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The First Ecologist

On July 18, 1720, English naturalist Gilbert White was born. A country cleric, White systematically recorded careful and detailed observations of all Nature in his surroundings. He experimented with different plants from flowers to potatoes to fruit trees in his garden that is still going strong today.

White observed carefully from living animals while many of the famous naturalists of his day studied dead and lifeless specimens. He could identify different species of bird families by their song… even recording the key in which neighbouring owls hooted! He supported the theory, being debated in his time, of bird migration that others did not… others being of the opinion that birds overwintered by burrowing in mud or other ground.

Meticulous, White arranged for others to record observations of plants, animals, and weather when he travelled. Over the years, everything he observed provided grist for his quill – a village census of the sexes, living and dead; the consequence of land grants; an economic downturn that bred a gang of poachers. If it had to do with Nature, he recorded it. Want to write an historical novel? Look no further than his letters for every detail of life and language.

From the lengthening record of his detailed observation, White developed insights and understanding of the interdependence between living things, life cycle events, and how seasonal and yearly climate variations seemed to influence them. He corresponded with other naturalists and did not hesitate to ask his questions about species of the foremost botanists and zoologists that could include requests that his query be forwarded to Swedish botanist Linnaeus, founder of the modern classification system for plants and animals.

Although Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, a collection of his letters was written about White’s small and inauspicious village, its charm, bio-historical record, and anecdotal immediacy have kept it in print since it was published in 1789! His passion for active biological accounting, accurate observation, theorizing from data, and concern for the conservation of species placed him at the leading edge of amateur naturalist endeavour. White’s writing inspired and influenced others who followed him to faithful record keeping. He left a reliable, valuable record for everyone from Darwin to today’s scientists and others engaged in studying climatology, biodiversity and extinction. And all 100 years before the word ecology was coined!

Fortunately for bird species everywhere, increasing numbers of individual observers like Gilbert White identified the international flyways of most migratory birds and inspired growing international cooperation in efforts to protect these species on their amazing journeys.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage