Howard, Henry Eliot

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(b. Kidderminster, Worcestershire, United Kingdom, 13 November 1873; d. Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire, 26 December 1940),

ornithology, ethology, animal psychology.

Howard was an amateur British field ornithologist whose major contribution to science was his theory of the role of “territory” in bird life. He sought through painstaking observations of the life of common birds to understand the emotional and mental lives of birds.

Howard was not a professional scientist but instead a wealthy amateur. Educated at Eton and then at Mason Science College (the forerunner of the University of Birmingham), his primary occupation was that of director of a major steelworks in Worcester. The responsibilities of his job tended to keep him close to home, but he did not need to go any farther abroad to be a passionate observer of birds. In the immediate vicinity of Clareland, his home near Stourport-on-Severn in the Worcestershire countryside, were ponds, moorlands, and marshes where birds could breed and where Howard could watch them. He did so with extraordinary dedication, rising before dawn every morning over the course of many breeding seasons to study in detail the courtship habits of common, native birds.

British field natural history in the early twentieth century was inevitably shaped by the ideas of Charles Darwin. Howard for his part was convinced of the importance of natural selection as a factor in evolution, but his early observations on bird courtship led him to question certain features of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Darwin had called upon sexual selection to account for “secondary sexual characters,” the differences exhibited by males and females of the same species with respect to coloration, “ornaments,” weapons used in fighting rivals, vocalization, scent organs, and so forth. He explained that such characters were related not so much to the survival of the organism as to its success in securing a mate and leaving progeny. He proposed that these characters had been developed through “male combat” or “female choice” in those animals sufficiently advanced in their mental powers to feel rivalry or to appreciate beauty.

Among the critics of Darwin’s theory was Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace balked at Darwin’s idea of female choice, specifically as it related to the development of sexual differences in the colors of birds. Wallace maintained that the bright colors of the males and the dull colors of the females were the respective results of “male vigor” and natural selection acting to produce protective coloration. As Darwin saw it, however, one had only to consider how male birds displayed themselves to the females of their species to recognize that female choice played a key role in developing such characters.

Howard, who was interested in the mechanisms of evolution, the nature of the bird mind, and the details of bird display, was not satisfied with what either Darwin or Wallace had to say on sexual selection. He first expressed his doubts in one of his earliest papers, published in 1903. His complaints became more specific with the appearance in 1907 of the first installment of what was to be a large, two-volume treatise, The British Warblers: A History with Problems of Their Lives(1907–1914). Discussing the courtship of the grasshopper warbler, he stated that females do not usually have the chance to compare the displays of two or more males, nor, for that matter, do they seem much interested in the males’ displays at all.

Howard’s major contribution to the study of bird behavior was the concept of territory, the idea that males compete with each other for breeding territories, not for females. He first mentioned territory in 1908 in his article on the chiffchaff in The British Warblers. The males, he said, have protracted struggles with each other as they compete for the same area. Six years later, as he reached the end of his warbler study, he offered additional observations on the subject. But The British Warblers was a cumbersome and expensive work and thus not well suited for making Howard’s ideas widely known. Fortunately, Howard was persuaded by Britain’s leading authority on animal psychology, Conwy Lloyd Morgan, to write a small book in which Howard spelled out his ideas on territory and bird courtship in a more concentrated fashion. This Howard did in Territory in Bird Life (1920). He elaborated further on his observations and ideas in his 1929 book, An Introduction to the Study of Bird Behaviour.

Howard explained territory in the following terms. Birds in nature, he said, space themselves out in a way that serves to ensure a sufficient food supply for their offspring. This spacing out is achieved through male pugna-city. Upon arriving at their breeding grounds in the spring, males fight with other males. They fight primarily over territory, not over females, who do not arrive on the scene until days or even weeks after the males do. The male’s pugnacity depends upon the area he occupies: when his territory is trespassed upon, he has a strong impulse to fight; but when he crosses the boundary of his territory, this impulse to fight diminishes dramatically. As for the male’s bright colors and song, these serve in the first place as a warning to other males and only after that to produce an emotional response in the female. The arrival of the female leads to a heightening of the emotional states of male and female alike, thus furthering the biological goal of mating and reproduction.

