Nice Thoughts

Francis Gooding

  • The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist by Tim Birkhead
    Bloomsbury, 353 pp, £25.00, May 2018, ISBN 978 1 4088 7848 4
  • Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names by Stephen Moss
    Faber, 357 pp, £16.99, February 2018, ISBN 978 1 78335 090 2

If you are at all familiar with bird guides, examining a first edition of The Ornithology of Francis Willughby is a strange experience. Despite its great age and large size, the many defunct names and the variable accuracy of the images, it is recognisably a bird guide, and in essence similar to those you will have stuffed into an anorak pocket while trudging round a disused reservoir in the rain. First published in a Latin edition, Francisci Willughbeii: Ornithologiae Libri Tres, in 1676, the Ornithology was never intended as a portable field guide, and there was no such pastime as birdwatching when it was created. But its template – identification of natural species through detailed description and accurate illustrations – remains standard. A literary Archaeopteryx, it is the ancestor of all modern bird books, and through it Francis Willughby became the ancestor of modern ornithology.

The Wonderful Mr Willughby is the story of Willughby’s short life, elegantly and engagingly told by Tim Birkhead, with the creation of the Ornithology as its central drama. Willughby died in 1672 aged 36, before he had finished any of the major works which bear his name – just a few papers on wasp behaviour had been published by the Royal Society, to which he had been admitted in 1661. But by the time of his death he had completed an extraordinary amount of highly original research, made numerous discoveries and prepared materials for at least three large volumes of natural history. The most complete and detailed material had been intended as an ambitious illustrated survey of all the world’s known birds; his other well-advanced works were to be on insects (a category which then covered a wide variety of invertebrates) and fish, but birds had been his main interest and his most successful object of study.

Willughby’s investigations were undertaken in close collaboration with his friend and former tutor, the naturalist John Ray. While a student at Cambridge Willughby had worked on Ray’s groundbreaking botanical studies and they later travelled extensively in Europe, collecting the books, images, curios and specimens that would form the basis of their future work. After Willughby’s death from what seems to have been pleurisy, it was Ray who organised his extensive papers into publishable form. The Ornithology, published four years after Willughby’s death, was first; followed in 1686 by Historia Piscium (‘History of Fishes’) and then in 1710, five years after Ray’s death, by a volume on insects, Historia Insectorum, which was brought to publication from Ray’s papers by a committee of the Royal Society and credited by them solely to Ray. Willughby’s name was omitted entirely.

Over the centuries, this circumstance had led to some disagreement over which of the two men should take principal credit for these joint, posthumously completed works. Ray himself was straightforward in attributing the Ornithology directly to Willughby; the preface to the work is an encomium to his deceased friend and the title enshrines his primary authorship. But later historians cast Ray as the moving force behind the works, and over the years Willughby’s star has been eclipsed by his more established colleague. Birkhead is in no doubt, however, about where the ‘iridescent sparkle’ of the text originates, and his book in part aims to restore Willughby to his rightful place in the early scientific canon. In this he is returning to the view held by Willughby’s contemporaries, among whom there was no dispute about his worth. On publication, the significance of the Ornithology as a work of natural history was immediately clear.

As a systematic attempt to parse and present all extant knowledge of birds from Aristotle onwards, and to integrate those elements that could withstand modern scrutiny with original observations and research, the Ornithology set a new standard for works on the natural world. Willughby and Ray were both members of the Royal Society; they brought to their research the spirit of objective inquiry characteristic of the new science. The Ornithology was by no means the first treatise on birds, but it was the first to approach the subject from a recognisably scientific perspective, however unfledged this science still was. The two men had a sceptical approach to earlier works. ‘It was sometimes hard for Willughby and Ray to know whether a description in the works of other authors referred to a real bird or to some mythological beast,’ Birkhead writes. The final work reserved a section entitled ‘Such birds as we suspect for fabulous’ for anything they considered overly doubtful. As well as the phoenix and the verminous bird, or tuputa, a bird whose flesh was said to be composed entirely of tiny writhing worms, this section also contains several species which eventually proved to be real, including the hoatzin. A certain amount of folklore slipped through even so – the book reproduces Aetius’s unappetising advice that a wren, salted and eaten raw, was a ‘perfect cure’ for kidney and bladder problems, for instance – but a distinction had been drawn between the directly verified and the unproved that put the future study of birds on a scientific foundation.

