Nature through the eyes of two Victorians: a birdwatcher and his big-game hunting brother

In light of the recent bird-watching revival, we should revisit the life of a champion birder, Edmund Selous, who watched humans as closely as birds, and noticed the bias we bring to our understanding of the forces of nature.

A variety of illustrations of birds native to Europe.
A variety of illustrations of birds native to Europe. Credit: CSA-Printstock via Getty Images.

The world is full of birds, over 10,000 species, more than twice the number of mammal species – they outnumber humans by about thirty to one. A close, convivial, but wild neighbour, they’re among nature’s most forthcoming representatives, and our interactions with birds shed light on our rapport with both nature and ourselves. It’s unsurprising that birdwatching experienced a revival during the Covid pandemic. Whether from an apartment window, a backyard, or park, it offered a socially-distanced chance to curatively connect with the outdoors. That birds are virtually everywhere makes it easy; there are even phone apps that help identify them by appearance, calls and songs. Spotting and naming birds, getting to know those in one’s vicinity is a gratifying hobby, but to see birds, as opposed to simply watching them, to decipher their behaviour and assign it meaning in the grand, evolutionary scheme of things, is a mission reserved for the intrepid few.

James Bond was an ornithologist. Author Ian Fleming, an amateur birdwatcher, read one of Bond’s books, liked the sound of his name, and a spy was born. Nor was it a stretch to name a spy after an ornithologist since both professions require exceptional alertness and observation skills, not to mention a degree of stealth. Some of the most instructive and ecstatic bird-watchers were British, foremost among them Edmund Selous (1857-1934), whose braving of the elements, zen patience and meticulous note-taking helped advance Darwin’s theory of evolution, and lay the foundations of ethology, the biological study of animal behaviour that coalesced in the years following his death.

Secure in the exactitude of his observations and proud of his exalted prose, Selous’s hermetic, tetchy temperament did not endear him to his contemporaries, nor did his proto-feminist ideas regarding sexual selection. He hated killing and taxidermy, twin tools of the naturalist’s trade, calling zoologists ‘thanatologists’ and natural history museums ‘morgues.’ But his greatest antagonist was closer to home, his older brother Fred (1851-1917), a celebrated big-game hunter and sought-after lecturer. Fred authored four popular accounts of his African adventures by the time Edmund published the first of several books about bird behaviour, where his disdain for hunting (but never Fred) was freely expressed. Both brothers were exemplary Victorians who professed a love of nature; one watched and recorded, the other took aim and fired (ivory tusks were profitable). Between the two, the ambivalence characterising human behaviour towards nature could not be more starkly portrayed.

Our fascination with birds goes way back. The ancient Egyptians adored and worshiped them, but also hunted and bred birds in captivity for food, mummifying millions as votive offerings to the bird-headed gods of wisdom and kingship. Although Tutankhamun had an ostrich hand-fan, feathers were not a favoured ornament; the Egyptian elite preferred gold. The Aztecs liked both, and by 1521 conquistador Hernán Cortés brought their feathered costumes to his patron Charles V, whetting an appetite among Renaissance noblemen for ostrich headgear worthy of a Las Vegas showgirl. Marie Antoinette’s brother Joseph called her ‘featherhead’ for introducing towering plumed headdresses to the ladies of the court. But it wasn’t until the 1860s that a full-blown fashion for bird hats hatched in Europe and migrated forthwith to North America. As always, upper class women were the trendsetters, but during the sixty-year reign of the bird hat, feathers became de rigueur for women of every background, even if they were only from humble chickens.

Entire birds were mounted in diorama-like arrangements perched atop women’s elaborately coiffed heads. Some hats incorporated nests and fledglings; others had birds poised with wings outspread, as if about to take flight. Their appeal lay in appropriating natural beauty to enhance that of the wearer, while expressing a paradoxical appreciation for nature’s creations. Birds worked for women as both a symbol and accessory, with motherly connotations and their attention-grabbing appearance. In 1886, ornithologist Frank Chapman hat-watched while walking from his office in uptown Manhattan down to 14th Street, noting thirty-seven bird species along the way. That year, the American Ornithologist Union (est. 1883) estimated that the hat industry cost the lives of five million birds in North America alone; at the turn of the century conservationists placed the figure at 200 million.

