Sunday book review – The Life of The Robin by David Lack


This book is a classic and has been reissued with an introduction from David Lindo (whose National Bird Vote firmly established the Redbreast as our national bird) and gorgeous artwork by Robert Gillmor (as in the 1965 edition but with a spanking new cover). And this re-issue also has an account of the importance of the original book by Peter Lack, son of the author and another ornithologist, as well as a short chapter by David Harper on modern Robin studies.

The original book is a classic, was published in 1943 and written by certainly the most outstanding and influential British ornithologist of the 20th century, and one of its greatest thinkers about evolutionary ecology.  David Lack wrote many books about evolutionary biology and they were all illustrated by his knowledge of avian biology. But this was his first book, written during the war, about observations made when a teacher at Dartington Hall.  In theory, it is a book that many could have written as it required only basic bird-catching and watching skills, of a widespread and common bird.  But it also required the prepared mind  and it is a mark of Lack’s greatness that he interpreted so clearly what he observed.

I never met David Lack, who died in 1973 after decades of being based in the Edward Grey Institute in Oxford, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about him, from his students and colleagues. He was a hero to almost all and his influence lives on through his work and the students and colleagues he brought into his field of study.

This book is still a good read, although written in the precise and unflowery English of the 1940s.  And the modern additions all add to the pleasure of reading this book. I treasure my worn and tattered Pelican copy of the 1953 edition but this new edition is not simply a reprint, it is a valued, attractive and careful revision and interpretation of that early work.

The Life of the Robin by David Lack is published by Pallas Athene.


Inglorious: conflict in the uplands by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

Behind the Binoculars: interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers by Mark Avery and Keith Betton is published by Pelagic – here’s a review.

A Message from Martha by Mark Avery is published by Bloomsbury – for reviews see here.

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4 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Life of The Robin by David Lack”

  1. David Lack was an extraordinary man who managed to achieve a phenomenal amount of science and popular writing in his relatively short life.
    He wrote two other classics: Swifts in a Tower and Darwin’s Finches.

  2. I hope they might republish Swifts in a Tower which is now only available at collectors prices second hand.

    1. Too right. The cheapest AbeBook goes for £38 inclusive of p&p (ex-library book); the next cheapest, ~£100 ...


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