finer distinctions will easily be made later”  She adds three Appendices with suggestions on pigeon-holing species to facilitate identification, on general family characteristics, and on classifying birds with respect 10 different traits that could be observed in the field.
Most of Merriam’s book is devoted to those 70 species’ accounts, starting with the American Robin. These are charming, interesting and detailed descriptions of the birds and their habits, based largely on Florence’s own observations in the field. These must be among the first published details of the behaviour and ecology of most of these species, anticipating the sort of life histories that Arthur Cleveland Bent would begin publishing 30 years later. In some cases—like the thrushes—she presents information to allow the observer to distinguish similar species, and for many she includes details of song including notes and mnemonics, as shown below.
We have come through a half dozen revolutions in field guides since Merriam’s day, marked by things like printing all species in colour, Peterson’s field marks method, lifelike paintings showing all plumages, sonograms, and range maps. As I prepare to head off to Alaska for field work next week, I will make sure that my iPhone has the latest Sibley and ebird apps, but I won’t be taking any books. Birders can now go to almost any country in the world with a useful field guide, notebook and camera in their pocket. Florence began her little field guide with “Wherever there are people there are birds…”  but now, as a result of the hobby that she promoted, it would be fair to say that wherever there are birds there are people.
Baird SF, Brewer TM, Ridgway R (1874) A History of North American Birds: Land Birds, Vols 1-3.. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.
Bent AC (1919) Life Histories of North American Diving Birds. U. S. National Museum Bulletin 107.
Brewster W (“W.B.) (1889) Recent Literature: Birds Through an Opera Glass. The Auk 6: 330
Brown RN (1979) Structure and evolution of song form in the wrens Thryothorus sinaloa and T. felix. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 5: 111-131
Grant PR (1965) A systematic study of the terrestrial birds of the Tres Marias Islands, Mexico. Postilla 90:1–106.
Merriam FA (1890) Birds Through an Opera-Glass. New York: The Chautauqua Press.
field work in the 1960s: since Grant was collecting birds, a field guide was not particularly important for most of his research.
asking around about field guides: without email, this was a tedious and slow process of letter writing in those days.
arrows indicating key field marks: I seem to recall that Peterson patented this method, which is why no other field guides could use it
Chautauqua Press: the back of the title page says “This edition of “Birds Through an Opera-Glass” is issued for The Chautauqua Press by Houghton, Mifflin & Co., publishers of the work.”
quotation about bird watching: from Merriam 1889: page iv
quotation about notebooks: from Merriam 1889: page 3
quotation about pigeon-holing: from Merriam 1889: page 1
quotation about people and birds: from Merriam 1889: page 1
Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 25 March 2019
Until the 1970s, few women could have called themselves ‘professional’ ornithologists no matter how great their contribution to the study of birds. As I have documented earlier in this series of essays about the history of ornithology, women were most often (i) invisible, in the sense that we know only about their contributions but not who they were (see here), (ii) or working largely in the background for their husbands (see here), fathers , or employers (see here), (iii) or conducting research as at least equal partners with those men but too often given second-billing (see here), (iv) or studying birds as a hobby but even then rising to the top of their field (see here and here).
This week I am highlighting the work of one of the few women to be employed as a professional ornithologist before 1970: Brina Kessel. As a university professor conducting research on birds she achieved international renown for her research and her books about the birds of Alaska. Dr Kessel, who died in 2016, spent her entire academic career at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and her contributions will be highlighted at the upcoming AOS meeting in June in Anchorage. Because her work is ‘contemporary’ it will be known to ornithologists who worked in the latter half of the 20th century, so I am going to highlight here some of her early influences and experiences that may be less well known.
Kessel was born in Ithaca, New York to graduate student parents who moved to Storrs, Connecticut, when she was quite young so that her father could take up faculty position—in English—at the university there. Her mother studied entomology at Cornell but both parents took ornithology classes from Arthur A. Allen. They were also naturalists who kindled Brina’s early interest in birds.
Brina first experienced alpine tundra on a family trip to the top of Mount Washington (New Hampshire) where she was bitten by the tundra bug, a chronic illness that I share with many of my friends. She once quipped that her preference for tundra habitats “must have been a mutant gene that I had” . Gordon Orians thinks that we might have an evolved response to prefer certain savannah-like habitats, so Brina might have been right about her tundra-loving gene.
Brina returned to Ithaca to be an undergraduate at Cornell where she took part-time jobs on the Poultry Department and became acquainted with Arthur A. Allen and Paul Kellogg, occasionally helping them with their frog and bird song recordings. Many of the undergraduate men were away from school contributing to the war effort so Brina was not held back by the sort of misogyny that might have limited her opportunities for research as an undergrad.
She loved that work and decided to seek an advanced degree with Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in 1947. Leopold founded the study of wildlife management and was a leading American ecologist so she set her sites high. Brina had chosen wisely as she was very interested in the growing interest in conservation, biodiversity, and wilderness protection. Unfortunately, Leopold died from a heart attack while fighting a brush fire on his neighbour’s property a few months after Brina began her studies. As if that was not enough, the University of Wisconsin, in those days, would not allow women into their wildlife management program so Brina was unable to pursue a PhD there.
Frustrated on those two fronts, Brina returned to Cornell for her PhD, studying the behaviour and ecology of Starlings under Allen’s supervision. About 90 Starlings had been released in Central Park in New York and by 1950 the species had spread across the United Sates to the Rocky Mountains. They may already have numbered as many as 100 million but their breeding biology had never been studied in North America. Based on 7 years field study from 1945 to 1951 she completed her PhD in two years and immediately moved to Alaska.
Her first job at the University of Fairbanks was as lecturer but she quickly gained a faculty position and by 1967 was head of that department. Over the years she explored much of the state, particularly the arctic and alpine tundra regions that she loved so much
Soon after her faculty appointment, she put in a proposal to travel by boat down the Colville River studying the birds of that region with her grad school friend, Tom Cade. That river, however, flowed into the US Naval Petroleum Reserve on the north slope, and she was told that “You can not come up on to the Reserve because the Navy will not allow any woman on the Petfore Reserve unless they are married, and with their husband” .Brina was sorely disappointed but was able to send a U of A freshman—George Schaller—in her stead. She liked Schaller’s interest in natural history and enthusiasm but had little inkling of his eventual success as conservationist and writer. Schaller later went with Kessel and the Muries on an expedition down the Sheenjek valley in 1956.