Domestic and imported birds were culled, some almost to extinction. Hats featuring clusters of feathers (called ‘aigrettes’ or ‘ospreys’) were popular, particularly those of the suddenly endangered egret, a member of the fish-catching heron family that was hunted in the Florida everglades. Its feathers, wrote Edmund Selous, were ‘pure shining white…soft as silk’ and stiff enough to stand: ‘Imagine a little fountain of ivory threads all shooting up together in the air.’ The rarer the bird, the better the hat, and the more status conferred on its wearer. Prized for the colour and diversity of their plumage, varieties of Birds of Paradise were imported from New Guinea and Indonesia by their tens of thousands. The rising death toll eventually ruffled some women’s feathers, sparking an ethics debate that became the raison d’etre behind the founding of the Audubon Society (1886, US) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (1889, UK), both driven by women.

The debate opened on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, where bird hats were advertised as must-have fashions for the magazine’s upscale women readers. Miss Mary Thatcher made the case against them in an 1875 article entitled, ‘The slaughter of the innocents,’ which must have caught ladies imagining how they’d look in a new bird hat, off-guard. Thatcher agreed birds were beautiful, but insisted that impaling them on a hat was not. While some cultures assigned religious meaning to feather-wearing, wrote Thatcher, here it was only a misplaced vanity. The cruelty of bird wear probably never crossed women’s minds, if it had, their ‘tender hearts’ would intervene, so Thatcher described the plight of birds; how farmers killed them even though they helped control insects, and how the growth of cities infringed on their territory. Nor should we think that birds were created solely for our use and pleasure, Thatcher warned, calling this notion ‘a doctrine unworthy of Christendom,’ even though, according to Genesis 1:28, man’s dominion over nature is literally gospel.

Other women followed Thatcher’s lead, authoring popular books in a naturalist vein, advocating bird protection. The bird hat debate brought the novel idea of environmental conservation to the fore of civic consciousness, and laws were eventually passed. The Lacey Act of 1900 attached a hefty fine to the interstate commerce of birds. The 1913 Federal Tariff Act placed restrictions on importing and selling feathers, and in 1918, the US Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banning feather imports from abroad altogether, and setting a precedent for the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Despite laws, opprobrium and a decline in the trend owing to shorter, symmetrical haircuts calling for more streamlined, ‘modern’ headwear, bird-hats still found wearers in the 1940s. Edmund Selous joined the fray in 1901, taking a fresh approach. Having observed women’s behaviour as closely as birds’, and concluding that fashion victims heed only their most cherished influencers, he directed Beautiful Birds (1901) at children, seeding lavish descriptions of avian marvels with pleas that they make their mothers boycott the bird hat. ‘Never, Never leave off asking her!’ Selous said.

While writing diatribes for kids with one hand, Selous was doing science with the other, compiling data regarding the behaviour of a variety of species of birds, some individuals of which he watched throughout their years-long lifetimes. His mother, Ann Sherborn, awakened his interest in nature, as he grew up in the family house his father built on Gloucester Road, Regent’s Park, in London, an area, that was then predominantly open fields. His father’s third wife and twenty years his junior, Ann possessed a ‘deep inborn love of the beauties of Nature’ and was ‘exceptionally thoughtful and broad minded’ her son wrote. Edmund’s father, Frederick Sr. (1802-1892), was a self-made man, chairman of the London Stock Exchange Committee, a prize-winning chess-player, clarinettist and ‘witty talker’ with a remarkable memory and turn of phrase. In his autobiographical notes, Frederick Sr. said that as a seven year-old schoolboy, ‘I was so strong and so hungry that I frequently carried some of the biggest boys around the playground (which was a large one) for an extra slice of bread and butter.’

Edmund was a sickly child, but his brother Fred Jr. inherited their father’s hearty constitution. While Selous père disapproved of sports, Fred excelled at them. Known for his daredevil pranks at boarding school, he was frequently in hot water owing to his poaching of small game and egg-collecting, a Victorian pastime of stalking and robbing nests during the brooding season. As a child, reading books by his hero, missionary explorer David Livingstone and others about lion-hunting in Africa, Fred began to dream, sleeping on his bedroom floor in winter with the window open, to prime himself for nights out on the veld. In 1867, age sixteen, Fred ’s physicality and presence of mind saved his life during a horrific Regent’s Park ice-skating tragedy when a frozen pond cracked and forty-one people drowned. He stayed calm, distributing his weight evenly on a piece of ice, moving from one piece to the next until he reached safety. It was his first brush with death; more awaited in Africa.

