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Bird Man – Celebrating the ornithologist that was forgotten to history

  • Written by  Tim Birkhead
  • Published in Wildlife
Francis Willughby Francis Willughby Image: Birdsall Estates
08 Jun
Celebrated author Professor Tim Birkhead provides a fascinating insight into a man overshadowed in his lifetime, but who pioneered everything we know today about the study of birds

The Wonderful Mr Willughby by Tim BirkheadFrancis Willughby is the unsung hero of ornithology, who, for 350 years, has lain in the shadow of his friend and collaborator John Ray. Recent research presented in The Wonderful Mr Willughby (Bloomsbury 2018), reveals Willughby to be every bit as clever as his colleague, an extraordinary pioneer of the scientific revolution and the first true ornithologist.

Willughby died of ‘tertian fever’ at just 36 in 1672. Ray had promised to educate Willughby’s two sons, but also to publish the research Willughby and he had conducted together. It was a task that would take the rest of Ray’s long life, but also one that, somewhat perversely resulted in subsequent generations of naturalists seeing Ray as a genius and Willughby as a mere ‘enthusiastic amateur’.

Born into landed gentry at Middleton Hall, Warwickshire in 1635, Willughby went to Trinity College, Cambridge at the age of 17. John Ray, eight years Willughby’s senior, was his tutor and the two became friends. In the 1650s and 1660s Cambridge was a hotbed of revolution – the scientific revolution. The English Civil War, which ended in 1651, had left the country ready for change and much of that was occurring among the academics at England’s two universities, Cambridge and Oxford.

John RayJohn Ray

Following a train set in motion by Francis Bacon in the early 1600s, academics were desperate for objective knowledge about the natural world. Old wives’ tales were no longer acceptable. A kingfisher suspended from a silk thread, it was said, would come to rest with its beak pointing in the direction from which the wind would blow. Widely accepted, this idea was easily disproved when Sir Thomas Browne (a colleague of Willughby and Ray) suspended two kingfishers whose beaks invariably adopted different positions.

Objective and quantitative knowledge was on the rise in both the physical sciences (including mathematics) and the natural sciences. Mathematics was essential in astronomy, epitomised by Isaac Newton, a student at Trinity a few years after Willughby and Ray.

This surge of interest in the natural world resulted in the formation of the Royal Society in the 1660s, whose motto says it all: Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it. Willughby was one of the original members elected in 1663, and Ray in 1667. Here, for the first time was a community – a small one – of scientists, able to discuss their ideas, perform their experiments and publish their results in what was the first (and longest running) scientific journal: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Trinity College, CambridgeTrinity College, Cambridge

During the time Willughby was at Trinity, Ray was engaged in preparing a flora record of Cambridgeshire. Along with a few other undergraduates, Willughby went along to help. Ray enthused Willughby about the beauty and intricacy of the natural world, and as a clergyman Ray used nature as evidence for the existence and wisdom of God – a set of religious beliefs championed by Ray that became known as physico-theology.

Remarkably perhaps, Ray did not let God get in the way of his scientific thinking. Later, he published his ideas on this topic in The Wisdom of God, and when I first read this book, I was struck by Ray’s biological insights. For example, he speculates about why different birds breed at different times of year: crossbills lay their eggs in February, bullfinches in May, and states that it is because the food they rear their chicks on are most abundant at different times of year, adding that it was God that had arranged it thus. Ray’s biology is correct – remarkable insight.

Ray’s Wisdom of God was ruthlessly plagiarised by William Paley, who in 1802 published his own version entitled Natural Theology, required reading for Cambridge undergraduates training for the clergy. This included Charles Darwin who was taken by what we now call adaptations. Later, Darwin wrote:

‘The old argument as given by Paley, which formerly seemed so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection had been discovered.’

The Wisdom of BirdsIn the 1940s, another Cambridge clergyman and botanist, Charles Raven, who I believe saw himself as the reincarnation of Ray, published a scholarly and adulatory biography of John Ray, emphasising Ray’s genius and demoting Willughby to the status of ‘talented amateur’.

I believed Raven’s assessment and indeed was so impressed by Ray’s Wisdom of God that I entitled my own book on the history of ornithology The Wisdom of Birds (Bloomsbury 2008). However, when, during a visit to Francis Willughby’s descendants to photograph their portrait of him, I commended Ray for his biological insights, I was told very firmly that it was Willughby who was the genius, not Ray.