While she led many field expeditions herself, Brina also sent many others off into the Alaskan wilderness to survey the birds. She did, however, analyze the data and take a major role in writing up those studies for publication. Throughout her career she also did not hesitate to take on leadership roles, including a two-year stint as the 45th president of the American Ornithologists’ Union from 1992-94, only the second woman to serve in that capacity . Despite, or perhaps because of, her frequent administrative roles, Brina realized that her field trips were “...where I’ve been most content and happy in my life. Out there just contemplating the tundra” .
Albin E (1731-38) A natural history of birds. Illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates… Published by the Author, Eleazar Albin, and carefully colour’d by his Daughter and Self, from the Originals, drawn form the live Birds. London.
Kessel B (1989) Birds of the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Their Biogeography, Seasonality, and Natural History. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
Kessel B (1998) Habitat Characteristics of Some Passerine Birds in Western North American Taiga. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
Kessel B, Cade TJ (1958) Birds of the Colville River, northern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 2.
Kessel B, Schaller GB (1960) Birds of the Upper Sheenjek Valley, northeastern Alaska. Biological Papers of the University of Alaska no. 4.
Orians G, Heerwagen JH (1992) Evolved responses to landscapes. In: Barlow JH, Cosmides L, Tooby J (Eds), The Adapted Mind, Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
working for their…fathers: Eleazar Albin‘s daughter Elizabeth did many of the hand-coloured etchings in his 1731-38 book
Kessel quotations: from interview with Roger Kaye, 22 January 2003, available here
second woman AOU president: the first was Fran James from 1984-86
IMAGES: Kessel (top) from University of Alaska Friends of Ornithology Newsletter, May 2007; book covers from the internet; Kessel and Allen and Kessel (bottom) from University of Alaska Museum website (here); 1956 expedition from USFWS website (here).
BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 18 March 2019
In one of my earliest memories—I must have been about 6 years old—it is summer and I am sitting in my grandfather’s garden as his seven hens and a rooster forage around me, almost within touch. I am watching them closely, giving each of them personalities, figuring out who is boss, who is good at finding worms and grubs, and who is mainly stealing from the others rather than scratching for food of its own.
I was not interested in birds then, but as long as I can remember I have loved watching animals close up. To that end, I kept all manner of snakes, frogs, salamanders, fishes and insects in my bedroom when I was a teenager, often much to the horror of my poor mother when they escaped, as they did with alarming regularity. My second paying job (Dream Job #2)—for two summers right after high school—was to raise and care for hundreds of ducks, geese, swans, hawks, owls, racoons and skunks at the Niska Waterfowl Research Station , near Guelph, Ontario. Every day I got to watch at close range dozens of domestic and exotic species from all over the world, and to raise their babies.
This week I highlight the lives of two woman ornithologists who kept and raised hundreds of bird species over a span of 40 years, and in so doing made immense—and virtually unknown and unsung— contributions to our knowledge of bird behaviour, growth and development during the first half of the twentieth century.
Magdalena Wiebe  was born in Berlin, Germany in 1883 and became interested in birds at a very early age. By the time she was 20, she was already a skilled taxidermist and aviculturist. After her marriage in 1904, she stayed at home where she kept and reared hundreds of birds over the next 28 years, gathering data on the breeding, behaviour and development of almost all of the species commonly found in Europe.
Katharina Berger was born in 1897 in Breslau, Germany, and also developed an abiding interest in animals at an early age. At university she studied both botany and zoology and did her PhD with Otto Koehler, one of the pioneers of ethology. Along with Konrad Lorenz, Koehler founded the journal Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie. Katharina, like Magdalena, was an expert bird keeper. She published several key papers on pigeon orientation and behaviour. In 1945 she was appointed director of the Berlin Zoo, a position she held until her retirement in 1957.
What Magdalena and Katharina had in common was that they were both married to Oskar Heinroth, though not, of course, at the same time. Heinroth also became interested in animals when he was very young. Though trained as a medic, Oskar took a position at the Zoological Garden in Berlin in 1904 when he was in his early 30s, and spent the rest of his life studying birds, with Magdalena, then Katharina, both responsible for looking after the birds they studied, and devoting their lives with Oskar to studying their birds at close range.
Magdalena learned taxidermy from Oskar at the Natural History Museum, before they were married. At their engagement, Oskar gave Magdalena a ‘pet’ Blackcap in lieu of a ring. That pet was a portent of things to come as Magdalena spent the next 28 years raising birds in their apartment. During that period Oskar was assistant director then director at the Berlin Zoo, and studied waterfowl behaviour in his spare time.
Magdalena clearly did not like the idea of sitting idly at home so began raising small birds to learn more about their behaviour and development. She bought some of them at local bird markets but often went afield to collect eggs to incubate and raise at home. Eventually they devoted an entire room in their apartment to the birds, though Oskar was initially a little skeptical about the value of Magdalena’s hobby.
Magdalena was a wizard at bird husbandry and fearless attempted to raise many species known to be tough to keep, let alone rear, in captivity: Goldcrests, Dippers and Tree Creepers, for example. Soon her goal was to try to raise every single bird species native to Germany no matter how big, small or difficult. Over that 28-year period she raised about 1000 individuals of 236 species, many of which were exceptionally tame and remained in the apartment as adults. This must have strained their domestic relationship and their neighbours as the birds were often noisy and undoubtedly smelly. And how did they keep the raptors from eating the smaller birds?
After 9 years, the Heinroths moved to a more more spacious apartment in the Aquarium building where they could devote several rooms to their birds and have a somewhat less impact on their personal lives and the neighbourhood. The Aquarium was built in 1913 and was (and is) part of the Berlin Zoological Garden where Oskar was Director. This must have been a much more convenient living/working situation for the couple. With both facilities and subjects close at hand, the Heinroths were able to greatly expand the scope of their research (and, presumably, the size of the birds that they could house!).
Both the birds and the research took their toll on the couple, as they functioned on precious little sleep during the busy spring and summer breeding season. Oskar was also allergic to either feathers or the mealworms that they raised to feed the birds. He only recovered from his asthma when he stopped having birds in the house when this project ended rather abruptly in 1932.
