The Wonderful Mr Willughby: the First True Ornithologist

The Wonderful Mr Willughby
Tim Birkhead
Publisher:  Bloomsbury Publishing, London
2018
Hardback
Page Count:  384
ISBN Number:  9781408878484
£
25.00

After enjoying Tim Birkhead’s previous book Bird Sense, I had high expectations for The Wonderful Mr Willughby and I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the exploration into the life of Francis Willughby, born in 1635. I hadn’t heard of him before reading this book, and I am glad that I took the time to learn more about him. His work ethic and thirst for knowledge is inspirational and it reminded me to keep asking questions and to continue to embrace scientific curiosity.

Books about the history of science do not usually appeal to me, and I have to admit that it took me a few chapters to get invested in the life of this man, but I am glad that I stuck with it. My favourite aspect of this book is how well the successes and mistakes of Francis Willughby and his colleagues are put into the context of the time. The book paints a vivid picture of the life of an academic and scientist in the 17th century. You can sense the excitement and the adventure of having so much ahead of them to discover.

A birder today is unlikely to go far without binoculars, and we have easy pocket field guides which we can carry around, and we take this for granted, but this wasn’t an option for Francis Willughby and his peers. Identification to species level and how to group birds was clearly a problem, and this is something that Francis and his colleague John Ray wanted to help rectify. It must have been frustrating at times, without our modern technologies to help. It is clear that a skill for precise and thorough note taking was crucial. Dissections seemed a particularly useful tool to find key identification features, but it allowed them to make other interesting observations, from the convoluted windpipe of the Spoonbill, to the odd testes of Green Woodpeckers. 

A lot of work has gone into piecing this historical puzzle together and Tim Birkhead has done a good job at celebrating the short life of Francis Willughby, and his peers. It is written well, with plenty of detail and beautiful artwork – what’s not to enjoy?
Claire Boothby