The Ornithology had a double objective: the accurate naming and description of all known bird species, and – a crucial innovation – a systematic attempt to comprehend the ordering principles of the divine creation by arranging them in a classificatory scheme that was based on observation and logic. Having absorbed prior learning, Willughby and Ray ‘decided to start afresh’, Birkhead writes, ‘seeing and describing every species for themselves and, crucially, doing so in a careful, standardised way’. As far as possible, these descriptions were based on direct examination, typically of freshly shot specimens, there being no other way to get a close look at most birds in the days before field glasses. Willughby especially was meticulous in his accounts, and in the final text Ray regularly complains about the excessive detail of his entries. But such detail was essential for accurate identification, ‘the single most important goal of Willughby and Ray’s enterprise’ and the most challenging. Many species had never been described, and many of those that had were so inaccurately described that it was hard to match a bird in the hand to one in a book. Nor was there any sense of how far individual variation might stretch. Were two very similar light green warblers different species, or merely variable instances of the same one? Were two raptors of radically different colour separate species, or the male and female of a single kind? After centuries of work that has built on their innovations, and decades of accurately illustrated field guides, Birkhead reminds us that we cannot underestimate the darkness in which Willughby and Ray laboured: ‘Things that seem so blindingly obvious today were far from obvious then, and it is surprisingly difficult to throw off three and a half centuries of natural history knowledge and imagine oneself so ignorant and uncertain.’ What they could do was patiently examine, describe, compare, and illustrate where possible, with images that were variously purchased, copied and commissioned. (Unlike the more modestly descended Ray, Willughby was gentry, and could pay.)

The ‘cornerstone’ of the work was its system of bird classification. ‘With a reliable classification of birds,’ Birkhead writes, ‘you could build on that to flesh out the biology.’ In turn, a solid classificatory scheme would be an invaluable aid to identifying birds correctly. The systems devised by earlier authors were largely unsatisfactory. Even the most serious of their predecessors lacked a rigorous methodology, and the mysterious networks of connection between distinct organisms had always been a point of ingress for superstitious or mystical ideas. In the 1660s, Willughby and Ray had themselves worked with the naturalist and clergyman John Wilkins, a founder fellow of the Royal Society, on a highly abstruse system of natural classification, which Wilkins had based on the properties of the number nine. But in private correspondence they had baulked at such methods: Ray wrote that Wilkins’s system was ‘utterly deficient and absurd’. The experience, Birkhead suggests, ‘undoubtedly helped Willughby think hard about how he and Ray should classify birds and other organisms’.

The system that they settled on was based principally on anatomy, though the largest divisions were of habitat and habit: Book II covered ‘Land-Fowl’, subdivided into ‘Of Such as have hooked Beaks and Talons’ and ‘Of Rapacious Diurnal Birds’; while Book III was ‘Of Water-Fowl’ (the more introductory Book I is ‘Of Birds in general’). Beyond these, a system of mostly anatomical criteria – size, beak shape, feet and claws – was used to sort birds into smaller and smaller groups. At the start of each book, the classification was presented as a branching table, intended to aid identification. Assuming, for instance, that you were faced with an unknown ‘land-fowl’, the first question to consider would be whether its beak was ‘crooked’ or ‘streight’; then, if straight, was the fowl large, medium or small in size? If medium, was its beak strong and thick, or short and small? Through this process of elimination, the reader would eventually be guided towards the smallest groupings, with the final criterion prompting direction to the chapters which contained entries on the relevant kinds of bird – for instance, birds of the ‘woodpecker-kind’, ‘pigeon-kind’ or ‘thrush-kind’, and so on. Once there, Ray explained to his readers, comparison with the written entries will mean that ‘the bird may soon be found.’

Birkhead tells us that ‘subsequent authors revered Willughby and Ray’ for their system, and claims that it was in some ways superior to the one later devised by Linnaeus in the Systema Naturae. As a means of testing it, Birkhead takes the pin-tailed sandgrouse, a European bird which Willughby and Ray did not include in their work. When the rules of their table were followed, the sand-grouse emerged as either ‘poultry-kind’ or ‘pigeon-kind’. ‘This is remarkable,’ Birkhead writes, ‘given that subsequent ornithologists classified sandgrouse first as a grouse (i.e. closely related to poultry) and later as a kind of pigeon.’

*

Among the difficulties faced by Willughby and Ray in trying to systematise the study of birds was the problem of names, which could vary from place to place, and which were notoriously inconsistent from author to author. Common names have continued to be chronically unstable, and Birkhead gives an interesting list of those that have changed since Willughby and Ray recorded them in the Ornithology. What they called a puffin, we call a Manx shearwater; the puffin familiar to us was called by them the coulterneb, while the nightjar was a fern-owl, and the green woodpecker a woodspite.