In addition to developing methods for the husbandry of a wide variety of species, the Heinroths measured growth, studied the development of locomotion, behaviour, and moult. They recorded everything in notebooks supplemented with more than 15,000 photographs of life stages and behaviours. For many of the birds they also drew or photographed the gapes of nestlings, realizing that this was an important signal to parents. It certainly did not escape Magdalena’s notice that they were on to something transformative in the study of behaviour: ‘‘Yes, it is often almost impossible to properly investigate the finer aspects of the habits of small birds in the wild …. If we … wish to get exact answers, the best thing is to keep the birds (in captivity), to do everything for them and observe them continuously’’ 
After 20 years of gathering this information and photographing their birds, the Heinroths began to put it all together in what was eventually a four-volume treatise published between 1924 and 1933. For each species they summarized all of their observations and measurements, and provided a series of 4040 photographs documenting various stages of development from egg to adult (see example pages below). In several of the photos, either Oskar or, more often, Magdalena, are visible, either for scale or simply to acknowledge the tameness of the birds. The book and their work in general is an important milestone in the history of ornithology, ethology and behavioural ecology. While their book was praised at the time, and is still monumentally useful, it and the Heinroths rather faded into obscurity .
After 28 consecutive years staying at home to rear birds, Magdalena took a holiday. The fourth volume of their book was now at the publisher, and Magdalena had suffered a couple of serious bouts of illness and really needed a break. After only two weeks away she suffered an intestinal blockage and died.
A year after Magdalena died and their project ended, Oskar married Katharina Berger. Kaethe had previously been married to Gustav Adolf Rösch, who was an assistant to Karl von Frisch  in Munich. When that union dissolved, she eventually moved to Berlin where she met and fell in love with Oskar. Like Magdalena, Kaethe also kept and studied birds, though presumably not in their apartment as the birds were pigeons and the subject was homing and orientation. With Oskar she published several influential papers on the subject. When Oskar died in 1945, Katharina was appointed scientific director at the zoo and initially spent her time restoring the zoo from the ravages of WWII. Long after Oscar died, Katharina wrote a book about his life and their lives together .
While Katharina’s life with Oskar was productive and undoubtedly rewarding, she outlived him by 43 years during which time she published many popular articles, an autobiography of her own life and a book about birds. That book, with Joachim Stenbacher, was illustrated by Ludwig Binder, and was published as the fifth in a series of looseleaf, boxed fascicles on a variety of European birds. This publishing methods is reminiscent of the subscription volumes of the 1800s, and the original printed species accounts in the Birds of North America series published by the American Ornithologists Union and the Academy of Natural Sciences (Philadelphia) in the 1990s .
Heinroth K (1971) Oskar Heinroth––Vater der Verhaltensforschung. Stuttgart: Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft
Heinroth K (1979) Mit Faltern begann’s, Mein Leben mit Tieren in Breslau, München und Berlin. München: Kindler.
Heinroth M (1911) Zimmerbeobachtungen an seltener gehaltenen europa¨ischen Vo¨geln. Berichte V. Internat Ornithol Kongr Berlin 1910:703–764
Heinroth O, Heinroth K (1941) Das Heimﬁndevermögen der Brieftauben. Journal für Ornithology 69:213–256
Heinroth O, Heinroth M (1924–1933) Die Vögel Mitteleuropas—in allen Lebens- und Entwicklungsstufen photographisch aufgenommen und in ihrem Seelenleben bei der Aufzucht vom Ei an beobachtet. Band I–IV. Berlin: Hugo BehrmühlerVerlag
Podos J (1994) Early perspectives on the evolution of behavior: Charles Otis Whitman and Oskar Heinroth. Ethology ecology & evolution 6:467–480.
Rühl P (1932) Erinnerungen an Magdalena Heinroth. Journal für Ornithology 80: 542–551
Schulze-Hagen K, Birkhead TR (2015) The ethology and life history of birds: the forgotten contributions of Oskar, Magdalena and Katharina Heinroth. Journal of ornithology 156:9–18.
Niska Waterfowl Research Station: was the research wing of Kortright Waterfowl Park established by the Ontario Waterfowl Research Foundation in the 1960s. The research station collected, raised and looked after the waterfowl for the public park, as well as conducting research on the resident waterfowl. The Park was open to the public for about 40 years.
Magdalena Wiebe: I exercised some artistic licence in calling her Magda in the title of this essay. Magda is the diminutive form of Magdalena in Polish, at least. Katharina, on the other hand, is referred to as Kaethe in various sources.
quotation about birds in captivity: from Heinroth 1911, translated in Schulze-Hagen and Birkhead 2015 page 12
faded into obscurity: as Schulze-Hagen and Birkhead (2015) point out, both political events and the changing focus of ornithology were probably responsible. In particular, it seems likely that publication of the work in German limited its potential audience among researchers in the English-speaking world who were leading the transformation of evolutionary and behavioural biology
Karl von Frisch: one of the founders of ethology, he shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen
Katharina’s book about Oskar: see Heinroth (1971), published 26 years after Oskar died
Birds of North America: is now online here, and continues to be the most important source of information about all the birds of North America.
IMAGES: Kortright Park sign from article in Guelph Mercury here; Magdalena from Rühl 1932; Aquarium from Wikipedia; photo montages from Die Vogel Mitteleuropas scanned by the author; Katharina and Oskar from Wikipedia; Hooded Crow scanned by the author.
BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 March 2019
A recent study  of papers published from 1970 to 1990 in computational population genetics in the journal Theoretical Population Biology found that women were acknowledged for their contributions at a much higher rate than they appeared as authors. During that period only 7% of authors were women whereas 43% of ‘acknowledged programmers’ were women. The authors argue convincingly that the substantial contributions of women in this supporting role has been seriously under-appreciated.
I have already written about ‘invisible women’ (here) whose contributions to ornithology were substantial but we have no idea what their names were. Today I want to highlight the contribution of one woman—Sally Hoyt Spofford—who was well-known in ornithological circles, but whose contributions were largely in supporting the accomplishments of her male partners, mentors and employers. I have no doubt that she was fairly typical of women who contributed to ornithology from the early 1800s until about 1970 (see here), and this seems like a good time to celebrate their work and to acknowledge their contributions to the growth of our discipline.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Sally Foresman developed an early interest in birds from her parents, an interest she pursued through her undergraduate honors program, an MS at the University of Pennsylvania (1936) and a PhD from Cornell (1948). I expect that she was one of the earliest women anywhere to obtain a PhD on ornithology. A 1954 paper  listing 133 unpublished North American theses produced until then in ornithology, for example, includes only 18 theses by women and only 3 of those (including Hoyt’s) were PhDs.
