OBITUARY: Gordon Maclean — a lifelong passion for ornithology

2008-04-01 00:00

Gordon Lindsay Maclean (70), Professor Emeritus of Zoology of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, internationally famed ornithologist and author of the fifth and sixth revisions of Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa, died in Howick on Sunday night after a long illness.

Born in Durban in 1937, Maclean grew up in what was then Basutoland, and in his mid-teens went farming in the Free State. It was here that he first developed an interest in birds. Once he had finished school by private study, he went to Namibia to work on the De Beers diamond mines and extended his interest in birds to their adaptation to the desert habitat.

A B.Sc. (Hons) degree in Zoology from Rhodes University followed in 1963. His previous experience of desert conditions resulted in him being chosen as one of four members of a team established to study desert birds. He spent 19 months living in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park doing research on the Sociable Weaver, which he presented for his Ph.D. in 1968. He was subsequently awarded a D.Sc. by the University of Natal for his research work on arid-zone ornithology, water biology and systematics, the convergent evolution of birds in southern Africa, North and South America and Australia.

Following his stint in the desert, he went to the United States for a year at Cornell University and then to Chile and Argentina for four months to pursue his desert ornithological studies.

Maclean joined the University of Natal in 1968 as a lecturer in Zoology, becoming an associate professor in 1975 and subsequently a full professor soon after.

In the 1980s, he was invited by the trustees of the John Voelker Bird Book Fund to revise Roberts’ Birds and the university granted him unpaid leave for two years so as to give the task his full-time attention. He rewrote the work completely and when his fifth edition was published in 1985 it rapidly became a best-seller and ran to six impressions — an entirely new feature with sound reproductions (sonagrams) made from recordings of bird calls.

In 1993, Maclean produced the sixth edition of Roberts’, incorporating new information that had become available through the published literature, through personal observations by other ornithologists and his own research and experiences in the field. Illustrating 907 species of birds in full colour, it incorporated a number of special features including revised and corrected bird names in English, Afrikaans, eight African languages and German (besides the scientific Latin-based names). The colossal seventh Roberts (2005) is no improvement, in omitting not only the sonagrams, but also the bird lists in every language other than English and Latin, and it incorporates the new bird names — of which Maclean was unashamedly scornful.

Other Maclean publications include Aids to Bird Identification in Southern Africa (1981), Ducks of Sub-Saharan Africa (1986), which won the Lady Usher Prize for Literature the following year, and Ornithology for Africa (1990), besides academic papers and invited contributions to the proceedings of international and local congresses and symposia. He was also well-known as a member of the radio panel for the weekly programme Talking of Nature on SABC.

Maclean was awarded a Fellowship by the University of Natal in 1992 in recognition of his academic achievements and he was the recipient of the Gill Memorial Medal of the Southern African Ornithological Society for services to ornithology south of the Zambesi River.

Mike Spain, founder chairman of the then Midlands Bird Club, said of him: “Gordon was a good friend of mine. I got to know him in the mid 1980s when I regularly sought his advice and it was his support that proved to be a major factor in the birth of an independent Natal Midlands Bird Club in 1989. We will miss his counsel, his knowledge and his sense of humour.”

Maclean is survived by his wife Cherie and their children David and Ann.

— Witness Reporter.

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