Quick History of Avian Classification

We can go back all the way to Aristotle in 300 or so B.C. who classified about 125 different birds on the basis of their habitat. This was a common way of classification for many years. Throughout the middle ages and the renaissance there were various schemes for classifying birds – habitat, beak, color, legs, etc. But most names were based on something other than the relationship of birds to each other. There was no photography until the mid 1800’s so descriptions of birds were based on written texts or illustrations of some sort. Many of these illustrations were either inaccurate, or just fanciful. In the 17th century, when explorers were bringing exotic birds from all corners of the world, illustrations got better – many realistic paintings were being created. But classification was still crude and mostly wrong. One problem was that there was no good way to preserve bird specimens, so bacteria and insects destroyed them quickly. It wasn’t until the 18th century that ways of preserving skins were developed. Until the early 20th century, arsenic was used in many preparations, leading to the death of a few museum workers, including the famous ornithologist John Cassin.

Later, taxidermy became common so birds could be put in lifelike poses for artists to sketch. Audubon, before taxidermy came about, shot birds and mounted them on wire frames in realistic poses.

Jacob Bogdani, 1710

I’m going to skip over a lot of detail about classification schemes and get right to the first real scientific classification of birds, that of The Ornithology of Francis Willoughby. (Also spelled Willughby.)

I have taken the below information from  The Royal College of Surgeons.  

Ornithology: title page“The Ornithology of Francis Willoughby (1678) is the enlarged and corrected English version of the previously published Latin work Ornithologiae libri tres (1676). Recognised as one of the fundamental texts in the development of ornithology, the book was the first to attempt to rationally classify birds. Both men involved in the production of the book, John Ray and Francis Willoughby, were seen as the founders of ornithology in England.

Ray and Willoughby met while attending Trinity College in Cambridge and were brought together by their shared interest in the history of nature. Willoughby focused on animals, birds and fish, while Ray had a greater interest in botany. They spent some time travelling together through Europe documenting their findings.

Ornithology owlsOrnithology eagles

Unfortunately, Willoughby was not to live to see his work in print. He died suddenly in 1672 leaving Ray with his notes and observations and a sixty pound annuity. Although Ray’s passion lay in plants, he took on the work of his late friend putting together and publishing the book four years later.”

Sarah Kennedy, Collections Review Assistant

The above is a very shortened and simplified version of a long, fascinating story. You can read more on Science Focus. And for real detail, you can read the book, The Wonderful Mr. Willughby: The First True Ornithologist, by Tim Birkhead, British ornithology and excellent writer of several bird books.
For detail on avian classification, Wikipedia has a very thorough article.

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