Sally began her PhD with Arthur A. Allen in the Department of Conservation at Cornell in 1939, and married a fellow PhD student, John Southgate Yeaton Hoyt, in 1942. The Hoyts took some time off from their studies during WWII, but otherwise worked together on their theses, with Sally helping South, as he was called, with his field work on Pileated Woodpeckers. Sally’s own PhD thesis was a 592-page survey of techniques for the study of birds. As far as I know no publications arose from that work but it may well have informed publications from the Lab of Ornithology .
The list of Sally and South’s’ fellow graduate students at Cornell reads like a who’s who of mid-twentieth century ornithology—Dean Amadon, Brina Kessel, Allan Phillips, Kenneth Parkes, to mention just a few. Both Sally and South showed lots of promise but soon after they graduated, South was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1951. Sally took time off to look after South, then returned to Cornell to work for Arthur A. Allen. In 1957 she wrote up South’s thesis for the journal Ecology, fully acknowledging that “the credit for the work should go in his memory and not to this writer, who acts chiefly as compiler.” 
In 1957, Allen moved his research group to Sapsucker Woods just east of Ithaca, where he established the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Sally came along as his Administrative Assistant and was the ‘heart and soul’ of the Lab until her retirement in 1969. At the lab, she conducted nature walks for the public in Sapsucker Woods, participated in a radio program ‘Know Your Birds‘ recorded at the lab, and looked after the needs of graduate students, research and visitors from the general public.
In the 1950s and 60s, Dr Walter Spofford, a neuroanatomist from Syracuse, frequently visited the Lab to attend seminars and talk about birds. Spoff, as he called himself, was an expert on raptors and wanted to learn more about them. Spoff and Sally became best friends and were married in 1964. Over the next two decades, they made many birding trips to Alaska, helping with Peregrine, Gyrfalcon, and Golden Eagle surveys. They also studied the communities of eagles in Zimbabwe and became so well know for their raptor work that Leslie Brown dedicated his British Birds of Prey to them.
As an ornithologist, Sally’s passion was education and what we now call outreach, though she also published about 50 short papers based on her observations, and was coauthor on two birding guides . She wrote well and had a knack for engaging titles, like that of her 1969 paper: Flicker incubates pink plastic balls, on a lawn, for five weeks.
After retirement, Sally and Spoff donated their property near Ithaca to the Finger Lakes Land Trust where it became the Etna Nature Preserve. In 1972 they moved to Cave Creek Canyon in Arizona where they welcomed thousands of birders each year to their Rancho Aguila to see, among other things, the dozen species of hummingbirds that came to their feeders. Spoff died in 1995 but Sally stayed on at the Ranch until she died in 2002, continuing to feed her hummingbirds and to champion the cause of conservation in the Chiricahuas.
The early Lab of Ornithology and so many both young and old ornithologists and birders owe a great deal to Sally’s enthusiasm and guidance. In the acknowledgements of his PhD thesis, South Hoyt anticipated a fitting eulogy for her life when he wrote “without the more than generous help both physical and mental given by my wife, Sally Hoyt who was always ready to do what seemed to need doing” 
Arbib RS Jr, Pettingill OS Jr, Spofford SH ( 1966) Enjoying Birds around New York City. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Brown L (1976) British Birds of Prey. London: Collins.
Dung SK, López A, Barragan EL, Reyes R-J, Thu R, Castellanos E, Catalan F, Sanchez EH, Rohlfs RV (2018) Illuminating women’s hidden contribution to the foundation of theoretical population genetics. bioRxiv preprint first posted online Jul. 5, 2018; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/360933.
Hoyt JSY (1948) Further studies of the Pileated Woodpecker, Hylatomus pileatus (Linnaeus). PhD thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 324 pp.
Hoyt SF (1948) A reference book and bibliography of ornithological techniques. PhD thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. 542 pp.
Hoyt SF (1957) The ecology of the Pileated Woodpecker. Ecology 38: 246-256
Pettingill OS (1946) A Laboratory and Field Manual of Ornithology, 3rd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing
Pettingill OS (1963) Enjoying birds in upstate New York; an aid to recognizing, watching, finding, and attracting birds in New York State north of Orange and Putnam Counties. Ithaca, NY: Laboratory of Ornithology..
Spofford SH (1969) Flicker incubates pink plastic balls, on a lawn, for five weeks. Wilson Bulletin 81: 214-215
The Committee on Research (1954) Unpublished theses in ornithology. The Auk 71: 191-197.
recent study: see Dung et al. (2018)
1954 paper: see The Committee on Research (1954)
publications from the Lab of Ornithology: Pettingill, who was later Hoyt’s boss, for example, published the revised edition of his ornithology manual in 1946
quotation by Sally Hoyt: from Hoyt (1957)
two birding guides: Arbib et al. (1966) and Pettingill (1963)
quotation by South Hoyt: from Hoyt (1948)
IMAGES: drawing of Cornell Lab of Ornithology from Arbib et al (1966); photos of Spofford from Lab of Ornithology (top) and Wikipedia (bottom); book cover from Biodiversity Heritage Library
BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 4 March 2019
This month—March 2019—is Women’s History Month in the USA, Australia, and the UK . As President Jimmy Carter said in 1980: “Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed” .
For a few years now, I have been compiling information on the history of women in ornithology because their contributions do not seem to have been well documented. Sure, there are big names that most ornithologists are aware of—Margaret Morse Nice, Rachel Carson, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall—but there are many more who are not nearly as well known as their male contemporaries even though they contributed just as much to the field.
To celebrate the historical role of women in ornithology, I will highlight this month the accomplishments of some lesser known women ornithologists, as well as in June in a couple of displays at the AOS conference in Anchorage. As a student of the history of ornithology, I am often reminded about how little I know about the historical role of women in our field. Hardly a month goes by when I do not hear of another great woman ornithologist from the past who made notable contributions but who I had not previously been aware of.
For the first post this month, I am going to focus briefly here on a woman that I expect will be unknown to most readers. Certainly none of the dozen or so North American colleagues that I asked had ever heard of her despite the facts that (i) she was well known in her day (1800s), (ii) she wrote and thought exceptionally well, (iii) she made significant contributions to the study of birds in South Africa, and (iv) she fully understood and appreciated the ideas published by Darwin and Wallace. In her knowledge and appreciation of those ideas she was well ahead of most of her male colleagues. She also had a no-nonsense approach to the various impediments encountered by women in science in the Victorian era. Her name is Mary Elizabeth Barber.
