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Phil Hollom - obituary


Melanie Colón

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Phil Hollom, who has died aged 102, was one of the last of the circle of British bird enthusiasts which established ornithology as a proper scientific discipline.

Hollom helped to establish the modern approach to studying bird populations in the 1930s by organising a national inquiry into the status of the great crested grebe in Britain. He also wrote or co-wrote several handbooks, including the Collins Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (1954), which helped to transform British birdwatching from a hobby pursued by a dedicated minority into one of the country’s most popular leisure pursuits.

Hollom’s contributions to ornithology began shortly he left school in 1930, when the noted ornithologist Harry Witherby introduced him to Max Nicholson, whose How Birds Live (1927), following on from Julian Huxley’s The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe (1914), helped to establish the discipline.

With Nicholson’s encouragement, Hollom teamed up with the future “Barefoot Anthropologist” Tom Harrison, then a student at Cambridge, and in 1931 the two young men agreed to collaborate on a national survey of the great crested grebe. It was a daunting task, not least because they had no funding, even for postage, but also because the post-First World War construction boom had created many gravel pits which, filled with water, were an ideal environment for the birds. As a consequence they found there were more than 1,000 “lakes” to be examined, many of which did not appear on any maps.

They set about writing to well-known naturalists, ornithologists, taxidermists, landowners and the like, and appealing through the letter columns of newspapers for information on nesting haunts. In this way they recruited some 1,500 volunteer surveyors, and had to deal with some 5,000 pieces of correspondence.

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