14 Nov /13


The study of birds dates back to the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Greek and Romans, but formal classification of different species began with Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist who is widely considered the father of the discipline. His two volumes of Orinithogiae published in 1599 ran to 2,000 pages and sit alongside Aldrovandi’s other distinguished works on zoology and botany.

The word ornithology first appeared in English a few decades later, in the mid-17th century. It is derived from the Greek ornis (“bird”) and logos (“explanation”) and was introduced to the language by Thomas Fuller, a churchman and a gifted writer. Fuller’s talents showed themselves at an early stage when he was admitted to Queens’ College Cambridge aged only thirteen. Later writings included histories of the church, the Crusades, Oxford and Cambridge and in 1655 the book Ornithology or the speech of birds. Fuller is one of the most quotable of all English writers. He famously coined the phrase “charity begins at home” and is also known for the observation that “all things are difficult before they become easy”. This particular pearl of wisdom would serve mankind well as future generations struggled to copy the birds and master the science of flight.

Ornithological studies of the 19th century drew interesting parallels between birds and dinosaurs. When German archeologists discovered the remains of a Jurassic Archaeopteryx, an ancestor of the birds we know today, they were struck by the similarities between the skeletons of birds and those of dinosaurs. More recently, when movies such as Jurassic Park speculated on the regeneration of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, some ornithologists pointed out that our skies are already full of dinosaurs.

One of the key choices for ornithologists has been between binoculars and gun. Do we hunt the bird or merely observe it? Colonialism brought with it a mania for the hunting of birds, the collection of their eggs and the classification of their many species. Publications on the subject included field guides such as Berwick’s History of British Birds in two volumes which won broad acclaim. But they were rather too cumbersome to be taken into the field. Perhaps this explains why it was only in the late 19th century that the use of field guides and the observation of birds as a leisure activity really began to take off. For this dichotomy see tomorrow’s word, bird watching.

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