The history of the luminaries of science and birding is a long and illustrious one, as is the list of names. Those included here are personal choices to highlight a range of aspects of science and birding.
As birders, we will be familiar with Eleonora’s Falcon Falco eleonorae, but are we aware that the name memorialises Eleanor of Arborea, the Sardinian judge who, in 1392, introduced legislation (the Carta de Logu) that included protection of the nests of Sardinian hawks and falcons? It wasn’t until many centuries later that wild birds in the UK were given protection. By the late nineteenth century, the tide was beginning to turn from shooting and exploitation to protection. Emily Williamson founded what would become the RSPB, in Didsbury, Manchester, later joining forces with Eliza Phillips’s Fur and Feather group, and appointing the Duchess of Portland as their president. America followed suit when Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna B. Hall founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which became a national organisation in 1905. More protection was sorely needed, however, since shooting birds was still permitted on the Audubon Society’s reserves. Step forward conservation activist Rosalie Barrow Edge, who contacted Audubon members about the shortcomings in the Society’s defence of birds and other wildlife. She went on to found the Emergency Conservation Committee and to create the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary as a refuge for Appalachian hawks and eagles. She also led campaigns to create national parks (Olympic, Kings Canyon and Yosemite). Rachel Carson used migration data from Hawk Mountain in her work on the decline in raptor populations in the 1960s. Current news reports highlight the need for a great deal more work on the topic of bird protection, especially for raptors.
The distant past is key to our understanding of birds, with much of the earliest work relating to reptiles rather than birds. Mary Anning spent her life exploring the Jurassic marine fossil beds in Lyme Regis, in Dorset, discovering ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons. Being instrumental in the discovery that coprolites are fossilised faeces must have been fun! It wasn’t until nearly a century after Anning’s death in 1847 that Hildegarde Howard pioneered advances in avian palaeontology using her discoveries in the La Brea Tar Pits (Los Angeles). She standardised the terminology now used in palaeontology worldwide.
Birds have evolved into what we see today through a series of interactions with their environment and each other. Scottish ornithologist Annie Meinertzhagen (nee Jackson) produced a wide range of work, from plumage and moult in ducks (1915) and waders (1919) to chick mouthpart coloration. She made several important contributions to Witherby’s A Practical Handbook of British Birds and published papers in Ibis. In the early 1970s, Barbara and David Snow’s studies would show co-adaptation between fruit-eating birds and plants. Agriculture is undeniably the greatest driver of bird–environment interactions; the work of Juliet Vickery and colleagues has clearly shown it to be detrimental to farmland species.
Other drivers of evolution include migration. In the early twentieth century, Evelyn Baxter and Leonora Rintoul worked on the Isle of May, studying the movements of birds and developing theories of bird migration. They founded the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and published The Birds of Scotland in 1953. In our own time, we can see the changes in Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla migration, with some birds from central Europe now overwintering in Britain & Ireland rather than the Iberian Peninsula. Kate Plummer and colleagues’ work on the increasing numbers of Blackcaps in our gardens has revealed the mechanisms behind this shift, which are partly linked to supplementary feeding in gardens. These new migration patterns are accompanied by phenotypic evolution, with changes in bill shape reflecting the adaptation to a wider range of foods.
Evolution is a risky business: an inability to adapt to changing conditions can lead to extinction. Janet Kear’s work at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) to prevent the extinction of the Nene Branta sandvicensis is well known. Captive breeding was followed by reintroduction, leading the way for many other reintroductions of species that were facing total, or local extinction. Kear’s time as President of the British Ornithologists’ Union and editor of Ibis took her influence beyond WWT, as did her interest in bird behaviour.
It’s all about genetics! Our understanding of this scientific field has developed rapidly over the last 100 years. In the late 1920s, Barbara McClintock developed a staining technique that allowed her to identify, examine and describe maize genes, revealing that they are on chromosomes. She went on to identify jumping genes and develop the concept of epigenetics, both of which are now vital in revealing how any species’ genome works. Just two decades later, Rosalind Franklin worked on the X-ray diffraction images that determined the overall B-form of the DNA helix.
Science and birding continue to affect today’s world, covering everything from our physical and mental health to the health of this planet. Good nutrition and an understanding of drugs are essential for our health. The Second World War years saw publication of Elsie Widdowson’s book The Chemical Composition of Food, co-authored with Robert McCance, describing the nutritional values of many foods. They advised on British wartime rationing, personally trialling a diet of bread, cabbage and potatoes, and the result was the addition of vitamins and minerals to the wartime bread ration. Just after the war, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin succeeded in describing the 3D-structure of penicillin using X-ray crystallography. She followed this with the structures of vitamin B12 and, finally, insulin, making possible mass-production for the treatment of diabetes. She was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work.
As a species, humans appear to be very successful. However, the effects of our presence and our behaviour on this planet are becoming an increasing threat to the existence of all species. Everyone will remember 2020 for the Covid-19 pandemic, but the first coronavirus was identified in the mid 1960s, by the Scottish virologist June Almeida at St Thomas’ in London. Work has continued in that same establishment to develop diagnostics, treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19.
Alongside diseases, climate change is probably the present biggest threat to humanity. The current work carried out by the British Antarctic Survey under the leadership of Jane Francis is looking at climate change in those areas most sensitive to its effects, with Lucy Quinn focusing on albatross species around South Georgia. Her work has identified climate change as one of the major factors in population declines of up to 60%; bycatch in fisheries and plastic pollution are other factors. Lucy was involved in the BBC’s Blue Planet II film of albatross chicks eating plastic, which should help to drive efforts to remove plastic from the oceans. Closer to home, Sarah Wanless’s seabird studies on the Isle of May and beyond, one of the first to use radio-tracking, resulted in the ban on sandeel fishing in parts of the North Sea.
Technology is enabling us to widen our approach to scientific research, especially in terms of birding. The fieldwork for, and production of, the latest BTO Atlas (Bird Atlas 2007–11) benefited greatly from advances in computing; a phenomenal accomplishment, coordinated throughout by Dawn Balmer. Individual species projects, such as Liz Humphreys’ work using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) tags on Arctic Skuas Stercorarius parasiticus, use Atlas data to reveal the detail behind the trends.
For today’s scientists, organisers, motivators, leaders and artists who are, above all, birders, the vital task is to ensure that training, inspiration and encouragement are available and easily accessible to develop tomorrow’s luminaries. Mya, Megan, Charlotte, Elle, Siân, and all the others: we’re here for you – good luck!
Eve Tigwell is the BTO Regional Representative for Somerset and a Trustee of the British Birds Charitable Trust