Monday 18 November 2019
Tim Birkhead gave a talk entitled The wonderful Mr Willughby – the start of scientific ornithology. The first scientific bird book was The ornithology of Francis Willughby, named in Willughby’s honour by his friend John Ray after Willughby’s death at the age of just 36 in 1672. These two men were pioneers of the scientific revolution and changed the way we think about birds. Until recently it was widely assumed that Ray was the brains and Willughby a mere ‘talented amateur’, but after a decade of research Tim has been able to show that Willughby was every bit as brilliant as his co-author and friend John Ray. In his talk he told the story of Willughby’s short but spectacularly productive life – a story every ornithologist ought to know.
Biography: Tim Birkhead is emeritus professor of behavioural ecology at the Univ. of Sheffield. He completed a D.Phil. at Oxford on guillemots (Alcidae) in 1976, before taking a lectureship at Sheffield in 1976 where he has been ever since. Tim is a Fellow of the Royal Society—the UK’s most prestigious scientific society. His main research is on promiscuity in birds, but he is also interested in the history of science. He has maintained a long-term study of Common Guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer Island, Wales, for the last 47 years and raised UK£150,000 through crowd funding to keep the study going. Tim has won several awards for his undergraduate teaching. He is also an award-winning author and has written 15 books, including several popular science works. He has featured on BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific, The Infinite Monkey Cage and Inside Science, and his book The most perfect thing: the inside (and outside) of a bird’s egg was made into a TV programme with David Attenborough, who referred to the book as “Magnificent”.
Saturday 26 October 2019
A one-day joint conference with the Neotropical Bird Club and the Natural History Museum took place in the Flett Theatre of the Natural History Museum in South Kesington, London. The speakers included:
Luís Fábio Silveira – Avoiding extinctions in the most threatened area in the Neotropics: the Pernambuco Centre of Endemism, Brazil
Christian Devenish – Conservation of dry forest endemic birds in northwest Peru
Martin Schaefer – Using science to protect Ecuador’s most threatened birds
Alexander Lees – Diversity in avian mimicry
Samuel Jones – The physiology/behaviour nexus in a Central American cloud forest songbird, the Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush Catharus mexicanus
Joseph Tobias – Frontiers of knowledge: a quarter-century of Neotropical discovery
Monday 16 September 2019
Pat Morris gave a talk entitled The Hastings Rarities – taking the long view. He explained that is now over 50 years since hundreds of bird records were dismissed as potentially fraudulent on the grounds that it was unlikely that so many rare species would turn up within a short period of time and a limited area around Hastings. Statistical analysis confirmed a significant difference between the number of records within that area and time compared other areas of Kent/Sussex and with later. In ornithological terms it makes limited difference, as most of the suspect species have been found subsequently in that area. It has long been widely accepted that fraud occurred and that a local taxidermist, George Bristow, was responsible for perpetrating this. Bristow was unable to defend himself, having died, and the taxidermy profession was besmirched. Although protests were made at the time the issue appears closed. However, there remain worrying doubts when the evidence is examined closely. At the same time, in retrospect there may be further evidence to confirm Bristow’s guilt.
Biography: Dr Pat Morris was Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Royal Holloway, Univ. of London, and well known for his studies of mammal ecology. He is a past Chairman of the Mammal Society, a former Council Member of the National Trust, and has published >70 scientific papers and c.20 books. A consultant to several major publishers and the BBC Natural History Unit, in his spare time he has pursued a long-standing interest in the history of taxidermy and was appointed the first Hon. Life Member of the Guild of Taxidermists. He was awarded the Founder’s Medal by the Society for the History of Natural History and made MBE in the 2015 Honours List ‘for services to the natural and historic environment’.
Monday 20 May 2019: Julian Hume gave a talk entitled Birds of Lord Howe Island: past, present and future. Lord Howe Island, situated 790 km north-east of Sydney in the Tasman Sea, was first observed on 17 February 1788, making it one of the last islands to be discovered by Europeans. An endemic gallinule, pigeon and parakeet were quickly hunted to extinction, but habitat alterations were minimal; therefore a diverse forest bird fauna remained intact. The accidental introduction of Black Rats Rattus rattus in 1918 and barn owls (Tyto) in the 1920s resulted in another wave of bird extinctions, but several endemics survive including a flightless rail. Seabird diversity is also high and they still breed in large numbers, although rat predation is an ongoing problem. Julian presented the results of a recent palaeontological and ornithological survey of Lord Howe Island, highlighting fossil discoveries and conservation successes, and also discussed the pros and cons of plans to eradicate rats entirely from the island in 2019.
Julian Hume has travelled widely in search of avian palaeontological deposits, especially in the Mascarene Islands of Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues, on Madagascar and in Hawaii. More recently, he has turned his attention to islands off the Australian coast and most recently spoke to the Club in early 2017 on his research into the dwarf Emus Dromaius spp of the South Australian islands. By profession he is an artist specialising in extinct birds, but also has a Ph.D. in avian palaeontology and is a Scientific Associate of the Natural History Museum, Tring. He has written a number of books and published many papers on birds and their fossil history, his most recent book being the second edition of the widely acclaimed Extinct birds.
Monday 18 March: Julia Day gave a talk entitled Continental vs. island evolution of a ‘great speciator’: resolving the Zosterops taxonomic conundrum. Different environments, such as islands and continents, have had profound effects on how biodiversity is shaped. While evolutionary processes are predicted to follow different patterns in island and mainland radiations, the extent to which these geographical contexts influence evolutionary trajectories remains poorly understood. This is in part because few studies have focused on species-rich groups of highly dispersive animals, which can colonise both continents and extensive archipelagos over comparable timeframes. In this talk Julia focused on how resolving the evolutionary relationships of white-eyes (Zosterops)—lauded as a ‘great speciator’—in Africa, Arabia and associated islands, combined with morphological data, has allowed us to better understand evolutionary processes across these different geographic landscapes. Julia also discussed how museum collections and genetic data have aided in the task of deciphering the tricky and sometimes infuriating taxonomy of this highly cryptic group, leading to a likely substantial increase in mainland species.
Julia Day is Associate Professor at University College London and has developed a research programme in evolutionary and, more recently, ecological research. She mainly works on species-rich groups of African fishes but, being a birder, couldn’t resist the challenge of working on a notoriously difficult-to-identify avian group.