Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler: How Birds Got Their Names

Author: Stephen Moss

Publisher: Faber & Faber


Publish Date: December 4, 2018

ISBN-10: 1783350903

Pages: 368

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

When I think back to the year 1970, lists of names often come to mind. John, Paul, George and Ringo, whose band, the Beatles, broke up in April of that year. Lovell, Haise and Swigert, who in that same month, against all the odds, guided their stricken spacecraft Apollo 13 back to Earth. Jairzinho, Tostão, Rivellino and the incomparable Pelé, Brazil’s formidable forward line, who thrashed Italy 4-1 to win the World Cup, thus forever defining football as ‘the beautiful game’.

All these people – and their incredible achievements – made a lasting impression on me. But there was one other name that would shape my life even more profoundly: that belonging to the wife of a now long-forgotten ornithologist.

I was ten years old, and had been obsessed with birds for as long as I could remember. To encourage my interest, for four shillings a week (the pre-decimal equivalent of 20p), my mother subscribed to a weekly ‘partwork’ of magazines, with the beguiling title Birds of the World.

Every Saturday morning, I would wait eagerly for the paperboy to drop the latest issue through our letterbox, and then spend the rest of the day absorbed in its contents – the full-colour photographs, the text packed with fascinating facts about the world’s birds and their extraordinary lifestyles.

Even in nine large-format volumes, Birds of the World could only cover a fraction of the 8,600 or so different kinds of bird known to exist at that time. But in a concession to completeness, its editor John Gooders had decided to include a full list of every single species. So it was that, some time in late 1970, on page 2,110 of Volume VII, part 3, I came across the name of the bird that gave this book its title: Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

Something about the strangeness of the name struck me, even then. I already knew – or could guess – that birds could be called after their colour or their size, their habits or their habitat, the sound they made, or the place where they came from. Some, I also realised, were named after people: even at this early stage in my ornithological education I had heard of Leach’s petrel, Montagu’s harrier and Bewick’s swan.

But ‘Mrs Moreau’s warbler’? How on earth had this species acquired such an unusual name? A clue lay in the words in italics beneath: Scepomycter winifredae. Even at this early age, I was able to deduce that the bird had been named after a woman called Winifred Moreau.

Nowadays, of course, I can simply Google the name and click on the brief but informative Wikipedia entry. But no such easy shortcuts to knowledge were available back in the dark ages of my childhood. And my mum was calling me downstairs for tea. So I put down the magazine and, for the moment at least, forgot all about Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

Yet as the years went by, and my interest in bird names grew, my thoughts kept returning to this obscure little bird, the woman after whom it was named, and her husband, one of the greatest ornithologists of the twentieth century.


Reginald Ernest Moreau – known to his friends and colleagues simply as ‘Reg’ – was born in 1897. The Moreausi were a typically respectable, middle-class family, living an unremarkable existence in the Surrey town of Kingston-upon-Thames.

Then one day, when Reg was about ten years old, their quiet, comfortable lives were shattered. Returning home from work, his stockbroker father was struck by the open door of a passing train. Although Mr Moreau senior survived the accident, he became a manic-depressive and was never able to work again. As a result of their straitened circumstances, the family moved out of town to a more modest property in rural Surrey. There, during long bicycle trips around the local countryside, Reg developed his lifelong interest in birds.

In 1914, the year the First World War broke out, the seventeen-year-old Reg left school and took an exam to enter the Civil Service. He just managed to scrape through, in ninety-ninth place out of a hundred, and ended up in the Army Audit Office in Aldershot. Then, however, he fell ill with rheumatoid arthritis. The family doctor prescribed a complete change, and Reg applied for a posting abroad, to Egypt’s capital Cairo.

He took to colonial life immediately, as his son David recalled many years later:

Once in Egypt, he began to behave like the Indiana Jones character that he had clearly always wanted to be. Adopting a bush hat, khaki shirts and shorts … he began making long journeys by ancient car, rail and on foot into the surrounding desert. He took to flies, protesting camels, leather water bottles and Bedouin as if Kingston-on-Thames [sic] had never existed.1

Reg Moreau spent much of the next thirty years or so living and working in Africa. He became an expert in the study of bird migration: the epic, twice-yearly journeys made by hundreds of millions of birds, as they travel between the northern latitudes of Eurasia and the vast continent of Africa.

In his final years, by then living in the quiet Oxfordshire village of Berrick Salome, he brought together his lifetime’s work into a book, The Palearctic-African Bird Migration Systems. This was published in 1972, but sadly Reg did not live to see it in print, having died, aged seventy-three, on 30 May 1970.

Despite the less-than-snappy title, the book was a masterpiece, distilling decades of hard-won knowledge and experience into clear, precise prose. Even now, almost fifty years after it was published, it is full of insights into the incredible journeys made by migrating birds.

