All I Want for Christmas…

If you grew up in the 1950s, as I did, you will know the remainder of that song title as “(is my two front teeth)”, a song recorded by Spike Jones & His City Slickers that I found really annoying back in the day [1]. Annoying at least until one day, on the way to grade school, I fell jumping a fence and landed face first on the sidewalk, breaking off both of my upper incisors. For the next 15 years, I really did want new front teeth to replace the gold ones that were embarrassing in those days, but today might be a desirable bit of bling. But I digress…

A recent report suggests that the best Christmas presents are experiences, and what better experience than to read a new book over the holidays. I list below my picks for ‘new’ history books that might be worth reading —books that contain material relevant to the history of ornithology in particular or the history of science in general. I say ‘might’ because I have not yet read them all. I will write full reports on the most recent ones in the coming months, once I have read them.

Since this blog has only been running since August 2017, I am going to consider anything written in the last 5 years as new. This list is by no means comprehensive and my annotations here are taken largely from the publisher’s hype for the books that I have not yet read. I start with the most recent, and all are available from Amazon etc online or in hard copy.

  • Dresser.jpgMcGhie H (2017) Henry Dresser and Victorian Ornithology: Birds, Books and Business. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. [Due to be published yesterday! I have not yet seen a copy but it looks interesting and I will review it here in the new year. The publisher says ”Presents the first detailed biography of any of the Victorian industrialist-gentleman ornithologists. Based on a wealth of previously unpublished archival material. Includes many beautiful illustrations of birds, taken from Henry Dresser’s famous books, as well as previously unknown photographs of scientific figures. Makes a genuine contribution to an understanding of 19th and early 20th century ornithological society, and of the relationships between key figures”]
  • Brunner B (2017) Birdmania: A Remarkable Passion for Birds. Greystone Books. [This is an English translation of Brunner’s Ornithomania: Geschichte einer besonderen Leidenschaft published in 2015. This is an interesting-looking book about notable people who have studied and watched birds over the centuries. Lots of illustrations and engaging stories about ornithologists.]
  • Isaacson W (2017) Leonardo da Vinci. Simon & Schuster. [Not, of course about birds, but will undoubtedly be beautifully written—as was his bio of Steve Jobs—as well as interesting for the historical context of the beginnings of science. Da Vinci wrote his ‘Codex on the Flight of Birds‘ in 1505, so I am looking forward to reading what (if anything) Isaacson says about that. Da Vinci was also one of the first to dissect and illustrate the woodpecker’s tongue and it’s surprising attachment above the eyes.]
  • Warren-Chadd R, Taylor M (2016) Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend. Bloomsbury Natural History. [“draws on historical accounts and scientific literature to reveal how colourful tales or superstitions were shaped by human imagination from each bird’s behaviour or appearance.” Looks interesting.]
  • Birkhead TR, editor (2016) Virtuoso by Nature: The Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Leiden: Brill. [An academic book with chapters about all aspects of Willughby’s life and work]
  • Birkhead T (2016) The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg. Bloomsbury USA. [All about bird’s eggs and the history of oology, a remarkably popular avocation in the 1800s. After a long period of neglect it is again becoming fashionable to study birds’ eggs again, and this very readable book documents much of the history and current scientific interest in eggs. This book won the Zoological Society of London’s Communicating Zoology Award for 2016]
  • Avery.jpgMark A (2015) Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. [The history and continuing saga of managing grouse in the Scottish and English highlands, with harrowing tales of conflict between the land-owners, game keepers, hunters, and conservationists.]
  • Wulf A (2015) The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Knopf. [Winner of the Royal Society’s Insight Investment Science Book Prize in 2016. I don’t think Humboldt was particularly interested in birds, but he was a great explorer and Darwin makes frequent reference to him so I am interested to learn more.]
  • Avery M (2014) A Message from Martha. A&C Black. [This and the next two books celebrate the 100th anniversary of the demise of the passenger pigeon. They are all good in their own way, and different enough that they are all worth reading.]
  • Fuller E (2014) The Passenger Pigeon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • GreenbergGreenberg J (2014) A Feathered River Across the Sky. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

I probably should also mention our own Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin, still an incredible bargain at Amazon USA for <$20.

For those of you not looking for a bargain, I would love a Christmas present of any of the following books :>) of historical significance to ornithology:

  • Holsteyn P (ca1638) Aves aquatiles advivum eleganter depictae a Petro Holsteyn. Amsterdam. [Available from Arader Galleries in NY for US$8,500,000 here. Graham Arader arranged for Tim Birkhead and I to look through this book shortly after he acquired it in 2015. It’s a bit out of my price range (!) and really should be in a museum as it is a one-of-a-kind, hand-drawn original with exquisite coloured bird illustrations. You can read more about it and see many of the illustrations here.]
  • BelonCoverBelon P (1555) L’histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions, & naifs portraicts retirez du naturel: escrite en sept livres. Paris: Gilles Corrozet. [Pierre Belon’s classic treatise on the birds of (mainly) France, with pretty good descriptions of most species, illustrated with woodcuts. I read much of Belon’s work for a forthcoming paper on the naming of a bird, and found it remarkably insightful and detailed. Available at Antiquariat INLIBRIS Gilhofer Nfg. GmbH (Vienna, A, Austria) for a mere US$78,682.03 here, or you can read it at the superb Tout Gallica site online here.]
  • Gould J, Sharpe RB (1887) A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Hummingbirds. London: Henry Sotheran & Co. [Available from Arader Galleries in NY for US$375,000 here. I did my PhD on hummingbirds at McGill and was able to look through this classic at McGill’s fabulous Blacker-Wood Library. The illustrations are stunning.]



  1. the modern equivalent “All I Want for Christmas is You,” cowritten and sung by Mariah Carey is more pleasant to listen to,  if just as cheesy

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