Barber was brought to my attention by a 2015 paper by Tanja Hammel in Kronos, a journal of history and the humanities in South Africa. Hammel is in the History Department at the University of Basel, where she did her PhD on Barber. Hammel writes with unusual clarity and assesses quite objectively the life of Barber in the context of life in the Victorian era and particularly the ‘micro-politics’ in South Africa in those days. She argues that Barber ‘cultivated a feminist Darwinism‘ using the evidence of female choice in birds to inform her own quest for gender equality among the naturalists of the day. She also argues well that Barber’s personal experiences shaped her approach to bird study, as it undoubtedly does for all of us.
Hammel also does a very clear-headed job of criticizing the recent approach to ‘gender essentialist studies’ that claim that there are ‘distinctly female traditions in science and nature writing’. She argues, for example, that men and women did the same sort of research as ornithologists, using the same methods, and often used birds as examples to ‘debunk Victorian gender roles’.
Mary Barber (née Mary Bowker) was born in England in 1818, but her family moved to South Africa when she was only four, and she spent the rest of her life there. She apparently taught herself to read and write, and began at an early age studying the local plants. By the age of 30, she was already a well-regarded botanist and botanical illustrator, corresponding with and providing both specimens and information to the leading botanists of the day .
As her botanical work progressed Barber became increasingly interested in the insects that fed on the plants she studied, then on the birds that fed on those insects. Edgar Leopold Layard acknowledged Barber’s ornithological contributions in his Birds of South Africa published in 1867, the only woman he mentioned. As an ornithologist, she was a collector, an illustrator, and a keen observer, often spending days in the field.
In 1878, she published a remarkably modern assessment of bird colouration in response to the debate between Darwin and Wallace on the influence of female choice on extravagant male plumage colours. She clearly supports Darwin’s side of the argument when she says that “it is comparatively as easy task to follow in his footsteps, and to spell out the book of nature with Mr. Darwin’s alphabet in our hands” . In her writings, she interpreted much of what she observed in light of Darwin’s and Wallace’s recent theories.
Barber corresponded with Darwin after she was introduced to him (presumably by mail) by a fellow (male) entomologist in 1863. Both Darwin (in his books on Emotions and Orchids) and Wallace (in Darwinism) refer to her observations and insights. Barber, however, was infuriated with Wallace for attributing some of her observations to the English entomologist Josiah Obadiah Wedgwood . She was particularly sensitive at the time because an article she had written with her brother, James Bowker, had been given to Layard before a trip he made to England and ended up being published by a ‘Mr Layland’.
Despite these slights , and a difficult marriage, Barber was an energetic and enthusiastic naturalist and her writing expresses complete confidence. In part, I suspect, to establish her credentials as a serious scientist, she never referred to birds by their common (English) names, arguing that ‘barbarous names‘ should be ‘avoided by all means‘. That very ‘scientific’ approach, her broad network of correspondents, and her ideas about gender equality made her very much like a twenty-first century ornithologist, not at all fitting the common image of the Victorian woman who lived like a bird in a gilded cage.
Barber ME (1878) On the peculiar colours of animals in relation to habits of life. Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society 4: 27-45
Darwin CR (1872) The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray.
Darwin CR (1877) The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. London: John Murray
Hammel T (2015) Thinking with birds: Mary Elizabeth Barber’s advocacy for gender equality in ornithology. Kronos 41: 85-111.
Layard EL (1867) The Birds of South Africa : a descriptive catalogue of all the known species occurring south of the 28th parallel of south latitude. Cape Town: Juta
Siegfreid R (2016) Levaillant’s Legacy – A History of South African Ornithology. Noordhoek, Western Cape: Print Matters Heritage.
Wallace AR (1889) Darwinism: an exposition of the theory of natural selection with some of its applications. London & New York: Macmillan & Co.
March is Women’s History Month: but not in Canada, when it’s October
quotation from Jimmy Carter: when he designated National Women’s History Week.
botanists of the day: for example, she corresponded often with Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of the Botanical Gardens at Kew in England and probably Darwin’s closest friend.
quotation about Darwin: from Barber 1878 page 27
Josiah Obadiah Wedgwood : not the father of Darwin’s wife Emma, but possibly a relative.
these slights: she seems to continue to be ignored as she is not even mentioned in Siegfried’s recent history of South African ornithology
BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 11 February 2019
In 1973, I was stranded for several days on a small island in Witless Bay off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. I had gone there several times already that summer, conducting seabird surveys for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Landing on Green Island was sometimes difficult and the days were short as the local cod fishermen—Bill White and Henry Yard—who took me out and back liked to do so on certain tides to make the landings less dangerous. As the season was getting on and I still had a large part of the island to census, I decided, one day in June, to stay overnight so that I could get in 3-4 times as many hours on the island than was possible on a single visit. I took a tiny pup tent, two days’ food and water, a small camp stove full of fuel, a sleeping bag and a change of clothes as I knew I’d get wet.
My best-laid plans were thwarted by a fierce, unexpected storm that came to shore that night and lashed the island for more than a week. The storm was so wild that it prevented both the fishermen and an RCMP helicopter from picking me up. Often I had to spend hours in my little tent to stay dry and to keep from being blown off the cliffs. To pass the time I slept, made plans to stretch out my meagre food supply, and organized my field notes. I also built nooses of fishing line to catch some murres in case I needed to eat a few to survive as the storm was showing no signs of letting up. When cooped up in my little tent, I read, several times, the only book I had taken with me, Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which had just come out in paperback. That book—and the experience of being stranded and rescued—had a profound effect on me.
Three things about Goodall’s book were important to my development and outlook as a scientist. First, and foremost, this was the first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist , and it was just as good as all the others. I think that Goodall’s book more or less marked a turning point for biology that has transformed the role of women during the past 50 years. Prior to Goodall’s book, I had read many of the recent and now classic ‘popular’ books by and about naturalists—Tinbergen, Lorenz, Lack, Robert Ardry, George Schaller, Ernest Thompson Seton, Albert Hochbaum, Fred Bodsworth, James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson, to name just a few—all by men.
At that time, I knew of excellent recent work by women ornithologists—MM Nice, Mary Willson, Mercedes Foster, Janet Kear, Susan Smith—published in the bird journals, but they were very much in the minority. I have been looking at the publications by female ornithologists in The Auk and The Condor over the last 135 years and the trend—and the exponential increase in female authorships since 1970—is shown on the graph below, reflecting a similar trend in The American Naturalist.