A celebrity at thirty, Fred ’s exploits inspired H. Rider Haggard’s action hero, Alain Quartermain. On meeting him, people were often surprised he wasn’t a bigger man: he was short, trim and athletic, with sun-bleached hair and eyes an uncannily pale shade of blue-gray. The press dubbed him ‘the mighty Nimrod’ referencing Noah’s great-grandson, a king of Mesopotamia and ‘mighty hunter before the lord’, a moniker he found embarrassing and was probably not mentioned at the dinner table on his rare visits home. Fred was a seasoned hunter and explorer by the time Edmund visited him in Africa during 1882-1884, travelling from the south to the interior (present-day Zimbabwe), up the Zambezi River to Victoria Falls, but not always in his brother’s company. The record of their time together is scant, suggesting that fraternal bonding was not one of its outcomes; the two corresponded little in later life.

The family never punished Fred for becoming an elephant hunter instead of a doctor or banker. His father financed his first African voyage in 1870, but his profession was at least a source of distress. Fred once described both Edmund and their younger sister Ann as ‘melancholic,’ in other words, boring. They expressed their sentiments about their famous brother by contrasting him with their father, ‘a civilised man and a Londoner.’ Ann said that ‘in character, interests and tastes’ they were quite different, while admitting Fred possessed their father’s ‘strength of purpose, energy, and will to succeed.’ Edmund thought that ‘nothing at all of [father] was in my brother’s life and being.’

In Edmund’s Darwinian appraisal, Fred Jr. inherited his ‘love of truth and country’ from both parents, but the ‘call of the wild’ that drew him to Africa came from his mother’s ancestors, the Scottish Bruces of Clackmannan, a clan of warring king-makers, and some generations later, James ‘the Abyssinian’ Bruce (1730-94), who explored portions of North Africa and Ethiopia. Lineage aside, as Edmund tells it, Fred also had little in common with his mother, noting her ‘great feeling for and interest in both plant and animal life.’ He underlined that word, because ‘killing was quite another thing for her, and her whole soul shrank from it.’ This was as good as saying his brother had no great claim on their mother’s affections, whereas Edmund shared all that she held most dear. His devotion to birdwatching and ceaseless condemnation of hunting were expressions of filial love.

Black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix), wood engraving, created in 1897 (Credit: ZU_09 via Getty Images)

The only way to understand birds or any animal, Edmund maintained, was to observe their every foible in the field, on their turf, an attitude that made him unpopular with institution-bound zoologists. ‘The real naturalist should be a Boswell, and every creature should be, for him, a Dr. Johnson’ he wrote, ‘He should think of nothing but his hero’s doings.’ Edmund followed in the footsteps of Reverend Gilbert White, author of The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne (1789) sharing White’s opinion that knowledge is best obtained by seeing and listening. On his intensive explorations of his village environs White identified three species of willow wren by their calls, and described a nightjar killing an insect, down to the use of ‘its middle toe, which is curiously furnished with a serrated claw.’ Out rambling, White traded stories with his parishioners about their experience of their surroundings.  His book’s popularity, (running to several hundred editions and still in print) both reflected and promoted a cultural attitude towards nature combining admiration, inquisitiveness, the ability to watch, learn, and delight in these (morally gratifying) things, while adding some pertinent observations to the record.

Reading White, a young Darwin wondered why ‘every gentleman did not become an ornithologist’ though most of his contemporaries preferred shooting birds to watching them. Edmund Selous confessed he too had followed this gentlemanly tradition, but the true naturalist, he believed, ‘should love a beast and hate a gun.’ Any dilettante could shoot, but bird-watching took steely commitment. Selous described the hours-long midnight treks over rough terrain to reach birds’ mating grounds in time for the show; fighting cramp while crouched in a mud-hollowed hide, the ‘wretchedness, cold and discomfort,’ the rain and wind that coincided with the mating season and impeded his observations. Nor were birds always watchable, meaning interminable waiting, often to no avail. Telling birds of the same species apart required an almost occult concentration, not least owing to ‘the very different spirit [at times] shown by the same bird.’ He cultivated stillness, discernment and the fastidiousness to write everything down in real-time, while bundled in ‘a thick motor suit, warm underclothing, woolen face-protector, sheepskin gloves, two Scotch plaids and a Shetland-shawl comforter.’  Along with the agonies came the ecstasy of immersion in his surroundings, near to the point of becoming what he watched. Of the arctic skua, a seabird he studied down to the coloured inside of its mouth, he wrote, ‘Oh that cry, that wild, wild cry, that music of the winds, the clouds, the drifting rain and mist – like them, as free as them, voicing their freedom, making their spirit articulate.’

