John Ray first studied birds with his friend Francis Willughby after whose death Ray published Willughby’s Ornithologiae in 1676 in Latin, which restricted its appeal. An English version was published in 1678 and was more popular.

Ray wrote : ‘… the whole work we have divided into three books. In the first we treat (write) of birds in general; in the second of land-fowl; in the third of water-fowl. The second book we have divided into two parts: the first … contains birds of crooked beak and talons; the second of such whose bills and claws are more straight. The third book is tripartite (in three parts): the first part takes in all birds that wade in the waters, or frequent watery places, but swim not; the second, such as are of a middle nature between swimmers and waders … some are cloven footed and yet swim; others whole footed but yet very long legged like the waders; the third is of whole-footed, or fin-toed birds that swim in the water’.

From this description, it can be seen that by both dissection and close observation Ray had begun to classify birds by their structure and feathers, and also sometimes by their habitat.

Following in his footsteps …

The study of birds is called ornithology – you can join the RSPB Young Ornithologists Club or the Essex Wildlife Turst WATCH Group, to find out more. You could keep a diary of birds that visit your garden or school playground.

Ray realised birds’ beaks and feet are adapted to the way they live and where they live, which is called their habitat.