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Zoological Society of London

16 November 2023

This guest blog was written by ZSL Fellow Rajith Dissanayake PhD.

In 1854 Edgar Leopold Layard, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, zoologist, and pioneer ornithologist from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) catalogued some birdlife in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History. In series 2, volume 13, Layard wrote:

Among the drawings made by E.L. Mitford, Esq., of the birds which fell under his notice at Ratnapoora, was one which certainly represented this bird. He described it to me as migratory, appearing in June, and added that they fed much on spiders.

This bird is now identified and named as the black-and-orange flycatcher, Ficedula nigrorufa, however the drawing remains to be found.

Indian broad billed roller
Indian broad-billed roller by Mitford

In Vincent Legge’s monumental A History of the Birds of Ceylon from 1880, he writes of this bird:

The evidence on which this…Flycatcher has…been included in our lists rests on a drawing of a bird asserted by Layard to represent it, made by Mr. E.L. Mitford

Legge doubted this bird could be found in Ceylon though he did assert that Mitford was an “accurate observer of birds”, and frequently mentions Mitford in both volumes of A History of the Birds of Ceylon. Clearly, Mitford was a keen amateur naturalist, for example he crossbred domestic chickens with the Sri Lanka junglefowl. Most of the mentions of Mitford are based on Layard’s accounts since Mitford had left Ceylon by Legge’s time there.

Indian paradise flycatcher - Mitford
Indian paradise flycatcher by Mitford

In addition to mentions by Layard and Legge, E.C. Stuart Baker in The Nidification of Birds of the Indian Empire, volume 2, 1933, states of the flycatcher:

It is very common...Neither...McMaster’s record of its occurrence in the Berars nor Mr. Mitford’s in regard to Ceylon have ever been confirmed” quoting from an earlier work.

Edward Ledwich Osbaldeston Mitford (1811–1912) was a remarkable Victorian aristocrat, once a civil servant and district judge at Ratnapura, Ceylon. There are only three major sources of information about his naturalist activities on the island in the 1850s: Layard, Legge (as mentioned above) and a collection of his artwork bequeathed by his wife in the 1930s to the ZSL Library and Archives.

Mitford composed a two-volume travelogue “A land march from England to Ceylon forty years ago” (1884), perhaps inspired by William Kinglake’s famous Eothen (1834). Although neither his travelogue nor his colourful family or descendants reveal his naturalist exploits, his artwork speaks volumes on Sri Lankan wildlife from the 1850s.

Obalston Mitford
Edward Ledwich Osbaldeston Mitford

I was alerted to these paintings and a chance to confirm the flycatcher by Priyantha Wijesinge in New York, who had studied and published on the history of the island’s birdlife. There are about 150 Mitford paintings in ZSL Library and Archives, representing exquisite colour plates of many Ceylon birds with uncoloured botanical sketches framing the birds, with notes and dates, although Mitford was not too sure about identifications. Some of the birds he painted, such as Legge’s flowerpecker, hadn’t been described at the time. He also painted the Asian broad-billed roller in the 1850s, decades before it was acknowledged in Ceylon.

Black-and-orange flycatcher - Newnham
Black-and-orange flycatcher by Newnham

There are so many other stories that the paintings can reveal about ornithology and botany for future researchers. Sadly, however, the flycatcher was missing from the collection, suggesting losses of parts of his collection between the 1850s and the 1930s, and maybe some birds too. The artwork maybe his finest silent legacy.

Mitford married for the second time in his 80s and lived to 100, dying in 1912 at his home, Mitford Castle, Morpeth, Northumberland. 

An impression of Mitford's black-and-orange flycatcher artwork, as well as further detail on other Mitford illustrations, can be found in Mitford’s Ornithological Eothen, a video created by blog author Rajith Dissanayake.

ZSL Prince Philip Zoological Library & Archives is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we aim to inspire, inform, and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. 

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