No contemporary naturalist did more than Edmund Selous to advance the theory of sexual selection detailed by Darwin in his Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).  Selous verified, elaborated and sometimes corrected Darwin’s observations about mating rituals, where the male performed to win the female’s favour, ‘like rustics courting at a fair.’ But the idea of female choice, even in animals, did not sit well with his colleagues so Darwin soft-pedalled, suggesting that females were not really choosing, only naturally more attracted to ‘the most beautiful, melodious or gallant males.’ Selous was instead adamant about female choice, perhaps because he had a stake in it, since he and his brother Fred fell for the same girl, Fanny Maxwell (1863-1955).

Daughter of a popular novelist, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and her wealthy publisher, Fanny admitted she found Fred more attractive, but she chose Edmund, and her decision seems to have informed her husband’s studies. When they married in 1886, Edmund had a law degree from Pembroke College, Cambridge. A fast-growing family (a son in 1887, twin girls in 1892) may have prompted the move from London to Suffolk in 1898, but it also marked a change in direction. Edmund now bird-watched fulltime, relying on a small trust and the proceeds of his writing. His first paper, ‘An Observational Diary of the Habits of Nightjars, Mostly of a Sitting Pair: Notes Taken at Time and on Spot’ appeared in 1889 in the Zoologist, a journal that encouraged entries in bionomics, ‘the study of activities and mental states of living animals.’  This suited Selous who investigated birds like a private eye:

June 22nd, 1898:  Crawled up behind a small elder bush some three paces from where a Nightjar had laid her eggs. When nearly there, the bird flew down, not on the nest but close to it.  Shortly afterwards, the other bird flew down beside it and immediately I heard a very low and subdued ‘churr’, expressive of quiet contentment.

British bird-writing had an enthusiastic readership. The widely-distributed Saturday Review praised the paper in an article about a new edition of Reverend White’s Natural History of Selbourne, saying Selous had surpassed him in describing bird behaviour.  Birds offered an open window into nature’s workings, and people wanted to hear about their private lives. At a time of seemingly limitless imperial expansion into foreign lands, coupled with industry’s upending of long-established homely routines, it was as if by understanding birds, people might better know themselves; watching or reading about them was a kind of introspective therapy. Reviewing Selous’s Bird Watching, Warde Fowler, an Oxford don and author of A Year with Birds (1886) said it made him feel ‘as if I were beginning life again.’

Selous was not writing about birds to entertain. Having observed a variety of species, he delivered evidence for Darwin’s theory that males sang and danced to please females, while clarifying the role of male fighting as a courtship behaviour. The female not only took a lively interest, but would intercede on her chosen one’s behalf, attacking other contenders. Not all fights were, however, designed for a female audience.  Selous explained how Darwin had mistaken the blackcock’s ‘war-dance’ as a courtship display, when it was instead a male-oriented affair, that he speculated arose from two prominent and conflicting features of bird nature, ‘bellicosity and timidity.’ According to Selous, if a bird was threatened, he was not necessarily compelled to fight to assert his position. ‘Still, wishing to fight but not daring to would produce mental discomfort, for which some relief must be found.’ Selous insightfully described the war dance as a ‘substitute for battle’ a form of ritualised aggression later identified in other animals, a means of working out rivalries and establishing hierarchies without sacrificing lives.

Watching ruffs compete for female attention, Selous saw that each male had a place in the mating grounds (lek) that when trespassed upon caused a fight, and those that fought hardest got the females (reeves). But in another part of the lek, Selous watched two ruffs procure mates more pacifically owing to their distinctive colouring, winning on looks. Either way, Selous affirmed, the reeves ‘take the initiative throughout, and are the true masters of the situation.’ As for the blackcock hen’s response to male courtship displays, ‘one may correctly describe her as fascinated.’ Although she fought any female who vied for her chosen male, she played surprisingly hard to get, ‘[resisting] the charm of the cock’s allurements, though exhibiting every sign of being strongly impressed,’ a behaviour that Selous found ‘delicate’ and ‘human-seeming.’

Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches, 1845 (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Selous thought Darwin would be ‘triumphantly and most strikingly vindicated’ when field data overcame ‘denial from the chair,’ a dig at lettered peers who had hadn’t observed sexual selection first-hand, instead ‘[issuing] bulls’ from their museums, ‘mausoleums whose outmoded theories bore no relation to what actually occurred in nature.’ Selous had no zoological degree, andthe generous funding assigned to the study of dead versus living birds angered him. When editors wanted to pare down his verbatim field notes, Selous took it personally, accusing them of ‘hacking’ and ‘mangling.’ Classified as an amateur despite his achievements, the sharpness of his critique betrayed resentment and undermined the legitimacy of his arguments.

In describing his antithetical brother, Edmund wrote that Fred possessed ‘a settled determination that, in its calm unobtrusive force … had in it something elemental.’ In other words, he was stubborn as a mule. But so was Edmund, in his resistance to ideas and interactions that might have furthered his work. He eschewed bird-banding to facilitate the tracking of individual birds, feeling it his duty to learn to see what the bird saw in distinguishing its fellows. ‘Everything should be new to you,’ he wrote, ‘there should be no such thing as a fact until you have discovered it.’ Uncompromising and underappreciated, Selous withdrew, rarely communicating with other naturalists, a position that nonetheless granted an advantage. As an outsider he had the distance to see the academic mainstream with a clarity insiders lacked, and to recognise both the human bias that derailed its thinking, and the societal norms behind it.

However suggestive the proofs Selous presented for female choice, they were deemed largely unacceptable, ostensibly owing to expectations that courting birds should behave like humans with respect to male dominance. But Selous knew the real reason his contemporaries had problems with sexual selection was that birds did indeed behave like humans, only in ways that made them uncomfortable: females were not meek, males not in control. ‘Why, in fact, should it not be with birds as it is with men and women?’ he demanded. Not only did humans make wrong assumptions about animal courtship, they misunderstood their own, and since men’s voices were the loudest, they perpetuated their misconceptions. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Selous wrote with some pique:

We have the prevailing idea that (even in a civilized state of things) it is the man … who advances and woman who retires … The reason is probably that the actions of man are of a more downright nature, and easier to observe and follow than those of woman … and that it is man, mostly, and not woman, who has given his opinion on this and other matters, through the most authoritative channels – for it is man who, by virtue of his intellect and his selfishness, holds the chief place of authority.

In detailing the secret lives of birds, Selous revealed the fault-lines of patriarchal society, a thankless task. Yet his ideas resonated with members of the younger scientific generation, including Julian Huxley (1887-1975) whose reading of Bird Watching inspired his field studies.  One of Huxley’s papers essentially iterated Selous’s findings concerning sexual selection in the redshank. Although he spent far less time in the field than Selous on his path to becoming a pioneering evolutionary biologist, Huxley affirmed the value of his observations and ideas, helping Selous publish his 1927 book Realities of Bird Life.

Perhaps Selous’s most prescient observation was that ‘the habits of animals are really as scientific as their anatomies, and as professors of them, when once made, would be as good as their brothers.’ He believed in the creative power of natural and sexual selection to shape purposive, intelligent actions, and as Huxley noted, was ‘alert … to the small divergences in behaviour whereby a species may become altered or split in two.’ In his last book, Evolution of the Habits of Birds in 1933 Selous drew on his extensive body of knowledge to describe bird behaviour in evolutionary terms. Huxley pursued this goal further. In a 1916 paper marrying ornithology to biology, Huxley outlined the ways and means of approaching animal behaviour, as an evolutionist, a physiologist, and psychologist. He later befriended two young zoologists, Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, who went farther still, uniting several lines of inquiry to form a new science of the ‘habits of animals’ and their ‘anatomies’ such as Selous envisaged, namely ethology.

