Two Magdalene Birdmen

This post has been commissioned to coincide with the 150th anniversary, in 2022, of the commencement by Alfred Newton of his series Desirability of establishing a ‘Close-time’ for the Preservation of Indigenous Animals.  

Professor Tim Birkhead has been the Professor of Behaviour and Evolution at the University of Sheffield since 1976.  A well-known figure on programmes such as BBC Radio‘s Start the Week,  The Life Scientific and the Infinite Monkey Cage, as well as at festivals including the Cheltenham Scientific Festival and the Hay on Wye Literary Festival,   Professor Birkhead introduces us here to two Magdalene ornithologists.


Magdalene can claim two ornithological giants as their own: Alfred Newton (1829-1907) and David Lack (1910-1973). They could hardly be more different, each residing on separate sides of an ornithological divide over research priorities. Had they been contemporaries and colleagues, they may not have liked each other, but I think that they would still have respected each other’s passion for birds.

Portrait of Alfred Newton at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Newton was Professor of Comparative Anatomy in Cambridge between 1866 and 1907, and a fellow of Magdalene. In many ways he epitomised nineteenth-century ornithology: amassing so-called study skins and the eggs of birds, that laid down their lives in name of science. Victorian ornithologists were preoccupied by the classification and geographic distribution of birds. Study skins are reference specimens by which one can examine — for example — the number of tail or wing feathers, or more prosaically the rictal bristles around the bill, of a particular bird and make comparisons with other species. Similarities and differences in body conformation, plumage and other traits, allowed ornithologists to place species on the same or different branches on the tree of life. Newton saw the huge potential in Darwin’s ideas for resolving the phylogenetic puzzles posed by birds. However, notwithstanding the great strides made by Victorian birdmen, the classification of birds remained a largely unresolved puzzle until the advent of molecular tools in the late twentieth century.

An illustration of eggs from ‘Ootheca Wolleyana : an illustrated catalogue of the collection of bird’s eggs’ by John Wolley and continued by Alfred Newton (London :  R.H. Porter, 1864-1902).  Image from the Biodiversity Heritage library; displayed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The collecting of birds’ eggs, so disapproved of today, was given scientific respectability in Newton’s day by treating it as a distinct discipline (named ‘öology’). Like study skins, ornithologists assumed that the sizes, shapes and colours of eggs would reflect their evolutionary history. Even though Newton was an ardent öologist, he was among the first to accept and announce that egg collecting was a dead end in the pursuit of phylogenetic information.

Newton made no grand ornithological discoveries. Instead, his contributions were in several different spheres. He provided, for example, tremendous support for Magdalene undergraduates and others interested in birds through his regular soirees in his college rooms, at which his vast ornithological knowledge was decanted into the minds of his young disciples.

Newton’s parakeet (Psittacula exsul) at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.
Photograph reproduced with the kind permission of the University of Cambridge.

Newton loved books and over his lifetime amassed an enormous ornithological library, now in the Zoology Department, Cambridge (the Balfour and Newton Libraries). For those, like me, seeking obscure bird books, Newton’s library is a treasure. Flipping through the volumes he once owned, one cannot help but be struck by Newton’s pencilled marginalia, rectifying poor English grammar or errors of fact. He was a pedant, but all that editing and erudition resulted in the production of his landmark publication in the late 1890s: A Dictionary of Birds. It wasn’t a solo performance; he had the help of Hans Gadow, and several others, all of whom have been more or less forgotten today. The Dictionary was Newton’s idea and a lasting legacy to his extraordinary scholarship. It is my go-to book whenever I need information relating to a bird’s discovery, its name or some other historical fact. At 1088 pages and 700 figures, the Dictionary is a tour de force and today, thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library, it is accessible to everyone.

Newton was instrumental in founding the British Ornithologists Union in 1858, whose journal The Ibis (which he also edited) has been their main mouthpiece ever since. This was also the year that Newton, together with his close friend John Wolley, set forth for Iceland in search of the great auk. Newton was obsessed by extinct birds such as the dodo (last seen in the 1600s). What was thought to be the last great auk had been seen (and killed) just twelve years previously in 1844, on the tiny island of Eldey off the Reykjanes Peninsula at the southwest tip of Iceland. Newton’s hope was that a few individuals might still exist on that tiny and remote blip of rock. Persistent bad weather thwarted their efforts to get there and instead, Newton and Wolley interviewed the men who had participated in the final fatal trip. As they did so, it began to dawn on Newton and Wolley that they were the first to experience (albeit vicariously) the final extirpation of a species. This was a wake-up call for Newton who until this point had thought of extinction, first, as something affecting only dinosaurs or ammonites in the very distant past, and second, as a natural part of Darwin’s evolutionary process: one species outcompeting and replacing by another. Newton now realized that extinction could also be unnatural — man-made — but also could be legitimately studied by ornithologists and other biologists. Extinction was no longer the exclusive territory of geologists.

