History of Ornithology


Before the seventeenth century, interest in birds centred largely on folklore and their symbolic significance. Ray and Willughby's encyclopaedia, the Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1676 and 1678) marked a turning point in the study of birds by rejecting folklore and focussing especially on biology. Following Ray's Wisdom of God (1691), which addressed ultimate causes, the study of birds developed along two separate strands: (i) systematics, nomenclature and faunistics (inspired by Ornithology) and (ii) natural history (inspired by Wisdom). The first of these endeavours dominated ornithology for the next 250 years, and were the main focus of the ornithological Unions founded in the 1800s. The two strands were reunited in the 1920s (central Europe) and 1940s (the UK and the USA). After World War II not only the expansion of higher education resulted in a huge increase in both the number of professional ornithologists, but also our knowledge of avian natural history and evolution.

Key concepts

  • The study of birds began with Aristotle, but stagnated between the first century ad and the Renaissance.

  • Ornithology became scientific with the abandonment of emblematics in the 1670s.

  • John Ray initiated two strands of ornithology: systematics and natural history (field ornithology) in the late 1600s.

  • Systematic ornithology focussed on the naming and classification of birds, and later, their geographical distribution.

  • The natural history of birds (field ornithology) focussed on behaviour, ecology and ultimate causes.

  • Ornithological encyclopedias were a product of the Renaissance.

  • After the Renaissance ornithology became increasingly specialized.

  • Charles Darwin's concepts of natural and sexual selection in the mid‐late 1800s were important in encouraging scientific interest in birds.

  • The two strands of ornithology, systematics and natural history, were re‐united in the 1920s (Germany) and 1940s (the UK and the USA).

  • The modernization of ornithology during the twentieth century occurred largely as a result of the conceptual unification of evolutionary thinking in the 1940s and the focus on individual selection in the 1970s.

Keywords: avian biology; bird study; ornithological knowledge; history; ornithology

Figure 1.

Aldrovandi's three‐volume Ornithologiae published in 1599, 1600 and 1603. Photo: I Charmantier.

Figure 2.

Portraits of John Ray (left: from Raven, ) and Francis Willughby (right: from Jardine, ).

Figure 3.

Schematic representation of the development of ornithology in central Europe from the Middle Ages to 2000, showing the bifurcation, after Ray's publications, between field ornithology (left) and systematics (right), and Stresemann's unifying position in the 1920s. Reproduced from Haffer , with permission from Springer.

Figure 4.

Three key twentieth century figures in the history of ornithology: (from left to right) (a) Ernst Mayr and Erwin Stresemann and (b) David Lack all at the International Ornithological Congress, Oxford 1966. Courtesy of the Eric Hosking Charitable Trust.

Figure 5.

Schematic representation of the development of ornithology in Britain from the 1550s through to 2000, showing the bifurcation after Ray's publications and David Lack unifying field ornithology and systematics in the 1940s. Reproduced from Haffer , with permission from Springer.



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Further Reading

Bircham P (2007) A History of Ornithology. London: Collins.

Burkhardt RW (2005) Patterns of behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and the founding of Ethology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gill F (2006) Ornithology, 3rd edn. New York: Freeman.

Grant PR and Grant R (2007) How and why species multiply: The Radiation of Darwin's Finches. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gurney JH (1921) Early Annals of Ornithology. London: H. F. & G. Witherby.

Lack D (1959) Some British pioneers in ornithological research 1859–1939. Ibis 101: 71–81.

Mearns B and Mearns R (1988) Biographies for Birdwatchers. London: Academic Press.

Mearns B and Mearns R (1992) Audubon to Xantus. London: Academic Press.

Ricklefs RE (2000) Lack, Skutch, and Moreau: the early development of life‐history thinking. Condor 102: 3–8.

Selous E (1901) Bird Watching. London: Dent.

Walters M (2003) A Concise History of Ornithology. London: Helm.

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Birkhead, T R, and Charmantier, I(Dec 2009) History of Ornithology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003096]