It was that conversation that made me realise that while we knew a great deal about Ray who had published a great deal during his long life, we knew almost nothing about Francis Willughby.

Middleton Hall RSPB Nature Reserve, situated to the rear of Middleton HallMiddleton Hall is today home to an RSPB Nature Reserve

Interestingly, after Raven had finished writing his biography of Ray and it was in the process of being printed, he learned of the existence of a substantial archive of Willughby material. All he could do was to add a note to the proofs of his book, saying that some day a book will be written about Willughby. It was this archive that myself and colleagues used as the basis for a three-year research project on Willughby. It now seems to me that such was Raven’s adulation of Ray, that had he seen the Willughby archive, he would have struggled to deal with his new knowledge objectively.

During the early 1600s, Ray and Willughby travelled on horseback across England and Wales in search of new plants. It was during one such journey that they decided (and my guess is that it was Willughby) to overhaul the whole of natural history, with Willughby doing the animals and Ray the ‘vegetables’ (plants). This was a momentous and staggeringly ambitious proposal, but that’s the way Willughby was: inspired, energetic and enthusiastic. And it was something that badly needed doing. The available natural history books were stuffed full of folklore, emblematics and ‘hieroglyphs’, making it difficult to distinguish fiction from fact. Not only that, there was considerable confusion over the names of organisms: local names abounded and it was far from clear how ‘God’s grand scheme of life’ was organised. Since ancient times it had been obvious that there was some kind of scheme – certain species were obviously more similar to each other – but no one so far had created a functional classification based on accurate identification.

Willughby started with birds. In fact, despite their initial idea of dividing up responsibilities they both worked on all aspects, but birds became their initial objective. At the same time they never overlooked an opportunity to observe and take notes on fish, insects, and indeed anything else that took their fancy, including different types of games, words and local industries. These were men on a mission, hungry for knowledge of all kinds.

A Willughby's buzzard, otherwise known as the Eurasian honey-buzzardA Willughby’s buzzard, otherwise known as the Eurasian honey-buzzard

What was the driving force behind all this? The answer is classification. Willughby and Ray’s academic colleague John Wilkins (later Bishop of Chester) was attempting to create a new ‘universal language’, a kind of scientific Esperanto that would impose precision and avoid ambiguity. New discoveries in science cried out for a new vocabulary and classification was recognised as the bedrock on which science could build.

In turn, classification required first and foremost accurate, unambiguous identification. And that was the task Willughby and Ray set themselves. It involved obtaining specimens of all known birds, and comparing their external appearance and internal anatomy, looking for what were known as ‘distinguishing marks’ – those features that allow one to simultaneously map similarities and differences between species. In the 1660s it was thought that there might be around 500 species of bird (there are in fact around, 10,000 across the world) and Willughby and Ray got to examine many of these.

They also devised a classificatory scheme that, like a modern ‘key’, would allow someone finding an unknown bird to correctly classify it. It worked. I tried Willughby and Ray’s key on a species they had encountered only as a painting and were puzzled by: a pin-tailed sandgrouse. Later ornithologists decided the sandgrouse perched somewhere between pigeons and grouse on the tree of life, exactly where Willughby and Ray’s key led me. Brilliant! Indeed, half a century after the publication of their bird volume, Linneaus found himself unable to improve on their classification.

The title page of Willughby’s OrnithologyThe title page of Willughby’s Ornithology

Francis Willughby died before the ornithology book was finished and Ray was forced to complete it on his own. Such was his commitment to his friend that over the next 30 years Ray also prepared Willughby’s notes on fishes and insects to produce volumes on these taxa too.

The Ornithology of Francis Willughby was published first in Latin 1676, and in English two years later, and all subsequent bird biologists agree that this marked the beginning of scientific ornithology. The quality of the classificatory scheme was extraordinary; the care with which Willughby had identified the distinguishing marks of different species, and the overall layout of the material was exemplary. The subsequent books on fish and insects that Ray laboured so long over didn't have the same impact: the novelty of the approach was with the birds. This was the beginning of scientific ornithology.

Tim Birkhead FRS is professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield, UK. His book, The Wonderful Mr Willughby, published by Bloomsbury, is out now. Click here to purchase via Amazon.

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