The history of bird names is the subject of Stephen Moss’s Mrs Moreau’s Warbler. It seems that some common bird names are very ancient indeed. The cuckoo is recorded in England by that name as far back as the 13th century, in the medieval round known as ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’, where it appears in the first lines as the herald of the summer months: ‘Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cucu’ (‘Summer has arrived/sing loudly, cuckoo!’). But cuckoo, or cucu, comes from Old French, and before that Latin; the origin word, cuculus, is retained in the cuckoo’s Latin binomial, Cuculus canorus. The bird has an earlier name than this: the Old English geac. It appears as a geac in the eighth-century dictionary known as the Corpus Glossary, and in Cynewulf’s tribute to the monk St Guthlac (‘Bright was the glorious plain and his new home … Cuckoos [geacas] heralded the year’).

The surviving Anglo-Saxon literature contains names for only 16 species of birds, the cuckoo being one of them. A number of the other 15 are found in the extraordinary late seventh-century poem The Seafarer, several of them under names which are recognisable today, notably ganot for gannet, and stearn for tern. Mæw or mew, meaning ‘gull’, still survives in some local dialects and older folk names; earn, a name for the white-tailed eagle that may predate Old English, is commonly found in crosswords as erne. These are by no means the oldest British bird names, however. Both ‘swan’ and ‘swallow’ appear in almost identical forms in West Germanic languages and Old Norse, and are therefore thought to derive from Proto-Germanic sources, dating their roots to the first millennium bc. ‘Goose’, meanwhile, is the oldest of all: Moss tells us that its root form ghans may reach back five thousand years, to the Proto-Indo-European of the Central Asian steppe.

Many changes to bird names were the result of broader changes in culture. The Norman conquest looms large in this history, and the supplanting of geac by ‘cuckoo’ is typical of the linguistic influence of the invaders. But names in particular can be very resistant to such influence. ‘Archaic words … survive in names far longer than they would in other aspects of our language,’ Moss writes, noting that ‘a surprisingly large proportion of the names we still use today – including redstart, yellowhammer, fieldfare, lapwing and wheatear – have their origins in the pre-Conquest tongue.’ This doesn’t mean it’s any easier to understand what they mean or where they come from, and in fact the distortions of more than a thousand years mean these words can be especially misleading. ‘Fieldfare’, for instance, seems not to derive from the bird’s habit of feeding in fields: it is more likely a corruption of an Old English phrase meaning ‘grey piglet’, perhaps a reference to the bird’s colouration and call. ‘Lapwing’ – a word which has no obvious meaning at all, except that it seems to have something to do with wings – provides another good example: a text from 1050 ad gives hléapewince, which is possibly translatable as ‘movable crest’, a description of the bird’s elegantly tufted head. Later versions can be found drifting toward the current name: lhapwynche (1340), lappewinke (1390), and lapwyng (1430) before ‘lapwing’ appears in 1591. Confusingly, a common folk name for the lapwing, peewit, was for a long time used for the black-headed gull; in the Ornithology, Willughby and Ray use the name ‘pewit’ for this wholly unrelated bird, following what was evidently a widespread usage.

Moss’s book takes its title from a Tanzanian warbler, discovered by the ornithologists Reginald and Winifred Moreau in 1938, and christened by Reginald for his wife as Scepomycter winifredae – Winifred’s, or Mrs Moreau’s, warbler. Eponyms such as this were typical of ornithological practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fundamental taxonomies were by now at least provisionally agreed, and what remained to be done in an age of empire and exploration was to discover new species and claim possession. As a result, the majority of such eponyms tend to have been given to rare or very distantly located species and their names often reflected exploratory precedent. There was (and is) a protocol in play, however: one could not, under any circumstances, give a new discovery one’s own name. It must be bestowed by someone else.

Despite Francis Willughby’s ground-breaking ornithological achievements and his discovery and description of numerous species, he has had no bird named after him. He has been posthumously awarded a fish (Willughby’s charr), a bee (Willughby’s bee, which at one point enjoyed the punning name of the ‘willow bee’) and a whole genus of flowers (Willughbeyi), but not a bird. Birkhead suggests that one of Willughby’s discoveries, the honey buzzard, may be a good candidate for an eponymous renaming as Willughby’s buzzard. Its current name is somewhat unsuited, as the buzzard does not in fact eat honey, as was once thought. (Molecular analysis suggests it might not even be a true buzzard: it could be closer to the kites.) It’s a nice thought.