cover image The Wonderful Mr. Willughby: The First True Ornithologist

The Wonderful Mr. Willughby: The First True Ornithologist

Tim Birkhead. Bloomsbury, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-1-4088-7848-4

Although surprisingly little documentation exists about Francis Willughby (1635–1672), Birkhead (The Most Perfect Sense), a science professor at the University of Sheffield, has managed to piece together a compulsively readable portrait of the driven, influential British naturalist. Willughby died young, yet, together with the better known John Ray, who began as his tutor at Cambridge, he shaped the way natural history is viewed to this day. As Birkhead explains it, Willughby was present at “the inception of modern science,” and he and Ray “transformed the study of zoology in general, and birds in particular,” setting new standards for the observation, description, and classification of animals. Using the diaries of Ray and other traveling companions, Birkhead chronicles Willughby’s two-year sojourn across Europe in the 1660s, when he studied as much wildlife as he could, and also experienced a significant amount of continental culture at a time of intellectual and scientific ferment. The author shares many of the ornithological questions Willughby pondered, such as the nature of territoriality, migration, and annual molting, alongside modern science’s answers, thus demonstrating in many cases Willughby’s prescience. Though at times the details become a bit dense, Birkhead has produced an enjoyable and informative piece of scholarship, with ample appeal for bird-watching or nature-enthusiast layreaders as well. [em](July) [/em]