My own experience as an academic reflects this welcome pattern as well. My first group of four graduate students were all men, all of whom went on to academic positions at excellent universities. My last (in both senses of the word) four graduate students were all female. It’s too early to tell what career path they will take but one of them just got a tenure-track job. This change in the composition of my research group since 1980 does not reflect any conscious attempt on my part to train women scientists—everyone that I took on as a graduate student was simply the best applicant at the time. During my first decade teaching (1980s), most undergraduate biology students were male; when I looked out on my 48-student History and Philosophy of Biology class last week I could count only 9 men.
Goodall’s book also reminded me how much fun it is to study animals close up, and how much better your insights can be when you can get extremely close to animals without seeming to disturb them. I enjoyed that aspect of studying seabirds that summer in Newfoundland, but also when studying both sandpipers and collared lemmings on the tundra at Churchill, Manitoba, the previous two summers. Such close observations of behaviours seemed to be important for testing hypotheses in the nascent field of behavioural ecology, especially where social interactions were concerned. Partly for that reason, I returned to the arctic with my newly-minted research group in 1980 as I knew the birds would be tame, could be watched at close distance, and could be followed for as long as we wanted on the open tundra. That was one of the reasons that we were able to document high levels of extrapair mating in Lapland Longspurs, years before DNA fingerprinting revealed that extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds .
Finally, I was amused that Goodall had named all of the chimpanzees that she watched. I knew that Lorenz and others had named their study animals but I always thought that that would not be acceptable in a serious scientific study. Goodall reminded me that there was nothing wrong with making research fun and entertaining. Right away I started to give names to the pairs of seabirds nesting near my tent—was I going a little stir crazy? For the local pairs of puffins, black guillemots, herring gulls and common murres, I chose the names of my favourite folk and rock couples—Ian and Sylvia, Ike and Tina, (Peter) Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, and Chuck and Joni . Years later, we often gave names to our favourite pairs of Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Rock Ptarmigan. And, in the early 1990s, when we studied Ruffs on Gotland in the Baltic, we named each of the males on every lek and used hand-drawn mug shots to identify them individually.
Today (11 February 2019) is the UN-sponsored International Day of Women and Girls in Science, designed to celebrate and promote the roles of women in all of the sciences. While we have come a long way since Jane Goodall began working on chimpanzees, less than 30% of scientists worldwide are women, and there are still many barriers and sources of discrimination and gender bias in the sciences.
At the AOS meeting in Anchorage this year we will have some displays celebrating the roles of women in ornithology. For a long time, ornithology was largely a man’s game  but there have been some great, but relatively unknown, woman ornithologists in the past. I have tried to highlight some of their accomplishments on this blog . In that same vein, I will devote all of March (Women’s History Month in the USA) to posts about the contributions of women to ornithology before Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees.
Bronstein JL, Bolnick, DI (2018) “Her Joyous Enthusiasm for Her Life-Work…”: Early Women Authors in The American Naturalist. American Naturalist 192:655-663.
Burke T, Bruford MW (1987) DNA fingerprinting in birds. Nature 327:149–152.
Klopfer PH (1962) Behavioral aspects of ecology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Goodall JvL (1971) In the shadow of man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
first book I had read by a woman biologist/naturalist: it’s only when writing this post today that I realized this. It certainly did not surprise me at the time.
Chuck and Joni: my friends and I went to hear folk concert by the Mitchells at a coffee shop (either Penny Farthing or Riverboat) in Toronto’s Yorkville Village one night in 1967 or so. But the couple had broken up the day before and so a very nervous Joni did the gig on her own. She never looked back.
extrapair paternity was common in passerine birds: see Burke and Buford (1987) for an early example
BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 28 January 2019
When I took first-year Zoology at the University of Toronto, in the 1960s, our lab instructor/coordinator was Dr J. Murray Speirs. Speirs was a kindly gentleman with a bit of old-world charm, accentuated by his ever-present black beret. I warmed to him immediately because he was also a birder and had a reputation for encouraging young naturalists .
That warmth cooled somewhat when Dr Speirs gave me a ‘B’ grade for my bird list from a weekend class lab project where we had to record all of the birds seen in a day’s outing. My non-birder friends all got ‘A’s so I was particularly puzzled. When I asked him about my grade, he said that he gave me a ‘B’ because “every bird has a name, and you failed to name them all”.I had listed 3 unidentified buteos and a half-dozen unidentified peeps, whereas my more-savvy confrères had—I found out later—fudged their reports based on what the bird books told them to expect in late September in Toronto .
Dr Speirs was married to Doris Heustis Speirs, who I met only once, at their home in Pickering, just east of Toronto. This was on a weekend birding/photography outing with my friends George Peck and Jim Richards. As we left the Speirs’s home, I commented that Doris really knew her birds. To which they replied “Yes, and she also founded the nice bird club”.“Interesting,” I said, “but what’s so nice about it”. They laughed: “No, no. It’s the Margaret Nice Bird Club, named after that famous woman ornithologist, and it’s open only to women.”
At a dinner with the Speirs on 10 Jan 1952, the biogeographer Miklos Udvardy was appalled to learn that his wife Maud would not be allowed to attend that evening’s meeting of the Toronto Ornithological Club (TOC). Murray and Miklos were going, but the club was ‘men only’ . Udvardy’s response was priceless: “Is this the fourteenth century?” He then suggested to Doris that she start an ornithological club of her own, for women only .
A week later, Doris had lunch with two friends—Irma Metcalfe and Marjorie Lawrence Meredith—interested in birds, and they decided to start just such a club. They chose to call it the Margaret Morse Nice Ornithological Club (MMNOC), in honour of one of the pioneers of behavioural and evolutionary ecology of birds, a renowned ornithologist, and, in those days, one of the few well-known women who studied birds. They limited membership to 12 women, and their little club flourished for the next 35 years.
Doris met Margaret Nice at the American Ornithologists Union meeting in October 1938 in Washington, DC. At that meeting, Margaret was one of four speakers in a symposium— ‘The Individual vs. the Species in Behavior Studies’ . Her paper ‘The Social Kumpan in the Song Sparrow’ was published in The Auk in 1939 and pays homage to her friend Konrad Lorenz and his foundational ideas about social interactions. Based on her own studies of the Song Sparrow, Nice’s paper and her participation in the symposium illustrate her stature as one of the leading American ornithologists of the day. Doris was enthralled with meeting Nice and wrote to her brother about their conversation about Doris’s own research: “…she questioned me on my research with evidently a sincere and even keen interest, as though I could really contribute to her knowledge of bird behaviour by my observations. Her simplicity, her deep humility and sense of awe and wonder were evidences of her greatness.” 
