An impressive biography of the “man who began the scientific study of birds.”
Birkhead (Animal Behavior and History of Science/Univ. of Sheffield; The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, 2016, etc.) studies the life and work of a birder who was in the “right place at the right time,” Francis Willughby (1635-1672). With his good friend and tutor at Trinity College, John Ray, the two formed “one of the great partnerships in biology.” After Willughby’s death at the age of 36, Ray went on to edit and publish Willughby’s three massive, major scientific studies in Latin of fish, insects, and his “blockbuster,” Ornithology. Until now, Ray’s contributions have historically overshadowed Willughby’s. Thanks to the availability of new primary source materials, Birkhead is able to provide a “far more complete portrait” of the man who formed the foundation of a new type of natural history in general and ornithology in particular. A member of the landed gentry, Willughby received a superb university education while the scientific revolution of the 17th century was in full bloom. With a novelist’s flair for narrative, Birkhead recounts the young man’s many adventures on expeditions, often accompanied by Ray, and his groundbreaking discoveries. He describes Willughby as industrious, enthusiastic, and “evidently a nice man.” But it’s his scientific accomplishments that interest the author the most. In great detail, he examines Willughby’s vast research in fish species, bird reproduction, migration, feathers, insects, sap, classifications, chemistry, and even “a book of games.” Birkhead describes examining Willughby’s large specimen case with 1,200 compartments and finding not just a vast collection of seeds, but also 133 eggs: “During my research career I have had a few Eureka moments, but this was one of the best.”
Bird lovers and fans of well-written science history will love this revelatory and intoxicating biography.