Like all scientific endeavours, the history of ornithology is documented in the published record—books, scientific papers, popular articles, and, most recently, the internet in the form of blogs, websites and digital archives. Since the first scientific journal began publishing in 1665, for example, more than 350,00 scientific papers have been written about birds.
You can access much of that rich literature on the web, though many journals are behind a paywall and require a subscription if you wish to access their current and past issues. Papers published in general ornithological journals like The Auk, The Condor, Wilson Bulletin, and the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club as well as many regional and taxon-specific journals are freely available online at SORA, the Searchable ORnithological Archives.
This timeline of great bird books provides an overview and place to start exploring the ornithological literature. Libraries also provide free access to hard copies of published works and we provide a listing of outstanding ornithological libraries at the link below and in the menu bar. While every public and university library will have a lot of books about birds, there are several magnificent collections of books about birds in North America and Europe that are described at the links below.
On this page we also provide links to books and articles about the history of ornithology as well as textbooks of ornithology that can provide a useful starting point for learning about the development of this 400-year-old scientific discipline.
Fowler SP (1862). Ornithology of the United States, Its Past and Present History. Proceedings of the Essex Institute 2:327–34. A useful summary of the major works to the middle of the nineteenth century.
Allen JA (1876). Progress of ornithology in the United States during the last century. American Naturalist 10:536–50. A summary of the major works, both books and papers, as well as an assessment of the progress that had been made since Thomas Jefferson’s bird list of 1776.
Palmer TS (1900). A Review of Economic Ornithology in the United States. Yearbook of the US Department of Agriculture 1899: 259–92. An excellent overview of mainly nineteenth century studies on the economic importance of birds with respect to agriculture, game, guano, feathers, eggs, and invasive species.
Allen EG (1951). The History of American Ornithology Before Audubon. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 41: 385–591. Comprehensive, rich in detail; chronological; much more than its title suggests, including European history.
Sibley CG (1955). Ornithology. Pp. 629–59 in Kessel EL (ed.) A Century of Progress in the Natural Sciences, 1853–1953. California Academy of Sciences: San Francisco, CA. An excellent, if selective, worldwide overview with sections on ornithological journals and monographs.
Bock WJ (2001) Contributions of Central European ornithology to world ornithology. Journal of Ornithology 142:94-108.
Haffer J (2001) Ornithological research traditions in central Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Journal of Ornithology 142:27–93.
Haffer J (2004) Erwin Stresemann (1889-1972)—life and work of a pioneer in scientific ornithology: a survey. Acta Historica Leopoldina 34:1–465.
Haffer J, Bairlein F (2004) Ernst Mayr—”Darwin of the 20th century.” Journal of Ornithology 145:161–162.
Haffer J (2004) Ernst Mayr—Intellectual leader of ornithology Journal of Ornithology. 145:163–176.
Haffer J (2006) Altmeister der Feld-Ornithologie in Deutschland. Blätter aus dem Naumann-Museum 25:1–55.
Haffer J (2007) The development of ornithology in central Europe. Journal für Ornithologie. 148:S125–S153.
Haffer J (2008) The origin of modern ornithology in Europe. Archives of Natural History 35:76–87.
Newton A (1893–96). A Dictionary of Birds. A and C Black: London. The Introduction (pp. 1–124) to this encyclopedia is a comprehensive, chronological, and scholarly survey of the history of ornithology to the end of the nineteenth century; includes much information on the history of systematics and regional avifaunas.
Coues E (1894). Key to North American Birds (4th edition). Estes and Lauriat: Boston. Pages xi–xxix are a historical overview of predominantly North American ornithology to the end of the nineteenth century.
Mullens WH, Swann HK (1917). A Bibliography of British Ornithology from the Earliest Times to the End of 1912. Macmillan: London. As its name implies, the focus is on British ornithologists; excellent set of mini–biographies (but not a history).
Gurney JH (1921; reprinted 1972). Early Annals of Ornithology. Witherby: London. A selective but scholarly account, focused on Britain; chronological by century to the end of the 1800s; readily available in secondhand shops.
Chapman FM, Palmer TS (eds) (1933) Fifty Years’ Progress of American Ornithology, 1883–1933. American Ornithologists’ Union: Lancaster, PA. Covers fourteen ornithological topics by various authors; introductory and concluding information relating to the AOU.
Stresemann E (1951). Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie. Von Aristoteles bis zur Gegenwart. F. W. Peters: Berlin. [translated into English as Stresemann, E. (1975) Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA]. A scholarly account of ornithology written in the late 1940s; in 1975 translated into English by H. J. and C. Epstein with a final chapter (“Materials for a History of American Ornithology”) by Ernst Mayr; an excellent source of information on ornithologists to the mid–1900s.
