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1 April 2005 A Concise History of Ornithology
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A Concise History of Ornithology.—Michael Walters. 2003. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 255 pp., numerous black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-300-09073-0. Cloth, $32.50.—Although the dust jacket describes this book as a history of ornithology from the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans to the present, the book falls a little short of the present—much like every history class I ever had. To some extent, this is understandable. So many aspects of our understanding of history come only after a proper period of “digestion”; it is often premature to place the contributions of living individuals into the context of history; and ornithology, like so many sciences, has grown tremendously in the past century. With what I sense as a bit of frustration, Walters capitulated (p. 10): “The volume of ornithological literature has become overwhelming, and the number of individuals working on the subject has increased to the extent that a comprehensive survey of the subject in the 20th century is beyond the scope of this book.”

Walters has produced a very readable, fascinating glimpse of ornithological history that follows the timeline of discovery and the threads of guesswork, scientific endeavor, and controversy that have led to our current understanding of bird classification. I was initially disappointed that the book does not begin with depictions of birds in cave art or the uses of birds by early man, that it does not mention the importance of the writings of Xenophon (5th century B.C.) in documenting the presence of ostriches in Asia Minor and the use of incubators by early Egyptians. But this is not a history of birds, nor even a history of our knowledge or use of birds. It is a history of the practice of the science of ornithological classification, with a few other things ornithological incidentally woven in. Perhaps the major focus on classification should have been included in the title. In 10 chapters, following both chronological and geographic sequences, Walters details the growth of our understanding of the interrelationships among birds and our efforts to find meaning in the diversity of birds through various schemes of classification. The reading is considerably spiced by tidbits of personal lives: personalities, professional feuds, triumphs, and tragedies. For example, we learn (p. 67) that George Montagu (1751-1815) devoted his life to natural history after he left his wife, moved in with an already married woman, and was court-martialed and forced from the military. Far from detracting from the “facts,” such trivia show the human side of ornithological endeavor.

Walters' opinions of the contributions of ornithologists are often strong and sometimes at variance with those held by others. In contrast to the favorable treatment given John Gould (1804-1881) by Stresemann (1975), Walters is ruthless in belittling Gould's efforts. He suggests (p. 130) that Gould “probably lacked the ability to understand the significance of speciation” and that those species described by Gould that “proved valid were probably arrived at fortuitously rather than [through] perspicacity on his part.” Noting that Gould's collector, John Gilbert, was murdered by aborigines in Australia, Walters comments (p. 131): “Callous and calculating as ever, Gould saw Gilbert's death merely as a loss of a source of material and revenue.” This latter sentiment was shared by Mearns and Mearns (1998), and Tree (1991) supports Walters' assessment of Gould's use and abuse of others in satisfying his ambitions.

We also learn (p. 152) that American ornithologist Elliott Coues (1842-1899) “was outspoken and many found him antagonizing.” Mearns and Mearns (1988) also mentioned these traits. Walters speculates that this is probably why Coues “never obtained from [Spencer Fullerton] Baird the official position at the Smithsonian which he had coveted.”

Language used to describe favored personalities also contributes life to this history. Richard Bowdler Sharpe (1847-1909) is said (p. 156) to have “moved the collections [of the British Museum] from a fusty basement, to which no sane ornithologist would wish to go, into a temple where it was, if not exactly a pleasure, at least bearable to work.” We are also told that Sharpe had ten daughters.

The fabric of this history is frayed toward the end, stopping short of the 20th century with discussion of the early rejection of trinomials, their slow acceptance in Europe, and a strong American influence in their acceptance. In a deviation from matters of classification, Walters adds a bit of commentary on the history of bird banding and lack of knowledge of the causes of migration. As somewhat of a “patch” and bridge to the future, a concluding chapter by John Coulson, “Ornithology and Ornithologists in the Twentieth Century,” identifies some ornithologists and elements pivotal in the growth of ornithology in the past century.

Thirty numbered appendices present 29 classifications of the birds of the world presented by “ornithologists” ranging chronologically from Walter Charleton (1668) to Hans Gadow (1892). Much of the focus of the text concerning these individuals is elaboration of characteristics and influences associated with these classifications, but annotation of the classifications in the appendices is limited. Two lettered appendices provide (without explanation) a list of birds from Emperor Rudolph II's collection and a list of birds described by “Quoy & Gaimard on Freycinet's Voyage 1817-1820.”

Although this “concise history” chronicles the development of our understanding of the inter-relationships among birds, the threads of other ornithological matters are sparse and broken. No doubt, this is a combined function of the past focal points of scientific interest, available information, and the inclination of the weaver.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Concise History of Ornithology, but was also frustrated. The index includes only the names of people mentioned, and I found myself creating my own subject index for future reference. Even the index of names is incomplete. For example, although much of the information on Mark Catesby (1683-1749) is in chapter 2 (“The Renaissance of Ornithology”), he is also discussed (but not indexed) in chapter 7 (“The Beginnings of American Ornithology”). The book is profusely illustrated with portraits of ornithologists, but sources of portraits are not provided, a loss for future historians and a loss of credit for those who provided them. Indeed, there are no acknowledgments of source materials or assistance in the book. Citations of references are generally absent from the text, though the bibliography of sources used in writing the book includes nearly 500 references—including an amazing assemblage of centuries-old titles. Within the bibliography, however, publishers of books are rarely given, and volume numbers of journal articles are often missing.

Because of its lack of text citations, the book may be useful mainly as a source of general knowledge of ornithological history and as fodder for comparison with other interpreters of that history. Perhaps that was Walters' goal. A Concise History of Ornithology led me to seek more knowledge of those who shaped our science; it gave me new insight and appreciation of where we have been; it made me think of the future. What more could an author hope for?

A Concise History of Ornithology represents a mammoth, scholarly effort—and should facilitate the daunting task of preparing a more comprehensive history. Perhaps the best approach for that task would be to follow Walters' lead by drawing out single threads—the efforts to understand bird anatomy, physiology, behavior, ecology, domestication, conservation, and so on—before attempting to assemble the tapestry of what our science has become. Certainly this is an important book for those interested in ornithology and the history of science and a must for university and other major libraries.

Literature Cited


B. Mearns and R. Mearns . 1988. Biographies for Birdwatchers. Academic Press, San Diego, California.  Google Scholar


B. Mearns and R. Mearns . 1998. The Bird Collectors. Academic Press, San Diego, California.  Google Scholar


E. Stresemann 1975. Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Google Scholar


I. Tree 1991. The Ruling Passion of John Gould. Barrie and Jenkins, London.  Google Scholar


Jerome A. Jackson "A Concise History of Ornithology," The Auk 122(2), 716-718, (1 April 2005).[0716:R]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 April 2005

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