Gilbert White – A Highly Esteemed Ornithologist

Gilbert White is considered by many to be the father of ecology and field ornithology. Although his works were penned in the 1700’s, they remain vital reading for all ecologists. Indeed, Gilbert White has left an indelible mark on the world of natural sciences.

How is it that this humble man came to be such a great name in ecology?

Gilbert White is well-known for his exceptional skills of observation as well as his talent for writing. In 1768 he read a publication by Daines Barrington entitled “The Naturalist’s Journal”. This journal was particularly designed as a record book in which observations could be made regarding the various seasons and their effects on animal and plant life. Over time, White corresponded with Barrington, as well as renowned zoologist Thomas Pennant which lead and inspired White to begin writing his famous book “Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne”. This 20-year project contained Gilbert’s observations as he described in his letters to Pennant and Barrington. Whilst the content was always factual, by writing in an “informal letter form” White could include narrative and theories. “Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne” has remained in print ever since it was first published.

Many of Gilbert White’s observations related to birds, hence his great regard amongst Ornithologists. He was a firm believer in observing birds in the field rather than the collection of specimens for study in a laboratory. By following that technique, White was able to dispel up a number of misunderstandings about birds. For example, White was able to identify the Wood Warbler, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler as three separate bird species through their songs. This application of his observational techniques as part of ornithology introduced the discipline or distinguishing birds by means of their distinctive calls and not just physical appearance. As an ornithologist Gilbert White also discovered that birds make use of camouflage after he studied the coloration and pattern of plumage on stone curlews. White is also credited with marking out the lineage of the domestic pigeon back to the rock dove.

Gilbert White certainly left a fine example for all naturalists. His brilliant, accurate observations and systematic recordings have inspired many interested in natural sciences. White’s amazing contributions to ecology and the study of birds will continue to be praised for many years to come and used as pertinant bird education material.