‘I am as much of a hermit as I am mercifully allowed to be’ Selous once wrote, suggesting his wife’s tolerance of his absences, and his dislike of social outings and family affairs. In the 1920s, when their children had families of their own, Fanny and Edmund moved to Wyke Castle, a mid-nineteenth century confection with an outsized drum tower in Dorset. In 1923 Fanny founded a local branch of the Woman’s Institute there, an organisation established during the First World War to encourage women’s role in food production. It may be assumed that Fanny never wore a bird hat to her meetings and frowned on those who did, and that she understood the pride and pleasure her husband took in the work that defined him. Writing was an important part of it, a faculty Selous honed to communicate the marvels he beheld, like synchronous flocking, or murmuration:

And now, more and faster than the eye can take it in, band grows upon band, the air is heavy with the ceaseless sweep of pinions, till, glinting and gleaming, their weary wayfaring turned to swiftest arrows of triumphant flight – toil become ecstasy, prose [become] an epic song – with rush and roar of wings, with a mighty commotion, all sweep, together, into one enormous cloud. And still they circle; now dense like a polished roof, now disseminated like the meshes of some vast all-heaven-sweeping net, now darkening, now flashing out a million rays of light, wheeling, rending, tearing, darting, crossing, and piercing one another: a madness in the sky.

Summing up the ‘shaping and driving forces’ of his life, Edmund wrote: ‘Joy in all wild life and its surroundings, with another joy in Darwin and a social-shunning disposition and an intellectual love of truth, too.’

Frederick Selous, soldier, explorer and big game hunter, 1914 (Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

In later years, to assist his brother’s biographer J. G. Millais, Edmund wrote briefly, if reflectively, about the shaping and driving forces of Fred’s life. He must have read at least the first of Fred ’s eight books, A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881), about tracking elephant, which is harder than you’d think: ‘in the thick bush, an elephant, though so large an animal, is a thing easily lost sight of,’ Fred wrote. On one occasion, Fred spotted an elephant that had spotted him first and stood on guard, with ‘ears extended, his trunk stretched straight out, and his wicked, vicious-looking eyes gazing in our direction, [standing] ready to charge.’ Fred shot him in the chest; the elephant dropped to its knees, then rose and walked away. Meanwhile four other elephants advanced in single file, and figuring the one he’d lately been ‘paying attention to, was all but done for,’ Fred shot the last of the newcomers in the shoulder. That didn’t kill him, so Fred followed and reloaded, calling out, ‘Hi there! Woho, old man!’ When the elephant turned, whether from ‘fatal curiosity, or perhaps a wish for vengeance,’ Fred ‘planted a four-ounce ball in his chest.’ The elephant staggered a few paces, gave ‘a fierce shake of the head, and slowly sinking down, surrendered his tough old spirit.’

One can imagine Edmund shaking his head over his brother’s prose, so spare, so soaked in blood. Fred killed thirty-one lions and 106 elephants in addition to other animals, including buffalo, hippo and countless antelope, a relatively modest ‘career bag’ compared to the 700 -1,000 elephants previous hunters claimed to have slayed. Fred nonetheless enjoyed the title of naturalist for his writing about African wildlife and the specimens of flora and fauna he contributed to the British Museum of Natural History. This must have irked Edmund, who had a higher sense of purpose, whereas Fred was preoccupied with notoriety, and the belief that wealth was a measure of success. Yet both brothers revelled in nature.

The ruler of the Ndebele nation, Lobengula, granted Fred permission to hunt in his kingdom, which comprised most of present-day Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. Fred enjoyed proving his courage and stamina to older, more experienced hunters, as he penetrated the interior accompanied by savvy locals. He witnessed the festival of Inxwala, when Lobengula’s 25,000 warriors assembled in full regalia, with spears and ox-hide shields, chanting and dancing through the night, ‘as imposing a spectacle as any race of savages in the world.’ ‘Savage’ was commonly and unselfconsciously used by Fred and his English contemporaries, who saw themselves as an enlightened, civilising force in an otherwise dark continent, a race apart. Fred lacked the breadth and flexibility to meet Africans on common ground, since the very ground was adversarial; he came to it armed and licensed to kill.

He must have nonetheless envied the locals’ knowledge of their surroundings, which was to them as second nature. Perhaps that’s why Fred’s relationship with an African woman lasted years; she was the closest he could get. It was customary for hunters deprived of white women’s company to openly partner with local women. The unnamed woman who lived with Fred bore him two sons, lost to history. He abandoned them during a dark night of the soul, when someone short-changed him in a half-baked business deal, which happened more than once. When hunting proved less profitable than he’d hoped, he got involved in schemes for mining concessions, negotiating with tribal leaders whose favour he later exploited to assist his friend, Cecil Rhodes, in commandeering their land.