As Reg Moreau lay on his deathbed, in the spring of 1970, he had time to write a short page of acknowledgements, which began with heartfelt thanks to his wife Winifred: ‘This book would never have been written but for the devotion of my darling diminutive wife, known to generations of ornithologists as Winnie.’

A touching tribute, certainly. Yet Winnie Moreau contributed far more to their relationship than simple devotion. She was also a leading ornithologist in her own right, and an equal partner with Reg in their field trips and discussions; so much so that perhaps, in a less chauvinistic era, she might have been given a joint credit for the book.

Winnie and Reg first met on a fine spring day in the early 1920s, in a chance encounter that would radically shape the course of their lives. At the time, she was picking wild flowers and he was watching migrant birds. But this meeting did not take place on some windswept English headland, but under clear blue skies near the port city of Alexandria, where Winnie – a vicar’s daughter from Cumberland – was working as a nanny.

More than forty years later, in 1966, Reg recalled that first meeting:

Here one March afternoon, where the steppe was still bright with flowers and was twinkling with short-toed larks and wheatears, I came across a small person picking scarlet ranunculuses… She was knowledgeable in birds. Improbably we met twice more, for an hour or two, before she returned to England. We were married in Cumberland in June 1924.

After the wedding, they returned to Egypt. Four years later, they moved to Amani, a hill station in the scenically beautiful and biologically fascinating Usambara Mountains of north-east Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where Reg had taken up a new post in the accounts department of a biological research station.

But while auditing may have been his profession, his main passion – shared by his wife – was ornithology. Fired up by their new and exotic surroundings, Reg and Winnie embarked on a long-term study of the birds around their new home. As well as the long-distance migrants that would form the subject of his book, they also focused on the sedentary ‘Eastern Arc endemics’: a unique group of very localised species, found nowhere else in the world but here.

In 1938, a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, Reg and Winnie embarked on an expedition to the Uluguru mountain range, several days’ journey south of the Usambaras. There, high in the montane forest, they discovered an obscure and endangered songbird which, in a perhaps surprising act of marital devotion, he named Scepomycter winifredae – Mrs Moreau’s warbler.

I say surprising, because in the few rather grainy, black-and-white photographs of him that survive, the short, stout, bald and bespectacled Reg bears more than a passing resemblance to Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army. But beneath that stern-looking exterior he was a sociable and fun-loving man. And he clearly had a romantic streak, as the naming of this obscure little bird after his wife proves.

When Reg Moreau died in 1970 his obituaries were uniformly warm and positive. He was remembered as ‘a squat, square figure [with] … a rugged face, a heavy square jaw, thick glasses, and just a fringe of curly hair which he brushed upwards’. His rather unusual dress sense was also mentioned: ‘[He was] adorned frequently in the summer with a transparent green eyeshade, and more often than not, if the weather was warm, with huge knees and strong shoes protruding from a pair of shorts.’

But most of all, Reg Moreau was regarded a key influence on both professional and amateur ornithologists. As my friend and mentor James Ferguson-Lees recalled just before his death, he was always keen to share his vast knowledge and experience, yet also prepared to listen to other people’s thoughts and opinions. ‘Reg was a remarkable man – a great enthusiast about birds and bird migration – like a God to us youngsters!’ii

Winnie, though, remained tantalisingly vague, the dutiful wife hovering in the background. Although six years older than Reg, she survived for another eleven years, dying in 1981, in her ninetieth year.

Now, almost forty years later, she is finally being recognised as an equal partner in Reg’s life and work, not simply his willing and devoted assistant.2 The American academic Nancy J. Jacobs has discovered that in his writings on new birds discovered in the Usambaras, Reg always used the first person plural, to highlight that these had been jointly found and named by him and Winnie.iii As Reg himself wrote: ‘The frequent use of the pronoun “we” … is a natural result of our close collaboration.’3

Amidst their busy lives, Reg and Winnie also found time to raise two children: a daughter, Prinia – named after a family of African songbirds – and a son, David, who later made a career for himself as an author of rather racy novels, mostly set in expatriate circles in Tanzania.iv

David Moreau – who narrowly escaped being christened ‘Buphagus’ after the scientific name for the oxpeckers – depicted his parents as a loving but rather unpredictable couple. He claimed that Reg once warned Prinia to ‘cover your ears. There’s going to be a loud bang’, just before he shot and wounded a leopard hiding beneath her bed.

Reg delighted in reciting saucy limericks to his dinner guests, while Winnie frequently cared for abandoned baby birds, tucking them into a sock, which she then placed inside her bra. Indeed, she once did so while entertaining the visiting provincial governor. Such recollections suggest that Reg and Winnie Moreau’s long and happy marriage and family life were enlivened by a great sense of fun.v

The only photograph I can find of Reg and Winnie together comes from late in his life, long after they had returned to England. They stand side-by-side in front of a brick fireplace: he wearing a jacket, tie and jumper, she looking rather smarter, in a neat two-piece outfit. Both are smiling, as well they might, given their many achievements: not least the discovery of the warbler that bears Winifred’s name.

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