The study of birds, called ornithology, has changed a lot over the years. Three leaders helped define the movement. While John Audubon expanded the idea of what should be studied about birds, Ludlow Griscom helped develop how they should be studied. Roger Tory Peterson developed his own system that helped simplify these ideas so that anyone—even you—could easily spot particular birds. What they all shared is a passion for birds.
HOW IT BEGAN
John Audubon, a famous wildlife artist in the early 1800s, had no formal training in the study of birds and was often criticized by his wife’s family for “forever wasting his time hunting, drawing, and stuffing birds. We fear he will never be fit for any practical purpose on the face of this earth. However, Audubon was able to turn his passion for birds into a career. His love of the then-emerging science called ornithology helped draw attention to the field.
Ornithology in the 1800s concentrated on the study of a bird’s ancestry and/or relationship to different groups of birds. However, Audubon introduced the idea of studying a bird’s behaviour. He was interested in studying a bird’s habits, mating rituals, migration, nests, and nest-building activities. Perhaps his greatest contribution to ornithology was the completion of the Ornithological Biography, a series of five books covering almost 500 birds. Published in the 1830s, it validated Audubon’s skill as a scientist, rather than simply a wildlife artist.
Much of Audubon’s study and drawings came from birds that he had shot to examine. In his early 20s in Louisville, Kentucky, Audubon and a friend cut a hole in a tree that was a known roost for swifts. After Audubon determined that there were thousands of swifts in the tree, the men proceeded to catch and kill 115 of them to study.
On another occasion in the field, Audubon was intrigued by a flock of herons and proceeded to kill and study them, only to find that the birds had already been researched by another ornithologist.
Audubon wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary for that time period. During the early 19th century, hunting, collecting, as well as displaying animal trophies and stuffed, preserved animals was popular.