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History of Ornithology

  1. T R Birkhead1,
  2. I Charmantier2

Published Online: 15 DEC 2009

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003096



How to Cite

Birkhead, T. R. and Charmantier, I. 2009. History of Ornithology. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. 1

    University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

  2. 2

    Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter, UK

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 DEC 2009


Before the seventeenth century, interest in birds centred largely on folklore and their symbolic significance. Ray and Willughby's encyclopaedia, the Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1676 and 1678) marked a turning point in the study of birds by rejecting folklore and focussing especially on biology. Following Ray's Wisdom of God (1691), which addressed ultimate causes, the study of birds developed along two separate strands: (i) systematics, nomenclature and faunistics (inspired by Ornithology) and (ii) natural history (inspired by Wisdom). The first of these endeavours dominated ornithology for the next 250 years, and were the main focus of the ornithological Unions founded in the 1800s. The two strands were reunited in the 1920s (central Europe) and 1940s (the UK and the USA). After World War II not only the expansion of higher education resulted in a huge increase in both the number of professional ornithologists, but also our knowledge of avian natural history and evolution.

Key concepts

  • The study of birds began with Aristotle, but stagnated between the first century ad and the Renaissance.

  • Ornithology became scientific with the abandonment of emblematics in the 1670s.

  • John Ray initiated two strands of ornithology: systematics and natural history (field ornithology) in the late 1600s.

  • Systematic ornithology focussed on the naming and classification of birds, and later, their geographical distribution.

  • The natural history of birds (field ornithology) focussed on behaviour, ecology and ultimate causes.

  • Ornithological encyclopedias were a product of the Renaissance.

  • After the Renaissance ornithology became increasingly specialized.

  • Charles Darwin's concepts of natural and sexual selection in the mid-late 1800s were important in encouraging scientific interest in birds.

  • The two strands of ornithology, systematics and natural history, were re-united in the 1920s (Germany) and 1940s (the UK and the USA).

  • The modernization of ornithology during the twentieth century occurred largely as a result of the conceptual unification of evolutionary thinking in the 1940s and the focus on individual selection in the 1970s.


  • avian biology;
  • bird study;
  • ornithological knowledge;
  • history;
  • ornithology