Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 148, Supplement 1, pp 125–153

The development of ornithology in central Europe


DOI: 10.1007/s10336-007-0160-2

Cite this article as:
Haffer, J. J Ornithol (2007) 148(Suppl 1): 125. doi:10.1007/s10336-007-0160-2


The first ornithologist since Aristotle was the emperor Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen whose work on falconry (written before 1248) includes a general account of birds based largely on his personal observations. Other medieval workers on birds were Albertus Magnus, Thomas di Cantimpré and Konrad von Megenberg. Gybertus Longolius (1544) and William Turner (1544) reported on some birds of the Rhine region. The Renaissance encyclopedist Conrad Gessner (1555) compiled the total knowledge of European birds listing over 182 species mostly in alphabetical order. The world’s first local vertebrate fauna was the Theriotropheum Silesiae (1603) noted by Caspar Schwenckfeld who included brief accounts of about 150 species of birds. Several collections of unpublished bird paintings from the late-16th and the 17th centuries also represent valuable faunistic records. Around 1700, two separate research traditions in Europe originated from the work of John Ray (1627–1705) in England: (1) Research into the systematics of birds and (2) research into the field natural history of birds. Early systematists in Germany were J.Th. Klein, H.G. Moehring, J.C. Schaeffer, P.S. Pallas, and B. Merrem. They were all typologists—like their successors during the 19th century—and assumed that bird species, although somewhat variable, are rigidly delimited and never gave rise to new species. The principal representatives of the early field ornithology in Germany were Johann Ferdinand Adam von Pernau and Johann Heinrich Zorn, who published the results of their important field studies during the first half of the 18th century. They worked under the concepts of physico-theology employing the teleological principle and were the first truly significant researchers of the biology of European birds. The first German bird book with excellent folio color plates was from Johann Leonhard Frisch, which appeared 1733–1763. Around 1800, two detailed handbooks on the birds of Germany were published by Johann Matthäus Bechstein and by Johann Andreas Naumann, respectively. Bechstein’s text is more extensive than that of Naumann, but the latter’s color plates (prepared by his son Johann Friedrich) are superior to those in Bechstein’s books. The ‘Golden Age’ of central European field ornithology from 1820 to 1850 saw the appearance of the splendid works of Johann Friedrich Naumann, Christian Ludwig Brehm, and Friedrich Faber, who established a sound basis for the study of birds in this region and beyond. During the second half of the 19th century, many European researchers turned their attention to exotic ornithology, because large bird collections arrived in Europe from many different parts of the world. During those decades, the study of central European birds made only little progress (despite a major controversy on the instinctive versus purposive behavior of birds, which, however, did not stimulate any field research). The influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution (1859) among central European ornithologists remained only slight until the end of the 19th century. From the 1920s onward, central European ornithology changed rapidly and general biological studies were emphasized over the earlier systematic-faunistic work. This development led to an integration of the two previously separated research traditions and to a fundamental paradigm change, which had a worldwide impact (the “Stresemann revolution”). It was soon recognized that the bird is a well-suited subject for studies into the problems of functional morphology, physiology, behavior, and orientation of animals. The two key figures of European ornithology during the last several centuries were (1) John Ray, who around 1700 established the two main research traditions—systematic ornithology and field ornithology—and (2) Erwin Stresemann who from 1921 onward reunited both of them in the New Avian Biology.


John Ray Physico-theology Bifurcation of ornithology Systematic ornithology Field ornithology Erwin Stresemann New avian biology 

Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.EssenGermany