Goodbye to an Ornithological Great: David Snow

I am so sad to inform you that the famous British ornithologist, David Snow, died Wednesday, 4 February 2009, at the age of 84.

David Snow was born in Windermere, Cumbria, located in northwestern England on 30 September 1924. He began his illustrious career as a demonstrator at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford University from 1949 to 1957. The Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology conducts ornithological research in evolutionary ecology and conservation biology with an emphasis on understanding birds in their natural environments. Then from 1957 to 1961, Snow worked in Trinidad for the New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society). Accompanied by his wife, Barbara, and a small child, he was the Director of the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands from 1963 to 1964, overseeing the completion of the research station and housing for researchers there. Snow and his family then returned to England where he served as the Director of Research for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) from 1964 to 1968. The BTO is an organization that was founded in 1932 specifically to study the birds of the British Isles. Snow then worked at London's Natural History Museum until his retirement in 1984. He and his wife, Barbara, who died in 2007, are celebrated for their tremendous contributions to Neotropical ornithology, especially to our knowledge of the hummingbirds, cotingas and manakins.

David Snow edited several journals; The Ibis, Bird Study and the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club.

In addition to his editing duties and his many scientific papers, David (sometimes with his wife, Barbara) wrote a large number of influential books;

  1. Bird Study, Vols. 13-14 (1966)
  2. A guide to moult in British birds (1967)
  3. Bird Study, Vols. 15-16 (1968)
  4. The Cotingas: Bell Birds, Umbrella Birds and Their Allies (1982)
  5. The Web of Adaptation: Bird Studies in the American Tropics (1985)
  6. The Bird Paintings; Water Colours and Pencil Drawings 1969-1975 (1985) (co-authored with Raymond Harris Ching)
  7. Birds and Berries: A Study of an Ecological Interaction (1988) (co-authored with Barbara Snow)
  8. Birds, Discovery and Conservation: 100 Years of the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists Club (1992)
  9. The Birds of the Western Palearctic; Volume 1 Non-Passerines (1998) (co-authored with Christopher M. Perrins, and Robert Gillmor)
  10. The Birds of the Western Palearctic; Volume 2 Passerines (1998) (co-authored with Christopher M. Perrins and Robert Gillmor)
  11. The Complete Birds of the Western Palearctic (2000) (co-authored with Stanley Cramp)

Snow is commemorated by the species name of the critically endangered Alagoas Antwren, Myrmotherula snowi, a lowland rainforest specialist that is endemic to Brazil, and by the genus name of the Andean Green Pihas, Snowornis species. He and his wife Barbara were joint recipients of the American Ornithologists' Union's Brewster Medal in 1972. This annual award is given in honor of an exceptional body of work on birds in the Western Hemisphere.

I wish I could tell you my own personal stories about this great scientist, but alas, as is the case with all those who were great, I only followed his accomplishments from afar: beginning in the classroom and the field, through his papers and books, and by listening to stories told by my grad school advisors and mentors -- who are among his colleagues, friends and admirers.

NOTE: If anyone has any images of David Snow that they would like to share, please send them to me and I will add them to this essay, with proper attribution. I would also be interested to read your stories about David and Barbara if you choose to share them here.

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David Snow also had a genus named after him, by Rick Prum in 2001 (Ibis 143:307-309,): Snowornis refers to the Andean Green Pihas, including the Grey-tailed Piha (S. subalaris)and the Olivaceous Piha (S. cryptolophus). Prum dedicated the paper proposing the new genus to Snow, as well, "for his inspirational work on the display behavior, breeding systems and evolution of manakins and cotingas."

By Gregg Gorton (not verified) on 06 Feb 2009 #permalink

Barbara Snow died in 2007. There's a photo of David Snow in the back dust jacket of "The web of adaptation" but I'm not sure of the copyright. would a low-res scan be acceptable?

I have just discovered the sad news that both David and Barbara Snow have passed away. I have many fond memories of them as I worked as a field assistant with them for several summer holidays in Trinidad, mainly during their studies of Oilbirds and the wonderful dances of the White-bearded and Golden Manakins.

Although I was only a teenager then we had great fun together exploring caves, netting and banding birds, and spending hours just quietly observing them together and later, in the evenings, collaborating on the notes for the day. I have many fond memories of them both and they taught me a a great deal about birds and their behaviours (and much else).

I have rarely known such a quiet, unassuming and happy couple. I don't remember ever a cross word in their company - in fact we used to mainly communicate in the field with various non-verbal sounds and gestures.

I have uploaded a lovely photo of them both c. 1959 at the home of Dr. William Beebe at Simla, Trinidad (now part of the Asa Wright Centre) and inserted it in the article on David Snow in the Wikipedia. The photo was taken by my father, Dr. A. E. Hill, who was a close friend. I have made it available for anyone to download and use so long as they credit my father for it. Just go to: and click on the photo.

I send you my warmest wishes from my home in the bush near Cooktown in tropical far north Queensland, Australia,

John Hill
PS Feel free to contact me at: if you wish to discuss anything further.

By John Hill (not verified) on 10 Aug 2009 #permalink