The concept of territoriality was not new. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the German ornithologist Bernard Altum had expressed much the same idea, but without attracting attention. As it was, even after Howard published his Territory in Bird Life in 1920, it took the vigorous promotion of Howard’s thesis by Edward Max Nicholson to capture the imagination of contemporary ornithologists. This was achieved through Nicholson’s widely read book, How Birds Live (1927).

When it came to thinking about the mechanisms of evolution, Howard believed that natural selection was a key factor, but not the only factor, in the evolutionary process. He doubted that all the various details of bird courtship could have been developed by natural selection on the basis of their utility. From his own observations he knew that different species of birds exhibit small but nonetheless distinctive differences in the gestures or “attitudes” they display when fighting, defending territory, or courting. Some raise their wings a little more or a little less than others do. Some flap their wings slowly while others flutter them quickly. Some utter their songs flying upward while others utter them in descending. Howard could not believe that these small, organic differences were produced simply by the natural selection of fluctuating variations or mutations. But neither was he attracted to the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters. He called upon Morgan’s hypothesis of “coincident variations” to explain how individual experience could modify an instinctive behavior pattern and how this modification, though not itself inheritable, could then serve as a kind of “foster-parent” for congenital variations in the same direction.

The topic that continued to intrigue Howard the most, however, was the nature of the bird mind. He hoped that field naturalists, by devoting themselves to the study of a limited number of bird species, would be able to detect mental differences between individuals, and that this would shed light on the genesis of mind and on the relation between animal minds and human minds. His last two books, The Nature of a Bird’s World (1935) and A Waterhen’s Worlds (1940), represented his best efforts to comprehend the bird’s “viewpoint.” However, as the ornithologist David Lack noted in 1959, asking such questions as whether birds had a “world” or “viewpoint” led Howard “into exalted metaphysical regions where, as yet at least, he has had no followers” (p. 74). Quite unlike Howard, the ethologists of the generation that followed him, most notably Niko Tinbergen, were resolute in directing their attention to the observable behavior of animals and in eschewing altogether such topics as the animal mind or animal subjective experience.

Howard, like Edmund Selous, the other major pioneer of British field ornithology in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was a rather reclusive individual, at least in relation to the broader ornithological community. Howard appears to have been happy residing at home with his own family, receiving occasional guests, taking some fishing trips, and devoting himself to his detailed studies of bird life. He was a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union for forty-five years, but few of the other members knew him well. His closest scientific contacts were with Morgan and, to a lesser extent, with Julian Huxley. He also interacted briefly with Konrad Lorenz just as Lorenz was beginning his meteoric rise to prominence as the main founder of the new discipline of ethology.

Howard’s primary legacy was the concept of territory and the impetus he gave to behavioral field studies through his careful observations of the lives of common birds.


The Howard papers, including a large collection of letters written to Howard by Conwy Lloyd Morgan, are at the Edward Grey Library, Oxford University.


“On Sexual Selection and the Aesthetic Sense in Birds.” Zoologist, 4th series, 7 (1903): 407–417.

The British Warblers: A History with Problems of Their Lives. 2 vols. London: R. H. Porter, 1907–1914.

Territory in Bird Life. London: John Murray, 1920.

An Introduction to the Study of Bird Behaviour. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1929.

The Nature of a Bird’s World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1935.

A Waterhen’s Worlds. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1940.


Burkhardt, Richard W., Jr. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. The most extended account of Howard’s contributions to British field studies of behavior.

Lack, David. “Some British Pioneers in Ornithological Research, 1859–1939.” Ibis 101 (1959): 71–81.

Lowe, Percy R. “Henry Eliot Howard. An Appreciation.” British Birds 34 (1941): 195–197.

Nice, Margaret Morse. “The Role of Territory in Bird Life.” American Midland Naturalist 26 (1941): 441–487.

Nicholson, Edward Max. How Birds Live: A Brief Account of Bird-Life in the Light of Modern Observation. London: Williams & Norgate, 1927.

Richard W. Burkhardt Jr .