Biology & Natural History

(Ratcliffe, Derek) Howard, H. Eliot | Territory in Bird Life.

  • First edition, first impression of the book that popularised the modern understanding of territoriality among male birds. From the library of the important conservationist Derek Ratcliffe (1929-2005), who discovered the effect of DDT-related eggshell thinning on peregrine falcon populations. With his ownership inscription on the front free endpaper, dated 24 July, 1964.

    Author H. Elliot Howard (1873-1940) was an amateur ornithologist whose study of warblers led him to the conclusion that male birds fight not for females, but directly for territory, which then attracts females. This was first explicated in The British Warblers: a History with Problems of Their Lives (published in parts between 1907 and 14). The lavishly illustrated work was well-reviewed, but too expensive for a general readership, so Howard published Territory in Bird Life in 1920. This popular work explores all aspects of territory among many different species, and “from the late 1920s the theory became increasingly influential both in Europe and the United States” (Online Dictionary of National Biography).

    “Howard was not, in fact, the first person to discover territory in birds for, unknown to him, J. B. Altum in 1868 in Germany and C. B. Moffat in 1903 in Ireland had described its main features. However, it was Howard's persuasive and extensive exposition of the concept that established its importance and brought it to international ornithological notice; it is a striking example of an amateur significantly influencing modern scientific research” (ODNB).

    This former owner of this copy was Derek Ratcliffe, one of the most influential British conservationists of the 20th century. Ratcliffe was educated as a botanist, completing his PhD at Bangor in 1953, and then being appointed a scientific officer for the Nature Conservancy in Edinburgh. He made important surveys of plant and bird communities in the Scottish Highlands, many of which had never been studied in detail. During 1961-62 he completed the first survey of British peregrine falcons, discovering that they were declining in numbers and even ceasing to breed at all in some areas. "The cause of the decline was persistent pesticides, notably DDT, which caused eggshell thinning and catastrophic breeding failure. Ratcliffe published a classic paper on eggshell thinning in the journal Nature in 1967, and a more detailed paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 1970, both of which were among the most frequently cited ornithological scientific publications" (ODNB).

    In the 1960s and 70s, as scientific assessor for the Nature Conservancy, he led efforts to inventory Britain’s most important natural sites. “At the heart of this work was the exposition of a philosophy for nature conservation founded on the use of such concepts as 'diversity', 'fragility', and 'naturalness', which enabled scientists systematically to compare sites and even regions. This became, and remained, the cornerstone of nature conservation, culminating in the publication of the two-volume book edited by Ratcliffe, A Nature Conservation Review (1977)” (ODNB). During the 1980s he led the movement to establish sites of special scientific interest throughout Britain, and was a key player in the drive to prevent industrial scale pine tree planting on the critically important flow country habitat in northern Scotland.

  • ...With Illustrations by G. E. Lodge and H. Grönvold. London: John Murray, 1920.

    Octavo. Original blue cloth, titles to spine gilt. Colour frontispiece and 10 black and white plates with tissue guards, double-page map. Errata slip at page 238, single leaf of publisher’s ads at rear. Binding lightly rubbed at the extremities, faint spotting to the edges of the text block, free endpapers partially tanned. An excellent copy.