Guest Author - Deborah Watson-Novacek
The term "ornithology" is from the greek "ornis" or "ornithos" meaning "bird," and "logos" meaning "explanation." Ornithology is the branch of zoology devoted to the study of birds.
WHAT IS A BIRD?
A succinct definition of birds is given by F.B. Gill in Ornithology (Second edition. Freeman. New York) - "Birds are two-legged, bipedal vertebrates, distinguished from other living vertebrates by feathers. All birds have bills, and they have a 4-chambered heart."
THE SYSTEMATICS OF BIRDS
The systematics (classification) of birds is as follows:
Kingdom - Animalia (animals)
--Phylum - Chordata (animals with a spinal chord)
---Subphylum - Vertebrata (animals with a backbone)
----Class - Aves (living and extinct birds)
EARLY HISTORY OF ORNITHOLOGY
Stone Age drawings of birds are some of the earliest indications that mankind had an interest in birds. It is believed that birds held an important place as a food source to early man, as bones of dozens of different species have been found during excavation of early Stone Age settlements.
Written records dating back to as early as 1500 BC contain many observations about avian life. Additionally, early art of China, Japan, India and Persia also reflect many scientifically accurate illustrations of birds.
In 350 BC, Aristotle notes in his Historia Animalium (Animal History) habits of bird migration, moulting, egg laying and life spans.
Mesopotamian records from the period of 722 - 705 BC reflect the origins of falconry, although this sport did not make its way to Europe until 400 AD. Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194 - 1250 AD) published his De Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) in 1240. This work covered the studies of falconry he made over a 30 year period and is considered one of the earliest studies on bird behavior.
A Frenchman named Pierre Belon published his Book of Birds in 1555 as a folio containing descriptions of some two hundred bird species. Later, he made a comparison of the skeletons of humans and birds, which is today considered a landmark work in the field of comparative anatomy.
Other landmark works in early ornithology include:
Volcer Coiter -(1523 - 1576 AD) a Dutch anatomist who made detailed studies of the internal structures of birds, resulting in an early (1572) classification system entitled De Diferentiis Avium based on both structure and behavior.
Konrad Gesner - published the Vogelbuch and Icones avium onmnium in 1557.
Ulisse Aldrovandi - wrote the ornithologiae hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII, three volumes (some 2000 pages) on the natural history of birds published from 1599 to 1603 AD.
William Turner - published his Historia Avium ("History of Birds") in 1544, which concentrated primarily on English ornithology.
Francis Willughby and John Ray - in the 17th century Willughby and Ray developed the first major system of bird classification based on function and morphology instead of behavior or form. Willughby began the Ornithologiae libri tres, which was completed by Ray in 1676.This work is considered by many to mark the beginning of scientific ornithology.
Mathurin Jacques Brisson - (1723-1806 AD) released a six-volume work, Ornithologie in 1760.
Comte de Buffon - (1707 - 1788) published nine volumes on birds between 1770 and 1785, Histoire naturelle des oiseaux.
Francois Le Vaillant - (1753 - 1824) published a six volume study of African birds entitled Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d'Afrique.
Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot - (1748 - 1831) spent ten years studying North American birds, publishing his finds in Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de l'Amerique septentrionale in 1807 and 1808. Vieillot's work pioneered the use of life histories and habitats in the classification of birds.
VICTORIAN ERA ORNITHOLOGY
It was in the Victorian era that the "scientific" hobby of bird collecting became popular, made easier by the emergence of rifles in everyday life. The collection of bird eggs and skins eventually led to the formation of the British Ornithologists' Union in Britain in 1858. "Bird Collectors" obtained many samples and took many notes on bird forms and habitats across the world. So many specimens were collected that the naming of species with binomials and the organization of birds into groups based on their similarities became the primary work of museum specialists of the time.