Whatever his qualities, Frederick Selous was an imperialist in tooth and claw, a righteous dominator. He wanted to hunt and adventure, and if expanding the British Empire was part of the deal, he was all in. People spoke of his modesty, though reticence is perhaps the better word. At some point he’d turned inward, grown wary of what lurks in the bush and in the unknowable minds of men. People disappointed him. The Ndebele were of great interest initially but he grew to despise their ruthlessness; the Mashona he found more appropriately docile until they rebelled to stop the occupation of their landsHe married late, in England, at 43. His wife, Gladys Maddy was twenty, raised in a rural vicarage, and taken with him. They had a home in Surrey but moved to Africa in 1895, when Lobengula’s former kingdom was named Rhodesia. They had three sons; one lived less than a week, another died at twenty fighting for Britain during the First World War. And so did Fred, at sixty-four, as captain of the Royal Fusiliers’ 25th Battalion during an East Africa Campaign skirmish between British and German colonialists. He was doing reconnaissance on the banks of the Rufiji River in Tanzania, when he stood, raised his binoculars and took a bullet in the head.

Edmund saw his brother’s fate as preordained, a residual curse of their maternal line, ‘the [Bruce] patronymic, which, from one war to another, has borne the malevolent influence. None have come back, either wounded, invalided or at all. All killed outright.’ The upside of his ancestry was that it facilitated Fred ’s lucky escape from the ‘settled professions’ he loathed. Edmund felt Fred would agree that his chosen career ‘put the particular circumstances of that event of his life, in which, of all others, he would esteem himself most happy and fortunate – I mean his death – upon a footing of certainty.’ Aside from implying that Fred lived and died by the gun, Edmund felt his brother would have been proud to fall fighting for King and Country, a clean shot, no pitiful staggering, no sickness or fraught goodbyes, only biographies and statues in due time.

Edmund lived to the age of 77, ‘[a] tragic figure in his old age, with his passion for the lovely wild things of the earth that are being relentlessly driven to their doom by cruel and indifferent [industrial] man’ wrote American ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice, in her tribute to Selous, one of two that appeared in specialist journals following his death. His accomplishments were lately revisited in Richard Burckhardt’s 2005 Patterns of Behavior, a masterfully contextualised history of the science of ethology that illumines the remarkable lives of those who shaped the discipline. Research continues to add to Selous’s understanding of bird behaviour. Data obtained in recent well-funded, large-scope studies would have excited him, such as that compiled by biologist and comparative psychologist Louis Lefebvre, who agreed with Selous’s ‘boots on the ground’ approach and invented a system for assessing bird cognition, based on their ability to use tools and solve problems. Studies of bird societies would have likewise intrigued him, affirming his observation that personalities differ within groups, but additionally showing that the more daring individuals will set out together to scout territory and network with communities of the same and different species.

Interest in birds is nowadays soaring. In 2020, Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology reported above-average numbers of citizen-submitted sightings to eBird, their database documenting bird activity worldwide. In the US, the sale of bird feeders is way up, with $2.2billion projected for 2021, and ‘avitourism,’ travel to observe birds in their native habitat, is a growing industry. In the UK over a million people participated in the world’s largest communal wildlife survey in 2021, the Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. They counted 17 million birds, while noting they’ve grown scarcer; an estimated 40 million fewer fill the UK skies now than fifty years ago. The cumulative effects of pesticides and fertiliser in the seeds and plants birds forage, in addition to climate change, pollution and urbanisation are all taking their toll. In short, more people than ever are watching birds disappear.

To study birds is to contemplate flight, ‘the dream and joy of glorious motion’ wrote Edmund Selous, ‘cradled in the air, looking like a shadow upon it.’ It’s one of the ways birds outdo us, and the reason civilisations past saw in them the divine. ‘Joy’ and ‘wonder’ crop up repeatedly in Selous’s writing, hinting at the most mysterious bird behaviour of all: their timeless, effortless ability to elicit uplifting emotion in humans. It’s as if they were asking, in an off-wing kind of way, for us to not only watch, but to join them in belonging to nature by simply acknowledging that like them, for better or worse, we already do.


Maria Golia