Francis Willughby: The First to Classify Birds

Francis Willughby was one of the greatest naturalists of the 17th century. He is known for being the first to systematically classify birds.

Francis Willughby was born into an aristocratic family in England in 1635. He inherited estates in Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire. At Cambridge University, where affable young men often spend a lot of time absorbing new cultures and building influential relationships, Willughby chose to take a different route – exploring science. He delved into new sciences, reading the works of Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon and René Descartes. He jotted down everything by subject in a notebook.

Picture 1 of Francis Willughby: The First to Classify Birds
Francis Willughby (1635 - 1672).

Due to living quite sociably, Willughby has many good friends who always cheer and encourage him, the most prominent of which is his tutor John Ray at Trinity College. Both love science and advocate a new way of thinking about the natural world. They do not fully trust the ancients – such as Aristotle – nor listen to what others say, but must seek evidence and see things with their own eyes.

During his early college days, Willughby made a number of trips to the Lake District, Wales and the south-west of England to find out where seabirds live. He then launched an expedition to mainland Europe with Ray and two other friends. Their main means of transportation are horses, mules or boats. During the trip, they visited and exchanged academic knowledge with many famous contemporary scientists. They also meticulously recorded what they encountered along the way.

The most memorable moment in Willughby and friends' trip was three months in the city of Venice. They had to cross the Alps with many difficulties and hardships before reaching northern Italy. But in return, they were able to witness firsthand the richness of vegetation, the unique culture of the Venetian people, especially the fish market. Not only aiming to describe every known bird species, Willughby also plans to write a book about fish species. At the market in Venice, he found hundreds of different specimens.

Picture 2 of Francis Willughby: The First to Classify Birds
Several species of birds are depicted in 'The Ornithology'.

Willughby systematically records and classifies specimens. He started by describing physical features, then measured everything from the beak to the length of the fish's dorsal fin. He then dissected the animal to examine its internal features. What he was always looking for was 'a distinguishing mark', or salient features of an organism that distinguish one species from another.

Today we have a lot of knowledge and information about birds. But in Willughby's time, it was extremely difficult to distinguish two species that were quite similar, such as the wren and the redpole. However, Willughby had accurate anatomical descriptions that helped identify even closely related birds. Based on factors such as habitat (terrestrial, aquatic) and some physical characteristics such as the shape of the bird's beak, he built a detailed classification system, starting with species living in England and gradually expanded to mainland Europe.

Other scientists perfected Willughby's system in the centuries that followed, including the Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus in the mid-18th century. Linnaeus used the dual nomenclature of genus and species. (species) to classify all living things based on morphological characteristics – from molds and bacteria to animals, plants and humans.

Willughby and Ray's most famous work is 'The Ornithology', published in 1676. They combined data collected over many years of fieldwork with records of travelers to Brazil and Mexico. The names of native birds in South America are mainly recorded by phonetic transcription, so it is easy to confuse. The last part of the book even mentions some of the mythical birds in the world.

The work 'The Ornithology' has a total of 77 illustrations from various sources. Most of them are derived from a collection of pictures and specimens owned by Willughby. The book has become an indispensable reference for later ornithologists. The content of the book also appears in many encyclopedias of modern natural history.

Willughby believes that the world has a total of about 500 species of birds. He has identified about 90% of the approximately 200 bird species commonly found in England and Wales. However, the actual number of bird species we know today is 10,000, much larger than Willughby predicted.

Not only knowledgeable about birds, Willughby also researched on many other topics. Inspired by physician William Harvey's discovery of blood circulation in 1628, he pondered the movement of tree sap for many years before the subject appeared in the Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions. . He was also the first to classify insects by their metamorphoses. He found that worms, pupae and butterflies are life stages of an insect species, not separate species. He even wrote a research paper on games, from football to chess and cards.

At present, Willughby is almost a forgotten science. Partly because he died at a young age (36 years old) from tertian fever or pneumonia, and much of his research was lost.

To commemorate Willughby's merits, scientists have used his name to name a fish (Willughby's char), a bee (Willughby's bee) and a genus (genus) of plants. Although he was the first person to classify birds, unfortunately there is no bird named after him.

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