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Who was Henry Seebohm?

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Henry Seebohm

After my good friend Jürgen Haffer died in 2010, his widow sent me some of his books. These included the 1976 reprint of Henry Seebohm’s Birds of Siberia, originally published in 1880 as Siberia in Europe, recounting his two monumental journeys to Siberia. I hadn’t previously read it, but I found it a revelation and one that captures a distinctive era of ornithology.

Seebohm (1832-1895) lived in Sheffield, northern England, where he owned a steel manufacturing business. He used his wealth to undertake ornithological collecting trips, including two to Siberia: one to the Petchora River in 1875, the other in 1877 to the Yensei River.

Pechora (left) and Yenesei (right) Rivers

At first sight Birds of Siberia appears to be little more than a list of birds shot, interspersed with notes on the anthropology of the Samoyed people. As I was reading, I wished I had kept a list of the species and numbers collected—but I then discovered that the last chapter gives the full score from his first trip: about 1000 skins of 110 species and 600 eggs.

At one level we think of this kind of slaughter as shocking because it wouldn’t happen today. On the other hand, we shouldn’t judge Seebohm by today’s ethical or scientific standards. There were undoubtedly many more birds then and this was the way ornithology was conducted in the late 1800s. Seebohm would have been equally shocked if we had told him that in hundred years time ornithologists would be studying the personalities of birds (and in the future, we’ll look back on that too with amazemen

After shooting some ridiculously tame yellow-browed warblers, a Siberian chiff-chaff and a European willow warbler, Seebohm wrote  ‘it seems too bad to shoot these charming little birds, but as the “Old Bushman” says, what is hit is history, and what is missed is mystery [italics in the original:  I’m not sure who the ‘Old Bushman’ is, and curiously, that phrase is attributed on Wikipedia to the childrens’ author Arthur Ransome from a later date: Ransome presumably read either Seebohm or the Old Bushman].

I wondered what happened to all those shot birds? Seebohm and his companions ate the flesh of those they considered palatable, such as hazel grouse and golden plover. But where are all those study skins? Did any survive? My own departmental museum—the Alfred Denny Museum (http://www.shef.ac.uk/alfred-denny-museum)—of which I am curator, boasts a mounted pair black grouse from Archangel, Siberia, collected and donated by Seebohm. Many of his other specimens—both taxidermic mounts and study skins—are in Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum, and some are in the Natural History Museum (BMNH) at Tring.

As Seebohm discovered, the switch from winter to summer in Siberia occurs without the pleasnatries of spring, and is heralded by the northward sweep of vast numbers of migrant shorebirds, landbirds, wildfowl and raptors. Seebohm watched in awe, overwhelmed by the incontrovertible evidence for migration before his eyes, reflecting that only a few decades previously the very existence of migration had been in doubt.  By the 1870s, however, migration was considered the greatest of ornithological mysteries. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then to find tucked away amidst the list of birds shot and eggs collected, Seebohm includes two fascinating chapters on migration, summarizing both the current state of knowledge and his own his views.

Later, Seebohm presciently identified daylength as the proximate cue timing the onset of migration. Apparently no one noticed. A few years previously, in 1870, the Finnish poet Johan Runeberg had suggested the same idea in one of his poems—but that idea was squashed by Alfred Newton[RD1] , the pompous old man of Victorian era ornithology. We don’t know whether Sebohm knew of Runeberg’s poem, probably not. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the idea took hold, thanks to a publication by the physiologist William Sharpey. The full story is told in The Wisdom of Birds (Birkhead 2008:181-184).

The main purpose of Seebohm’s life-long ornithological work was—like that of all serious ornithologists of the day—to study the classification and geographical distribution of birds. His trips to Siberia revealed marked geographic differences in plumage and size in species he was familiar with in Europe: ‘the Siberian form of the lesser spotted woodpecker … has the whole of the under parts unspotted silky white…It is larger than the South European form… ‘.  The Siberian form of the nuthatch…is another case in point. Examples from the Yenesei, and also from the north island of Japan, have the underparts almost pure white’.

It was because of this geographic variation that Seebohm favoured the trinomial system of nomenclature (TTB: 90): ‘Here again the confirmed habit of the older ornithologists of either treating these little differences as specific, or of ignoring them altogether, is much to be deplored ….  I venture to suggest, as a punishment for their delinquencies, that they should be exiled to Siberia for a summer to learn to harmonise their system of nomenclature with the facts of nature’.

Alfred Newton despised Seebohm, saying this of his books: ‘downright errors and wild conjectures there are enough, and they are confidently asserted with the misuse of language and absence of reasoning power that mark all the author’s writings, though the air of scientific treatment … has deluded many an unwary reader’ (Newton 1896: 44 n 1). On the other hand, Mullens and Swan (1917) wrote that: ‘Seebohm’s name will ever rank high among those of British ornithologists, not only as the author of one of the most important histories of British birds, but as … a successful businessman…[and who became] a really scientific ornithologist’.

It seems to me that Seebohm has been overlooked and his ornithological work, especially that on migration and systematics, would benefit from a present-day appraisal. Jürgen Haffer knew this, and just before he died was beginning to research Seebohm. Indeed, his copy of Birds of Siberia that I inherited has a few pencil annotations, marking passages he felt were significant. Someone needs to take up the challenge.

References

Birkhead TR. 2008. The Wisdom of Birds. London: Bloomsbury.
Mullens WH, Swann HK. 1917. A Bibliography of British Ornithology. London: Witherby & Co.
Newton A. 1896. A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
Seebohm H. 1880. Siberia in Europe. London: John Murray.
TTB= Birkhead T, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie B. 2014. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

…Tim Birkhead 2 January 2014

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