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the study of birds, including their physiology, classification, ecology, and behaviour
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a branch of zoology that studies the embryology, morphology, physiology, ecology, taxonomy, and geographic distribution of birds. The term “ornithology” was introduced at the end of the 16th century by the Italian naturalist U. Aldrovandi.

The first work on ornithology was Aristotle’s History of Animals (fourth century B.C.), which mentions 170 species of birds. In the Middle Ages, Friedrich Hohenstaufen II wrote On the Art of Hunting With Birds (c. 1247; published in 1596), which contains much information on birds. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the French naturalist P. Belon, the Swiss biologist K. von Gesner, and Aldrovandi wrote summaries of the ornithological information of that time. In 1713 a classification of birds by the British biologist J. Ray was published. The basis of modern scientific nomenclature and classification of birds was laid by C. Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae (1st ed., 1735). In the 17th and 18th centuries, birds were studied far beyond the boundaries of Europe. G. Buffon published the first survey of world ornithofauna (vols. 1–10, 1770–86).

Purely descriptive works on the morphology, taxonomy, and geographical distribution of birds predominated in ornithology until the middle of the 19th century, when C. Darwin’s work on the Galápagos finches appeared and the theory of the evolution of the organic world was elaborated (1859). These events stimulated interest in studying the comparative morphology and phylogeny of birds. A firm basis was laid in the 19th century for the modern classification of birds by the Englishman T. Huxley, the Russian M. A. Menzbir, and the Germans M. Fürbringer, H. Gadow, and E. Selenka. These scientists established the most important phylogenetic relationship among birds.

The extensive data on the geographic distribution of birds that had been accumulated by the mid-19th century enabled the British scientist P. Sclater to work out a system for the ornithogeographic division of the globe (1858). Later, the Russian scientists N. A. Severtsov (1877) and M. A. Menzbir (1882–92) worked out such a division for the Palearctic.

Extensive study of the bird fauna of Russia began in the 18th century, at which time a number of expeditions were conducted. The vast territory from Karelia and the Crimea to Kamchatka was investigated by P. S. Pallas, N. Ia. Ozeretskovskii, S. P. Krasheninnikov, I. I. Georgi, and others. The results of these investigations were summarized by P. S. Pallas in Russo-Asiatic Zoography (vols. 1–3, 1811–31). Study of the birds of Siberia, the Far East, and Russian America (Alaska) was continued in the 19th century by A. F. Middendorf, I. G. Voznesenskii, and G. I. Radde. In 1893, V. K. Tachanovskii compiled a summary of the birds of Eastern Siberia. Study of the birds of Turkestan was also initiated in the 19th century. N. A. Severtsov, founder of the ecological school in ornithology, studied the birds of Turkestan from 1857 to 1878. His investigations were continued from the 1880’s to 1918 by N. A. Zarudnyi, who also extensively studied the birds of Iran. The birds of Central Asia were first studied in Russia in the 1870’s. The foremost Russian scholars on Central Asian birds were N. M. Przheval’skii, P. K. Kozlov, and M. M. Berezovskii. After the Great October Socialist Revolution, specialists in Cental Asian birds included E. V. Kozlova and A. Ia. Tugarinov.

One of the principal centers for the study of ornithology in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries was Moscow University, where a Russian ornithological school under the influence of K. F. Rul’e developed and successfully studied various aspects of the science (morphology, zoogeography, taxonomy, bird distribution). The most famous representatives of the school were N. A. Severtsov, M. A. Menzbir, and P. Sushkin. Their many pupils included S. A. Buturlin and G. P. Dement’ev. The work of Dement’ev, who headed ornithological research at Moscow State University for a long time, was especially valuable. Another important center for the study of ornithology is the Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (before 1931, the Zoological Museum) in Leningrad, where fruitful work was done by M. N. Bogdanov, F. D. Pleske, and V. L. Bianki and, later, by P. P. Sushkin, B. K. Shtegman, A. Ia. Tugarinov, and L. A. Portenko.

Ornithology developed substantially in the USSR after the Great October Socialist Revolution, when, along with the abovementioned centers, a network of zoological institutions—institutes, laboratories, and game preserves—was created. These institutions furthered individual zoological research, which served as the basis for subsequent in-depth ornithological research. As a result, works were published on the ornithofauna of the Carpathians, Byelorussia, the Baltic region, the Urals, Western Siberia, Yakutia, Chukotka Peninsula, Primor’e Krai, Kazakhstan, the Altai, Armenia, and the republics of Middle Asia. Also published were bird guides, a number of volumes in the series Fauna of the USSR, and the comprehensive Birds of the Soviet Union, edited by G. P. Dement’ev and N. A. Gladkov (vols. 1–6, 1951–54).