Farber PL (1982). The Emergence of Ornithology as a Scientific Discipline: 1760–1850. Reidel: Dordrecht [re–issued as Farber, P. L. (1997) Discovering Birds: The Emergence of Ornithology as a Scientific Discipline: 1760–1850. Johns Hopkins Univ Press: Baltimore]. Focuses on the towering figures of Buffon and Brisson during this period.
Davies WE, Jackson JA (1995). Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology. Nuttall Ornithological Club Memoir 12; Davies WE, Jackson JA (2000) Contributions to the History of North American Ornithology. Nuttall Ornithological Club Memoir 13. Edited volumes comprising short chapters by a wide range of authors on diverse topics, mostly rather specific, such as “ornithology in the Canadian Wildlife Service.”
Voous K (1995). In de Ban Van Vogels: Ornithologisch Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland. Uitgeverij Scheffers: Utrecht. Ornithology in the Netherlands in the twentieth century; biographies of ornithologists born before 1950.
Barrow MVJ (1998). A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ. A detailed, readable account; includes much on the formation of North American ornithological societies and the relationship between professional and amateur ornithologists; mainly focused on mid–1800s to 1930s, and the professionalization of ornithology.
Battalio JT (1998). The Rhetoric of Science in the Evolution of American Ornithological Discourse. Ablex Pub.: Stamford, CT. A unique analysis of the structure of language, arguments, images, and graphical displays in The Auk from 1884 to 1990.
Robin L (2001). The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology. Melbourne University Press: Melbourne. Focuses on the Royal Australian Ornithological Society (RAOU) from 1901 to 2001; chapters are thematic and organized chronologically; spans bird watching and scientific ornithology; well illustrated.
Walters M (2003). A Concise History of Ornithology. Helm: London. Based largely on Stresemann (1975); formulaic, chronological structure with detailed information on various classification systems; final chapter by J. Coulson on twentieth–century ornithology added at publisher’s request.
Bircham P (2007). The History of Ornithology. Collins: London. Focused mainly on British ornithology; on a wide range of disparate topics, attractively illustrated and produced.
Chansigaud V (2007). Histoire de L’Ornithologie. Delachaux & Niestle: Paris. [translated into English as Chansigaud V (2009) The History of Ornithology. New Holland: London]. A chronological account of the entire history of ornithology; richly illustrated, with some information on French ornithologists; contains a useful, illustrated timeline.
Birkhead TR (2008). The Wisdom of Birds. Bloomsbury: London. Structured by topic, from fertilization to development, maturation, territory acquisition, migration and longevity; from Aristotle to the twentieth century; beautifully illustrated with historically important paintings of birds by various artists.
Pittie A (2010). Birds in Books: Three Hundred Years of South Asian Ornithology—-A Bibliography. Permanent Black: India. A comprehensive, annotated listing of about 1,700 books that contain information about the birds of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet; with a brief overview of the history of ornithology in the region since 1700 and short biographies of about 200 prominent ornithologists whose books are included in the annotated list.
Birkhead TR, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie B (2014). Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton Univ Press: Princeton, NJ. Structured by topic, from dinosaurs to conservation; from Darwin to the early twenty-first century; illustrated with historically relevant photographs, timelines and paintings of birds by some leading twentieth century bird artists.
Bibliographic Works (Books About Books)
Wood CT (1835) The Ornithological Guide: in which are discussed several interesting points in ornithology. London: Whittaker. [Available here. An odd compilation of ornithological information, including a long section (pp 79-173) in which he reviews (English) books, journals and magazines about birds from Willughby and Ray’s Ornithology (1678) to his brother Neville’s soon to be published British Songsters, which was not published until 1836 under the name British song birds: being popular descriptions and anecdotes of the choristers of the groves.]
Wood N (1836) The Ornithologist’s Text-book: Being Reviews of Ornithological Works: with an Appendix Containing Discussions on Various Topics of Interest. London: JW Parker. [Available here. Not to be outdone by his brother Charles Thorold, Neville published his own review of books about birds in the long first section (pp 4-99) of this textbook, covering the same material as his brother but adding books written in French and German. Both of the Wood brothers are unstinting in their praise for books they liked, and highly critical of those they found to be wanting. Of James Rennies’ (1833) Alphabet of Zoology, for example, Neville says simply “A compilation of no merit”]
Günther ACLG (1864) The Record of Zoological Literature. Van Voorst
Newton A (1870) Extracts from the Record of Zoological Literature, Vols. I-VI: Containing the Portions Relating to Aves, from 1864 to 1869. London: Taylor & Francis. 478 pp. [Available here. A fairly complete compilation and personal review of books and papers about birds published from 1864-1869, by the leading British ornithologist of the Victorian era]
Coues E (1878-80) Bibliography of ornithology. 4 Vols. US Government Printing Office. [Available here. Coues attempted to pull together the entire literature on ornithology with personal annotations, starting with 3 volumes on American ornithology and a fourth on ‘Faunal Publications relating to British Birds’ but he died before completing the entire series.]