Thus began a lifelong friendship and an obvious reason for the name that Doris gave to her bird club. Here is Nice on that friendship in a letter to Speirs: I feel that the study of ornithology is a wonderful game in which strong sympathy and fellowship reign between the serious participants: we are friends and glad to help one another. We have high standards for our science and we want beginners to realize this . Nice visited the Speirs home several times, and there got the inspiration for her seminal review on avian incubation periods, published in The Condor in 1954. The Speirs maintained a fabulous ornithological library in their home and Nice began exploring their books to see what some writers, as far back as Aristotle, had to say about incubation. She noticed, for example, that new bird books often reported different incubation periods for the same species .
In 1979, a few years after Nice died, the MMNOC published her autobiography Research is a Passion with Me as a tribute to their patron saint. It’s not often—not often enough—that scientists, and particularly ornithologists, write their own stories and those by Charles Darwin, Margaret Nice and others are a treasure trove for historians of science about how the authors viewed themselves. One must, of course, read an autobiography with that in mind as the authors do have a certain bias, may leave out the unflattering bits, and have no real appreciation for the historical (in retrospect) context of their lives and research contributions. All that said, Nice’s autobiography is—as is Darwin’s—a wonderful read and was, for me, an inspiration. It was published, and I read it, in the year that I completed my PhD and it reminded me once again that it was OK to be passionate about research, and that persevering in the face of great odds was (or at least could be) very rewarding .
Soon I will be reviewing a new full-length biography of Margaret Morse Nice in Birding magazine. This book—For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie (University of Oklahoma Press)—was published in September 2018 and is the first biography of this remarkable woman. While Nice’s autobiography gave us lots of insights into her life and research, Ogilvie’s book is richer with detail and context. Ogilvie was Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma where much of Nice’s archives are housed, and she appears to have read everything that Nice ever wrote including letters, manuscripts, and publications, as well as talking to many of Nice’s relatives, friends and colleagues. Ogilvie chronicles an important period in biology, when women often struggled to do research and to obtain some recognition for their many accomplishments. In part, because of women like Margaret Morse Nice and Doris Huestis Speirs, they witnessed a sea change in the roles and prominence of women to ornithology during their lifetimes.
Darwin F, ed. (1887) The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray.
Iron J, Pittaway R (2010) Who was Mrs. Gordon Mills? TOC Newletter, January 2010, pp 2-3
Nice MM (1939) The social kumpan and the Song Sparrow. The Auk 56: 255–262.
Nice MM (1954) Problems of incubation periods in North American birds. The Condor 56:173–197.
Nice MM (1979) Research Is a Passion with Me: The Autobiography of a Bird Lover. Dundurn.
Ogilvie MB (2018) For the Birds: American Ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Murray Speirs’s reputation: Dr Speirs and his wife Doris took several local young naturalists under their wings and often took them out birding. I am grateful to Jim Richards for several insights about the Speirs and their generosity, in an email to me on 27 January 2019.
first-year lab reports: I almost failed first-year Botany for always drawing accurately what I saw under the microscope, instead of what I was supposed to see. These experiences were transformative for me as I vowed to never penalize my own students—if I should ever became a professor, which seemed unlikely in those days as I was doing poorly in my courses—for describing exactly what they saw even if it seemed incorrect or unorthodox
men only: I had been to a few meetings of the TOC as a guest of my older friends, and often wondered why no women ever attended.
ornithological club for women: for more details see Miles Hearn’s blog here
symposium speakers: the other speakers were Francis H. Herrick, Frederick Lincoln, and G. K. Noble
Doris Speirs quotation: from Olgilvie 2018 page 220
Margaret Nice quotation: from Nice 1979 page 268
Nice on incubation periods: see Ogilvie 2019 pages 214-217 for more details
on persevering: although I had been very privileged to do my PhD with a great scientist at an outstanding institution, the prospects for an academic appointment in Canada in those days, at least in my field, were zero. Over a period of more than 5 years around 1980 there was not a single academic job that I could apply for in Canada, and my interests were quite broad.
IMAGES: the Speirs from Iron and Pittaway (2010) colour-corrected; book covers by the author.
BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 29 October 2018
John Gould’s A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the Adjacent Islands strikes me as the oddest of the superbly illustrated 19th-century bird books. Published by subscription that began in 1837, it was illustrated by his wife, Elizabeth, but only shows in colour the head of each species , unlike any of the other hundred or so ‘Birds of…’ books  that I know of. In some cases, she has drawn the feet or wings separately but only as outlines, adding colour in only a couple of instances where it may have been thought to be important for identification. Even Louis Agassiz Fuertes’s album of Abyssinian birds , which shows the heads of many species, at least has vignettes of the whole bird on most of the plates.
Why did the Goulds decide to paint just the heads of Australian birds? I have three hypotheses, outlined below, but first a little backstory.
John Gould was initially, by trade, a taxidermist, setting up his own practice in London in 1824. Many prominent ornithologists sent him their specimens to mount and he became both very good at his trade and very well-known. In 1827, he was appointed the first Curator and Preserver at the museum of the Zoological Society of London, where he prepared bird specimens sent to the ZSL from the colonies and elsewhere.
Charles Coxen, who called Gould The Birdstuffer, was also a taxidermist and introduced John to his older sister, Elizabeth. John and Elizabeth were married in January 1829, and it was not long before Elizabeth began making drawings and paintings of the birds that John was stuffing for his customers. By 1830, John was already selling some of Elizabeth’s artwork to customers for his taxidermy.
When the ZSL received a shipment of bird specimens from India in 1830, John saw this as an opportunity to use Elizabeth’s artistic skills to produce a book of Himalayan birds, many of which were previously undescribed. He also recognized the potential for lithography to produce much finer illustrations than were possible with woodcuts or copper plates, especially with respect to the nuances of shading and feather detail. To that end he implored Elizabeth to learn lithography, which she quickly mastered. By 1832 Elizabeth had produced 80 hand-coloured lithographs illustrating 100 bird species from the Himalayas, bound together with text to form their first published book . In recognition of her contribution, the systematist for that project named one of the new species as Mrs Gould’s Sunbird (Aethiopygia gouldii).
