Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 18:42 EDT


Ornithology, a branch of zoology, is the study of birds. The term ornithology is derived from the ancient Greek words for bird and rationale or explanation. This study differs from other sciences because amateurs often take part in studies and because birds are commonly seen. It is thought that ornithology developed in the same manner than biology developed. Drawings from the Stone Age show the earliest interest in birds and the remains of over eighty bird species have been found at excavated Stone Age settlements. Early bird names, some of which are still used, were primarily onomatopoeic and were derived from knowledge of different species. Much of the early knowledge relating to birds included their use for traditional medicine, their usage as food, and their domestication.

Early records of birds not only provide insight into the history of ornithology, but also into the distribution of species, like the ostrich, which was found to have lived in Assyria from some of Xenophon’s records. Other records include art from Japan, India, and Persia, with examples showing accurate illustrations of many types of birds. Aristotle wrote about birds in his Historia Animalium, describing molting behavior, egg laying, and migration patterns, but he also wrote about myths like swallows hibernating. The earliest record of falconry dates back to Sargon II, who ruled Mesopotamia. It did not reach Europe until AD 400, after the Huns and the Allans Invaded. Later records from ornithologists include compilations of species from Pierre Belon, who described about two hundred species in his Book of Birds (1555) and Volcher Coiter, who classified and described the internal structure bird species in his book, De Diferentiis Avium.

It is thought that the scientific aspect of ornithology did not begin until the Victorian Era, and some contribute this beginning to John Ray and Francis Willughby, who created a taxonomic system for birds in the seventeenth century based on morphology and function. It was during this time that collectors began compiling eggs, bird’s nests, and skins. Collectors observed differences in habit and form in many areas of the world, describing local populations and variations across these regions. Those working in museums, which housed the large collections, were mostly responsible for the naming and categorizing of the birds. This resulted in the binomial, and sometimes trinomial, names for many bird species.

Many ornithologists sought to understand the connection between bird species, including Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling Johann Baptist von Spix, who thought that there was a mathematical and natural order to birds. One of the most popular theories that came from this thought process was the Quinarian system, which proved to be flawed. The next popular theory was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which did not seek to identify a single pattern but a common ancestor of different species, including birds.

Although advancements were made regarding ornithology over the course of history, it was not until the 20th century that it was widely viewed as more than a hobby. During this change, ornithologists began studying birds in their natural habitats. In Germany, bird ringing stations were being established beginning in 1903 and by the 1920’s the Journal für Ornithologie had published many findings regarding the ecology, anatomy, and behavior of birds, among other information. At this time in the United States, ornithology was still regarded as a practice for museum experts. Ornithology became popular among amateurs and others when it was realized that viewing tools such as telescopes and field guides, which were relatively new as of 1887, could be used together to identify birds in the wild. Although there were rivalries between professionals and amateurs, more information was gathered by both than ever before. Groups were created across the world before and during this time, including the Audubon Society in the United States, which was created for the purpose of conservation in 1885, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Britain.

The methods and tools used by ornithologists often change, but most are accepted quickly into the field and many methods often work in the field and in lab studies. Early methods for studying birds included collecting eggs, known as oology. This practice was popular, but it made identifying bird species complicated. Using skins to identify birds was another popular early method and it is still used today. This method involves preserving the skin, bones, and feathers of the specimens. Field studies have always involved bird watching, but this method of studying birds improved as the technology of optics moved forward. The newest technologies allow viewers to pinpoint small variations between species without having to catch a bird and study it in the hand, although capturing birds is a popular method of study that can reveal the species, sex, measurements, and other information about a bird. Other field study methods are used for mapping the territory and ranges of birds. There are some methods of study that can only be conducted in a laboratory setting, including long-term studies and vaccination studies.

Ornithology can be applied to many other areas in addition to science, including economic areas. Domesticated birds provide eggs, feathers, meat, and other products, but wild birds can become a problem to farmers, especially those that feed on grains. However, birds that consume insects are greatly valued by farmers. Birds are considered a pest in some areas and beneficial in others, but humans have caused some bird species to become extinct. In this regard, ornithology is very significant to the conservation of living bird species.

Image Caption: A male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) at White Sands National Monument. Credit: National Park Service/Wikipedia