Mullens WH (1908) A list of books relating to British Birds published before the year 1815. Hasting and St Leonard’s Natural History Society, Occasional Publications No. 3:1-34. [A pamphlet that became the basis for his further publications listed below]
Mullens WH, Swann HK (1919) A bibliography of British ornithology from the earliest times to the end of 1912. London: Macmillan. [Available here. The most comprehensive listing of books and papers on British birds, essentially completing the task that Coues had begun 40 years earlier]
Zimmer JT (1926) Catalogue of the Edward E. Ayer Ornithological Library. Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 239, 240 Vol. xvi:1–706. [Available here. Like Casey Wood’s work, below, this is a comprehensive annotated listing of the publications held in a superb ornithological library at the Field Museum in Chicago]
Wood CA (1931) An introduction to the literature of Vertebrate Zoology. London: Oxford University Press. [Available here. Casey Wood was not related to the Wood brothers (as far as I can tell) but did a magnificent job of listing and summarizing all of the books on birds in the extensive ornithological library that he established at McGill University in Montreal. Wood includes in this volume, chapters full of historical information on early ornithology gleaned, I assume, from the books in this marvellous library.]
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (ca 1245) De Arte Venandi cum Avibus. manuscript.
Ray J (1676) Ornithologiae libri tres: in quibus aves omnes hactenus cognitae in methodum naturis suis convenientem redactae accuratè descripbuntur, descriptiones iconibus. London: John Martyn.
Ray J (1678) The Ornithology of Francis Willughby. John Martyn, London.
Coues E (1874) Field Ornithology: Comprising a Manual of Instruction for Procuring, Preparing and Preserving Birds, and a Check List of North American Birds. Naturalists’ Agency,
Coues E (1890) Handbook of field and general ornithology: A manual of the structure and classification of birds. Macmillan.
Newton A (1896) A Dictionary of Birds. A & C Black, London.
Wood CA, Fyfe FM translators (1943) The Art of Falconry; Being the De Arte Venandi cum Avibus by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Van Tyne J, Berger AJ (1959) Fundamentals of Ornithology. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
Wallace G (1955) An Introduction to Ornithology. New York: Macmillan.
Welty JC (1962) The Life of Birds. Saunders College Publishing, Philadelphia.
Landsborough AT (1964) A New Dictionary of Birds. Nelson.
Faaborg J, Chaplin SB (1988) Ornithology: an ecological approach: Laboratory Manual and Field Exercises. Prentice-Hall,
Brooke M, Birkhead TR (1991) Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Gill F (2006) Ornithology, 3rd edition. W. H. Freeman and Co., New York. [first edition 1989, second edition 1995]
Scott G (2010) Essential Ornithology. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Lovette I, Fitzpatrick J (2016) Handbook of Bird Biology, 3rd edition. John Wiley & Sons, New York.
About Bird Names
Hediger H (1976) Proper names in the animal kingdom. Experientia 32: 1357–1364.
Jobling JA (1991) A Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jobling JA (2010) Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: A&C Black.
Lederer R, Burr C (2014) Latin for Bird Lovers. Timber Press.
Marttila A (2010) A cross-linguistic study of lexical iconicity and its manifestation in bird names. München: LINCOM Europa.
Stickney E (2009) The “Whys” of Bird Names. New York: Vantage Press.
North American Birds
Beolens B, Watkins M (2003) Whose Bird?: Common bird names and the people they commemorate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Choate EA (1973) The Dictionary of American Bird Names. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Common Press (revised in 1985)
Cooke WW (1884) Bird nomenclature of the Chippewa Indians. The Auk 1: 242–250.
Cowan W (1972) Reduplicated bird names in Algonquian. International Journal of American Linguistics 38: 229–230.
Holloway JE (2003) Dictionary of Birds of the United States. Timber Press
Hohn EO (1969) Eskimo Bird Names at Chesterfield Inlet and Baker Lake, Keewatin, Northwest Territories. Arctic 22: 72–76.
Hohn EO (1973) Mammal and bird names in the Indian languages of the Lake Athabasca area. Arctic 26: 163-171
McAtee WL (1951) Folk etymology in North American bird names. American Speech 26:90–95.
Mearns B, Means R (1992) Audubon to Xantus: The lives of those commemorated in North American bird names. London: Academic Press.
Sandrock J, Prior J (2014) The Scientific Nomenclature of Birds in the Upper Midwest. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press.
Central and South American Birds
Berlin B, O’Neill JP (1981) The pervasiveness of onomatopoeia in Aguaruna and Huambisa bird names. Journal of Ethnobiology 1:238–261.
