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A: Innenstadt, Köln, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

William Turner Issues the First Ornithological Treatise to Contain Descriptions of Individual Species Based upon the Author's own Observations


In 1544 English physician, ornithologist and botanist William Turner published in Cologne, Germany Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis & succincta historia. Turner was the first scientific student of zoology and botany in England. Because of his extreme nonconformist religious views he spent a good deal of time in exile on the Continent, where he observed European fauna and flora, studied the most recent work of contemporary naturalists and made the acquaintance of Conrad Gessner (Gesner). It was during one of these European exiles that Turner prepared the Avium praecipuarum, printed, as were parts of his Herball, in Cologne. An account of the principal bird species mentioned by Aristotle and Pliny, the book was the first ornithological treatise to contain clear descriptions of the appearance of individual species based upon the author's own experience and observations. Compiling this work was by no means easy, as virtually nothing had been written on the subject since Pliny's Historia naturalis and sorting out the names and actual species referred to in the classical texts demanded great philological as well as ornithological expertise. Yet Turner succeeded admirably in his task: Most of his identifications are accurate, with good descriptions of characteristics and habits, and the few anomalies (the phoenix, barnacle goose, etc.) are either strict quotations from classical authors or are based on evidence that Turner tried to verify. His identification of northern European species, especially British ones, provides valuable evidence about their distribution during the sixteenth century.

Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 2117. Raven, English naturalists from Neckham to Ray (1947) 48-137.

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