In his too-short life, Francis Willughby helped found the Royal Society, differentiated birds through identification of their distinguishing features, and asked questions that were, in some cases, centuries ahead of their time. Tim Birkhead describes and celebrates how Willughby's endeavors set a standard for the way birds—and indeed the whole of natural history—should be studied.
This fine biography of Francis Willughby (1635-72) is intriguingly double-layered, the life of a 17th-century naturalist seen through the eyes of a modern ornithologist ... The dialogue between past and present brings the whole book alive ... Mr. Birkhead responds engagingly to Willughby’s eager curiosity, adding contemporary knowledge, including vivid observations and personal anecdotes—another story of the making of a naturalist. We feel the author’s excitement.
...religiously researched ... The author’s prose can wax academic and he bandies about terms like hemipenes and cloaca without explanation, as if he is lecturing to an advanced university class. The reader may read more about the internal organs of birds – the testes of green woodpeckers, for example – than he or she cares to ... That said, this biography makes an important contribution to a fuller understanding of Mr. Willughby’s pioneering career ... Perhaps as important, this book reaffirms in a very dramatic and specific way the vital role of science in the advancement of human understanding and welfare.
Birkhead’s two passions, birds and the history of science, give him the perfect perspective for studying an ornithological pioneer. What he has produced is a delightful biography ... [an] insight into the difficulties and thrilling discoveries of science in the seventeenth century.