Elizabeth’s brothers, Stephen (in 1827) and Charles (in 1834), moved to Australia where they established farms in New South Wales, frequently sending back bird specimens for John. As before, John soon realized the value of, and potential interest in, these birds as many had not yet been formally described, nor illustrated. John immediately sought to present these new specimens in a ‘synopsis’ but then to go to Australia with Elizabeth to embark on a full Birds of Australia project, patterned after the Birds of Europe project that he and Elizabeth had just completed in 1837. Gould’s idea for the Synopsis was to publish it in 6-8 parts, with each part comprising 18 plates with descriptions, measurements and affinities of each species, to sell the parts either coloured or uncoloured. They abandoned the project after publishing only four parts and set off for Australia in May 1838.
So why illustrate only the heads in colour?
Hypothesis One: The Goulds had not yet seen Australian birds in the field and were nervous about depicting them in inappropriate poses or habitats. This was my first thought, but that was soon dispelled when I looked at their A Century of Birds from the Himalaya Mountains published in 1831. Here, Elizabeth illustrates in full colour birds she could not have seen alive, even though each of her paintings says ‘Drawn from Nature & on Stone by E. Gould.’ She may have seen some of these birds in zoos or aviaries but I suspect that ‘Drawn from Nature’ simply means that she used the actual bird specimens to inform her painting. Some of her paintings of Himalayan birds—and later of Trogons —do look a little awkward so maybe she did realize that she really needed to see the birds, or at least their close relatives, in nature to make credible paintings of the whole bird.
Hypothesis Two: John Gould knew he was going to visit Australia soon, and wanted to produce a magnificent book on the Birds of Australia, for which ‘his’ Synopsis would be a teaser, driving up subscriptions. Gould was the consummate entrepreneur so this seems highly likely to me. He stopped work on the Synopsis early in 1838 when it was only part way done, presumably because he had enough subscriptions to see that the bigger book would be popular, and his big Australia trip was fast approaching.
Hypothesis Three: The Goulds were in a hurry, and illustrating just the heads would take a lot less time for both the artist and the colourists. As noted above, the Goulds started work on the Synopsis only a couple of years before their planned trip to Australia. Presumably drawing and colouring heads would take less than half the time needed for Elizabeth to draw the entire bird and background, and to colour one copy for the colourists to work from. In 1837, when Elizabeth started work on the illustrations, she had just had her sixth child , and completed her illustrations for the Birds of Europe, so she may have been feeling a little pressed for time, to say the least.
Indeed, John was in such a rush to get his Synopsis in the hands of subscribers in Australia in advance of their trip, that he sent fresh copies of the completed parts on the third Beagle Voyage  leaving England on 5 July 1837, arriving in Australia in November. On arriving in Australia in September 1838, the Goulds went first to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) where they met and stayed with the governor, Sir John Franklin  and his wife, who were among the subscribers to the Birds of Australia project. John Gould seemed never to pass up an opportunity to enlist royalty and the wealthy and powerful to subscribe to his projects, recognizing full well that that would improve sales. Even Elizabeth must have impressed the Franklins as she gave birth to her sixth child—a son who they named Franklin—at Government House on 6 May 1839.
I have not yet read Chisholm’s biography of Elizabeth published in 1944 so there may be information there to inform my speculations. Whatever the reason for this book of bird heads, the illustrations show us Elizabeth Gould at the height of her artistic talents.She was already a gifted artist when she started painting birds for John but she also learned a lot from Edward Lear, who John also employed. For these bird heads, Elizabeth began using whipped egg-white, for example, to provide a reflective surface to the birds’ eyes, giving them a much rounder appearance. Just look at the details of the eye and the feather structure on Elizabeth’s painting of the Square-tailed Kite, below. Elizabeth’s illustrations for the Synopsis are incredibly lifelike, even more so that her work for the Birds of Europe.
Even though Elizabeth Gould is now recognized for her contributions to bird illustration, and to the success of John Gould’s early ornithological enterprises, we may never know how much she really contributed to ornithology for, like most Victorian wives she did not write very much and worked mainly in the service of her family and her husband’s success. Elizabeth bore her eighth child, and third daughter, in August 1841, but died soon after from a uterine infection incurred during childbirth. By then she had already completed 84 magnificent plates for John’s new Birds of Australia, based on their collections and observations there, a lasting testimony to her exceptional skills.
Anonymous (1837) Bibliographical notices. Magazine of Zoology and Botany 1:571-572
Anonymous (1881) Memoir of the late John Gould, F.R.S. The Zoologist 5: 109-115
Chisholm AH (1944) The Story of Elizabeth Gould. Melbourne
Chisholm AH (1964) Elizabeth Gould: Some “New” Letters. Journal and Proceedings(Royal Australian Historical Society) 49: 321-36.
Fuertes LA (1930) Album of Abyssinian Birds and Mammals. Special Publication of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
Gould J (1832-37) The Birds of Europe. 5 vols. London: published by the author.
Gould J (1835) A Monograph of the Trogonidae, or Family of Trogons. London: published by the author.
Gould J (1837-38) A Synopsis of the Birds of Australia, and the adjacent islands. London: published by the author.
Gould J (1840-48) The birds of Australia. 7 vols. London: published by the author.
head of each species: for a handful of birds, some details of wing or leg plumage are also coloured, to show off features mentioned in the text. The plates of Striated Pardalote and Square-tailed Kite shown here are examples
album of Abyssinian birds: see Fuertes (1930), available online here
their first published book: it is now customary to list Elizabeth as an author on the books she prepared with John, but the title pages of the books listed above do not include her name, so I have not included her as a named author on those citations.
Trogons: see Gould and Gould (1835), where many of the birds look to me to be in unnatural poses. Elizabeth would surely have seen trogons in zoos and private collections so she does get some of them right, but curiously not all of them. Maybe she did not realize that all of the trogons behave more or less the same way
sixth child: Elizabeth had eight children in all but only 6 survived so I assume that this sixth child was the fourth to survive.
third Beagle Voyage: Darwin was on the second Beagle Voyage. The third was captained by John Clements Wickham who was First Lieutenant on the Darwin voyage.
Sir John Franklin: yes, that Franklin, who had explored the Canadian Arctic in 1819-22 and 1823-27, but then was governor of Tasmania from 1836-43 after marrying his second wife. In 1845 he returned to the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage, where he remains to this day