Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

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| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Birds, Natural History of

  • Justin E. H. SmithEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_159-1

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Two traits of birds mark them out as exceptional among animals: flight and song. The latter trait seems, especially in its language-like complexity, to place birds close to human beings, perhaps even to give them a share of something like reason. The former trait, from antiquity to the early modern period, set them sharply apart from human beings, yet at the same time made them the focus of human aspiration and the model of what human beings might someday achieve through artificial means. The fact that birds were bipedal, at least when they were not flying, sometimes placed them closer to human beings than to the “quadrupeds” in the order of nature – the human being was since antiquity defined, only semi-facetiously, as “a two-legg’d animal without feathers” (Willughby 1678, 2) and was frequently combined with their capacity for vocalization as a further reason to conceive them both as exceptional in the order of nature and as a sort of counterpart or mirror of the human essence.


Reflection on the particular conformation of the vocal organs of birds is one of the standard features of Renaissance ornithology. Thus, for example, Pierre Belon writes that “there is no animal that is better able to produce articulate speech than the bird, and among other things those that have a tongue that is thin and large, are able to sing much better” (Belon 1555, 49). Belon is concerned to emphasize the need for just the right combination of physiological prerequisites for speech and thus the very delicate and even improbable balance from which birdsong results. Such attention to “wonderful physiology” remains one of the central tropes of Athanasius Kircher’s treatment of birdsong a century later. He emphasizes that no animal “is capable of inflection and speech, if you will except some birds (which delight the ears of listeners with sweet inflection, and which bring listeners into a stupor with their babbling that is similar to human speech)” (Kircher 1650, 25). The inability of the quadrupeds and serpents to provide such delight results from the fact that “their tongue lacks a larynx, nor do they have any [organ] for pronouncing vowels and consonants” (Kircher 1650, 25).

But birdsong was not so easily accounted for in terms of physiology alone, as it seemed too many to be an expression of spontaneity that goes beyond mere mechanism. Thus Immanuel Kant, in his discussion of the limits of mechanistic explanation of the living world, focuses on birdsong as more expressive of freedom even than human music, which, for its part, follows a preestablished sequence of notes. He writes in the 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment: “[A] bird’s song, which we can reduce to no musical rule, seems to have more freedom in it, and thus to be richer for taste, than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes” (Kant 1902, V, 243). Birdsong could not be so easily dismissed as could other proposed displays of animal intelligence as mere imitativeness or “aping.” Part of the reason for its apparent exceptional character had to do not just with the fact that some species of birds could learn a limited number of words from human beings, but in addition avian vocalization was thought to be the result of a process of learning. In the late eighteenth century, the naturalist Daines Barrington observes that birdsong is “no more innate, than language is in man” and that its particular expression depends “entirely upon the master under which they are bred, as far as their organs will enable them to imitate the sounds which they have frequent opportunities of hearing” (Barrington 1773–1774, 252). For him, birdsong is different from the common groans and barks of other animals in that it must be taught and thus it evidences the presence in birds of mental faculties that could not be explained as mere “instinct.” Birds alone among animals are like humans in that they seem not only to make noise but to have a share in speech.


From the experiments of Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century to Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds of 1505, there was a widespread belief that study of the mechanics of natural flight among birds might provide a key to the eventual construction of artificial flying machines among humans. In the seventeenth century, the new focus on the study of gases turned attention to lighter-than-air devices as the most promising path for human flight, but the peculiar power of birds to leave the earth’s surface never retreated as an object of scientific interest. From Belon through Ulisse Aldrovandi to John Ray, significant refinements were made in the classification of birds and in the determination of their essential properties, but it was universally agreed that they all have wings or their rudiments, even if some are unable to fly. Francis Willughby’s Ornithology of 1676–1678 was a particularly important moment in the standardization of avian taxonomy and the rigorous description of species. According to Willughby the wings “answer to the fore-legs in Quadrupeds” (Willughby 1678, 2). Given the range of flying abilities and the evident anatomical analogy between avian and other vertebrate skeletons, the possibility that flight may be an adaptation, more or less developed in different bird species according to environmental exigencies, began to loom large by the end of the seventeenth century, even if the evolutionary language to account for this adequately would not emerge for another many years.



  1. Belon P (1555) L’histoire de la nature des oyseaux, avec leurs descriptions, & naïfs portraicts retirez du naturel. ParisGoogle Scholar
  2. Barrington, Daines (1683–1775) 63 (1773) Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds, by the Hon. Daines Barrington, Vice Pres. R. S. In a Letter to Mathew Maty, M. D. Sec. R. S. Philosophical Transactions: 249–91Google Scholar
  3. Kant I (1902 [1790]) Kritik der Urtheilskraft. In: Werke (ed) vol V. The Preussiche Akademie der Wissenschaften, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  4. Kircher A (1650) Musurgia universalis, sive Ars magna consoni et dissoni. Corbelleti, RomeGoogle Scholar
  5. Willughby F (1678) The ornithology of Francis Willughby in three books. John Martyn, LondonGoogle Scholar

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Département Histoire et Philosophie des SciencesUniversité Paris DiderotParisFrance

Section editors and affiliations

  • Justin E.H. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Département Histoire et Philosophie des SciencesUniversité Paris DiderotParisFrance