Among the valuable works on ornithology is the German zoologist E. Hartert’s summary of Palearctic birds (1903–22, supplement 1932–38), which was superseded by a summary by the American scientist C. Vaurie (1959, 1965). Close to completion is a multivolume catalog of birds of the world, which was begun by J. L. Peters in 1931 (Check-list of Birds of the World, vols 1–15, 1931–70; volumes 8 and 11 were not published). A large number of monographs on the birds of Canada, North and West Africa, the Middle East, the Philippines, New Guinea, and other regions are being published at present. The completeness of present-day research on the species composition of the world ornithofauna is reflected by the fact that the last new bird species of North America was described in 1889, of Australia in 1910, and of the Palearctic (Afghanistan) in 1937.

Modern ornithology, one of the most thoroughly studied branches of zoology, is closely related to a number of other biological disciplines. On its basis, important generalizations have been made in taxonomy, embryology, and endocrinology. For example the concept of polytypic species, critical evaluation of geographic variation, the significance and functions of isolating mechanisms, and methods of form development have been elaborated principally on the basis of ornithological data. The modern zoogeographic division of dry land established by the British zoologists P. Sclater and A. Wallace is based mainly on bird-distribution data. Population biology, ethology, genetics (selection of domestic fowl), and ecology are intimately connected with ornithology. Experimental research on bird physiology is well developed especially as a result of the rapidly developing interest in such problems as photoperiodism; energy balance; salt metabolism; phenomena of torpidity discovered in Caprimulgiformes, hummingbirds, and swifts; and orientation in space. Interest has been rekindled in comparative and functional morphology.

Along with the application of modern research methods (the use of radioisotopes to study metabolism, biochemical and karyologic analysis for taxonomic purposes, radar and miniature radio transmitters to study bird migrations, and tape recorders for song analysis), the role of ornithological collections is as important as ever before in taxonomy, morphology, and zoogeography. In the USSR the largest collections of this type are at the Zoological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Leningrad, at the Zoological Museum at Moscow State University, at the zoological institutes of a number of academies of science of Soviet republics, and at the universities of Tashkent and Kharkov. Ornithological collections are housed in natural-history museums in such cities as Washington, New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Berlin, and Leiden. The most important method of ornithological research, however, continues to be observation in nature. In this regard, the role of amateur ornithologists is great.

Ornithology also has substantial practical value, for example, in agriculture, forestry (biological pest control), and hunting. Since birds are the carriers of a number of dangerous infectious diseases (ornithoses, encephalitides) and helminthiases, their study is particularly important in public health and veterinary medicine.

There are numerous national ornithological societies, such as the German Ornithological Society, the British Ornithological Union, the American Ornithologists’ Union, and the Bombay Natural History Society. In the USSR, the Moscow Society of Naturalists, the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature, and the Estonian Society of Naturalists, have ornithological and zoological sections.

No fewer than 2,500 articles on birds are published annually in zoological journals and numerous specialized ornithological journals including Auk (Cambridge, since 1884), Ibis (London, since 1859), Ardea (Leiden, since 1912), Journal für Ornithologie (Berlin, since 1853), Emu (Melbourne, since 1901), Ostrich (Pretoria, since 1930), and Ornitologiia (since 1958). Of great importance for the development of ornithology is the International Ornithological Congress, which was organized in 1884. (Beginning in 1930, after the creation of the International Ornithological Committee, the congresses have convened every four years.) In the USSR, the Baltic ornithological conferences have been held since 1951, and the All-Union ornithological conferences since 1956. Coordination of ornithology research in the USSR is effected by the All-Union Ornithological Committee. Projects for the study of migrations are supervised by the Coordination Council on Problems of Migrations and Orientation of Birds and by the Baltic Commission for the Study of Bird Migrations.


Menzbir, M. A. Ptitsy Rossii, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1893–95.
Shul’pin, L. M. Ornitologiia. Leningrad, 1940.
Dement’ev, G. P. Ptitsy. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940. (Rukovodstvo po zoologii, vol. 6.)
Dement’ev, G. P. “Ornitologiia.” In the collection Razvitie biologii v SSSR. Moscow, 1967.
Ptitsy SSSR: Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’, 1881–1917, issue 1. Leningrad, 1972.
Stresemann, E. Die Entwicklung der Ornithologie: Von Aristoteles bis zur Gegenwart. Aachen, 1951.
A New Dictionary of Birds. Edited by A. L. Thompson. London-New York, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(vertebrate zoology)
The study of birds.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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