Birds of the British Isles
Birkhead TR, Montgomerie R (2016) A vile passion for altering names: the contributions of Charles Thorold Wood jun. and Neville Wood to ornithology in the 1830s. Archives of Natural History 43: 221–236.
Braidwood J (1965) Local Bird Names in Ulster–A Glossary. Ulster Folklife 11: 98–135.
Hough C (1997) Place-name evidence for Old English bird-names. Journal of the English Place-Name Society 30: 60–76.
Jackson CE (1968) British names of Birds. London: HF & G. Witherby.
Jackson R (1996) A Guide to Scots Bird Names. Ptarmigan Press.
Kitson PR (1997) Old English bird‐names. English Studies 78: 481–505.
Kitson PR (1998) Old English bird‐names (II). English Studies 79: 2–22.
Lockwood WB (1984) The Oxford book of British Bird Names. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.
Lockwood WB (1961) The Faroese bird names. Denmark: Munksgaard.
Lockwood WB (1993) The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mearns B, Means R (1993) Biographies for Birdwatchers: The Lives of Those Commemorated in Western Palearctic Bird Names. London: Academic Press.
Swainson C (1885) Provincial names and folk lore of British birds. London: English Dialect Society.
Whitman CH (1898) The birds of Old English literature. The Journal of [English and] Germanic Philology 2: 149–198.
Black JA, Al-Rawi FNH (1987) A contribution to the study of Akkadian bird names. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 77:117–126.
Baldacci M (1994) Some Eblaite bird names and biblical Hebrew. Die Welt des Orients 25: 57–65.
Cabard P, Chauvet B (2003) L’étymologie des noms d’oiseaux : Origine et sens des noms des oiseaux du Paléarctique occidental ( noms scientifiques, noms français et étrangers. Belin.
Desfayes M (1998) A Thesaurus of Bird Names: v. 4: Etymology of European Lexis Through Paradigms. Sion, Switzerland: Museé Cantonal d’Histoire Naturelle
Greppin JAC (1978) Classical and Middle Armenian bird names: a linguistic, taxonomic, and mythological study. Delmar, NY: Caravan Books.
Lindsay WM (1918) Bird-names in Latin glossaries. Classical Philology 13: 1–22.
Sandberg R (1992) European bird names: in fifteen languages. Lund: Sandberg.
Tyrberg T (1985) Place-names derived from bird names in Ostergotland, Sweden. A study in avian faunistic history. Var Fågelvarld, 444: 207-222
Whinnom K (1966) A glossary of Spanish bird-names. London: Tamesis Books.
Birds of Australia and Oceania
Clark R (1994) Evolution, migration and extinction of Oceanic bird names. pp. 73-86 in A. K. Pawley and M. D. Ross, eds., Austronesian Terminologies: Continuity and Change, Pacific Linguistics C-l27. Canberra: Australian National University
Condon HT (1955) Aboriginal bird names: South Australia. South Australian Ornithologist 21: 74–88.
Gray J, Fraser I (2013) Australian Bird Names: A complete guide. CSIRO PUBLISHING.
Ploeg J, Weerd MV (2010) Agta bird names: an ethno-ornithological survey in the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, Philippines. Forktail 26: 127.
Rand AL (1955) Philippine bird names of Blasius. The Auk 72: 210–212.
Verheijen JAJ (1963) Bird-Names in Manggarai, Flores, Indonesia. Anthropos 58: 677–718.
Moreau RE (1940) Bird-names used in coastal north-eastern Tanganyika Territory. East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal 10: 1-26
Muir J (1940) 1. Afrikaans bird-names in Riversdale, CP. The Ostrich 11: 1–19.
Clinning C (1989) Southern African Bird Names Explained. Southern African Ornithological Society.
Veldhuis N (2004) Religion, Literature, and Scholarship: The Sumerian Composition of Nanše and the Birds, with a Catalogue of Sumerian Bird Names. Leiden: Brill.
The libraries listed below are renowned for their collections of bird books and historical archives. The archives and rarest books in these libraries can only be viewed by request to the librarian in charge. The links will take you to the libraries’ web pages, with contact information for inquiries. We are just starting to compile this list. Drop us a line if you know of a great ornithological library that’s not listed below!
- Blacker-Wood Collection in Zoology and Ornithology [McGill University]: founded in 1920 by Dr Casey Wood as an ornithological library this library eventually expanded to cover all of vertebrate zoology.
- Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) Libraries & Archives [University of Toronto Library System]
- Macaulay Library [Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology]
- William Robertson Coe Ornithology Library [Peabody Museum at Yale University]
- Acopian Center for Ornithology
- Alexander Library of Ornithology [Oxford University]