It was this realisation that fueled what I consider to be Newton’s greatest contribution to ornithology — conservation. In the late 1800s as Britain’s railway system extended its reach, seaside resorts like Bridlington in Yorkshire, suddenly became very accessible. The nearby seabird colony at Bempton on the Flamborough headland drew ‘roughies’ by rail from urban cities, like sharks to blood, to shoot vast numbers of kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills — for ‘fun’. Dismayed by this mindless slaughter, Newton campaigned relentlessly — and successfully — for a Seabird Preservation Act — with 1869 marking the beginning of bird conservation by legislation.

Newton’s Victorian style of ornithology, the collecting, killing and cataloguing of bird skins and eggs persisted throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, fueled by the British Ornithologists’ Union, whose old-school approach stubbornly resisted change. These largely museum-based ornithologists rejected, for example, the pioneering efforts of Edmund Selous, another Darwinian, to observe birds behaving in their natural environment, as ’unscientific’.  Yet it was the writings of Edmund Selous, that inspired the young David Lack in the 1930s, eventually enabling him to bring about a revolution in ornithology, and indeed, biology as a whole.

Educated at Greshams in Norfolk, where he spent much of his time birdwatching, Lack went up to Cambridge to read zoology in 1929. By his own admission, he was unaware that Magdalene — his college of choice— was where Alfred Newton had started the British Ornithologists’ Union. Lack described his arrival in Cambridge as ‘a spring awakening after the winter of public school’ an awakening he attributed to the Pepys librarian, Francis Turner (Lack 1973). He now had the freedom to continue watching birds, as Edmund Selous had done. Lack was precociously clever and encouraged by his father, developed a critical approach to science, writing, for example, a perceptive (some say abrasive) criticism of Eliot Howard’s 1920 book on the concept of territory in bird life. Later, Lack — by then the most famous of all ornithologists — acknowledged Howard’s book as one of the most important of the century.

On graduating Lack became a schoolmaster at Dartington, where he studied robins and produced his classic The Life of the Robin’ in 1943 — still worth reading today. As is clear from this volume, like Newton, Lack loved books and his Robin is liberally, and usefully, peppered with quotes and references from historical texts.

In 1945 Lack became the director of the Edward Grey Institute for Ornithology in Oxford. It was from here that he was able to challenge and oust the old school ornithologists who had dominated the subject since Newton’s day. Lack’s approach was conceptual and unusual in having a very clear view of natural selection, one that focused on individuals rather than populations. This was his very successful framework for studying the population biology and ecology of birds, using predictions based on individual selection to formulate and test his ideas. As Richard Dawkins said in The Selfish Gene, Lack was a pioneer in the field of behavioural ecology and selfish gene thinking.

Lack was THE premier ornithologist of the twentieth-century. Almost single-handedly he threw off the shackles of Newton’s kill-and-collect style of ornithology, shifting the focus towards the way birds live. And while conservation was not one of Lack’s major concerns — it was hardly an issue in the 1950s and 1960s — his studies of reproductive rates and population biology now form the foundation for much conservation work. Lack shaped the future of ornithology in many different ways. Each January, for example, he hosted a conference at his Edward Grey Institute (EGI) for undergraduates interested in birds, which is where many future scientists — including myself — cut their teeth. Perhaps Lack’s greatest contribution was in the way he communicated ornithology through his books. He wrote beautifully and with wonderful lucidity. When he interviewed me for a DPhil place, I was taken aback when he told me that his right hand man, Chris Perrins, was better at fieldwork than he was, but he was the better writer. Lack’s wonderfully readable books summarizing his bold ideas and findings were reinforced by a ‘single factor’ approach to ecological issues. To the question ‘what controls bird populations?’ he felt there were three possible answers: (i) food, (ii) disease, or (iii) predators. On the basis of the evidence available to him in the 1950s and 1960s, Lack decided that food was the key, and the other two factors could be ignored, thereby making his case much easier to argue. With hindsight, biology is never quite that simple, and we now know that all three factors have a role to play.  Lack also had a good aesthetic sense and employed the outstanding bird artist Robert Gillmor to illustrate several of his books.

I feel immensely fortunate to have met David Lack, to have benefitted from the community of ornithologists he hosted at the Edward Grey Institute, and to have been supervised by his successor Chris Perrins. Both Alfred Newton and David Lack, despite fundamental differences in their approach, were both recognised for their contributions to ornithology and were elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society.

Further reading

Anderson, T. R. (2013). The Life of David Lack.  Oxford University Press.

Birkhead, T. R. (2022) Birds and Us. Penguin/Viking, London

Birkhead, T. R.& Gallivan, P. (2012). Alfred Newton’s contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis, 154, 887-905.

Birkhead, T. R., Wimpenny, J. & R. Montgomerie (2014) Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Cowles, H. M. (2013). A Victorian extinction: Alfred Newton and the evolution of animal protection. British Journal for the History of Science 46: 695-714.

Lack, D. (1973). My life as an ornithologist. Ibis 115: 421-431.

Urry, A. (2021). Hearsay, Gossip, Misapprehension: Alfred Newton’s secondhand histories of extinction. Archives of Natural History 48(2): 244-262.

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