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Ornithology

ORNITHOLOGY

ORNITHOLOGY, the branch of natural history that deals with the systematic study of birds, began in America in the eighteenth century. The British naturalist Mark Catesby was the first individual to thoroughly document the flora and fauna of the New World. His illustrated, two-volume work, Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731–1743), included descriptions of more than a hundred North American birds.


Early Studies

In the period surrounding the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia served as an important center for American natural history. A pivotal figure here was William Bartram, whose Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791) contained a list of 215 avian species. Bartram's exuberant descriptions of the southeastern landscape inspired many Americans to embrace the study of natural history and to regularly visit his home for guidance. They also patronized the Philadelphia museum of Charles Willson Peale, the American artist and naturalist who used a combination of European taxidermy methods and his own techniques to preserve specimens, thereby making possible the creation of permanent bird skin collections. The Scottish immigrant Alexander Wilson frequented both locations, and at Bartram's persistent urging, began an ambitious project to describe and illustrate every North American bird species. Wilson spent nearly a decade scouring the countryside to find the material needed for his multivolume American Ornithology (1808–1814), which treated more than 264 species, including forty-eight that were new to science.

Wilson's book was soon eclipsed by John James Audubon's masterful Birds of America (1827–1838), which contained 435 hand-colored, life-sized engravings. Audubon was a brilliant artist, though he sometimes sacrificed scientific accuracy for aesthetic effect. Nevertheless, his reputation as America's foremost bird illustrator remains secure, his exquisite drawings continue to be widely reproduced, and his name has been permanently memorialized in the National Audubon Society.

Institutionalization

The generation of ornithologists that followed Wilson and Audubon were more technical in orientation, and as a result, their publications became less accessible to the general public. Increasingly, American ornithology began to coalesce into a scientific discipline unified by the goal of providing a precise inventory of the nation's birds. State natural history surveys, western exploring expeditions, and individual collectors provided the raw material for this enterprise. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and other public and private museums were amassing the large study collections ornithologists needed to conduct their taxonomic research. Later in the century, these pioneering institutions were joined by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Curatorships at these and other museums provided most of the few paid positions available to ornithologists until the early twentieth century.

The establishment of societies devoted to bird study marked another important stage in the institutionalization of American ornithology. In 1873 a small group of ornithologists associated with William Brewster, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, established the first bird study organization in the United States: the Nuttall Ornithological Club. A decade later this society became the springboard for the creation of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU), an organization dominated by technically oriented ornithologists. By 1900, there were dozens of ornithological societies in the United States, including not only the Nuttall Club and the AOU, but also the Wilson Ornithological Club, the Cooper Ornithological Club, and the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. Many of these organizations remain active today.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, scientific ornithologists continued their struggle to produce a single authoritative inventory of the continent's avifauna, down to the level of species and subspecies (the latter are those geographic races delimited by small average morphological differences in specimens). A smaller number of economic ornithologists, on the other hand, studied the diets of birds. Through stomach content analysis and observation, they began to document the role that birds, especially songbirds, played in the control of insect pests. Their data became important in the wildlife conservation movement that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century.

Birdwatching and the Audubon Movement

Ornithologists played a crucial role in the movement to gain protection for birds, especially from commercial hunting for food and the millinery trade. In 1905, a series of state Audubon societies joined in a loose confederation, the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals (later renamed the National Audubon Society). Audubon societies lobbied for bird protection laws, promoted the establishment of bird sanctuaries, and developed public education campaigns stressing the beauty and economic utility of birds.

The beginning of birdwatching also dates from this period. While the transcendental writer Henry David Thoreau might have been the first American to devote considerable time observing birds in the wild, few followed his lead until the beginning of the twentieth century. By then, the development of inexpensive field glasses, the publication of the first portable field guides, a decline in the average work week, the diffusion of romantic sensibilities, and the prodding of Audubon officials enticed the public to embrace birdwatching as an important leisure activity. The publication of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds (1934) provided further impetus for this hobby, which today tens of millions of Americans regularly enjoy.

Recent Trends

During the first half of the twentieth century, scientific ornithology finally began to broaden from its previous preoccupation with the classification and description of North American birds. The development of graduate programs in ornithology, ecology, and evolutionary biology played an important role in diversifying ornithological research. By the 1920s and 1930s, Cornell, Berkeley, and Michigan had active graduate programs in these areas, and the number continued to rise into the middle of the twentieth century. University-trained ornithologists were more likely to pursue ecological, behavioral, and physiological studies than their largely self-trained nineteenth-century counterparts. They found employment in a variety of positions, ranging from museum curators and researchers to conservationists and wildlife managers. Those ornithologists who remained interested in the classification of birds have become increasingly global in orientation, and they often conduct their research using the latest scientific techniques. Both of these trends are exemplified in the research of Charles Sibley and Jon Ahlquist, who in the 1970s and 1980s used DNA hybridization to produce a new classification of the birds of the world. Because birds have been so thoroughly studied, ornithologists have also played an important role in documenting the biodiversity crisis—the worldwide decline of wildlife brought on by human-induced changes to the biosphere.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allen, Elsa G., The History of American Ornithology before Audubon. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 41, no. 3. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951.

Barrow, Mark V., Jr. A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Davis, William E., and Jerome A. Jackson, ed., Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Nuttall Ornithological Club, 1995–2000.

Gibbons, Felton, and Deborah Strom. Neighbors to the Birds: A History of Birdwatching in America. New York: Norton, 1988.

Mark V.BarrowJr.

See alsoAudubon Society .

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ornithology

or·ni·thol·o·gy / ˌôrnəˈ[unvoicedth]äləjē/ • n. the scientific study of birds. DERIVATIVES: or·ni·tho·log·i·cal / ˌôrni[unvoicedth]əˈläjikəl/ adj. or·ni·tho·log·i·cal·ly / ˌôrni[unvoicedth]əˈläjik(ə)lē/ adv. or·ni·thol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

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ornithology

ornithology Study of birds. Included in general ornithological studies are classification, structure, function, evolution, distribution, migration, reproduction, ecology, and behaviour.

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ornithology

ornithology XVII. — modL. ornithologia, f. Gr. ornīthológos treating of birds, f. órnis, ornītho- bird; see -LOGY.
So ornithologist XVII.

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ornithology

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