Ian Wallace obituary

Ian Wallace, who has died aged 87, belonged to the generation of ornithologists who did so much to popularise birdwatching after the second world war. He also made major contributions to two of the most widely read ornithological works of his day: A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, which he revised in conjunction with James Ferguson-Lees, and the nine-volume Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, to which he contributed key sections on field characters and behaviour.

His other books included Discover Birds (1979), Birdwatching in the Seventies (1981), Watching Birds (1982), Birds of Prey of Britain and Europe (1983) and a history-cum-memoir, Beguiled By Birds (2004), of which one reviewer wrote: “It makes you want to bring him home, open a bottle, and sit back as he regales you with stories all night.” Among Ian’s many admirers was fellow birdwatching author Dominic Couzens, who praised the way he could express the sheer thrill, with “binoculars up, heart thumping” of finding a rare bird.

Watching Birds (1982), Ian Wallace’s instructional book for beginners
Watching Birds (1982), Ian Wallace’s instructional book for beginners

Rare birds were Ian’s lifeblood: from 1963 to 1968 he was chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, and by the late 1960s he had seen a wider variety of species in Britain than anyone else. He was also a long-time council member of the RSPB and the British Ornithologists’ Union, and a founder member of the Society of Wildlife Artists, with whom he exhibited his own quirkily distinctive artwork.

An only child, Ian was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, to Scottish parents, William (known as Jackson), who worked in the fishing industry, and his wife, Elizabeth (nee McKenzie). His father was himself a keen birdwatcher and Ian’s earliest memory was of being shown a puffin on Shetland, at the age of four. He attended Loretto school near Edinburgh, where he was a member of its thriving ornithological society, and on leaving did two years of national service with the King’s African Rifles in Kenya, taking every opportunity to study the exotic local birdlife, along with familiar migrants from home.

Returning to the UK in the mid-50s, he studied economics and law at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was president of the Cambridge Bird Club, and during the following decade he worked in marketing for a number of companies in a range of industries, claiming to have created the character Captain Birdseye for the company of that name.

In 1963 he joined Guy Mountfort, Julian Huxley and other ornithological luminaries on an birdwatching expedition to Jordan that was described in Mountfort’s 1965 book Portrait of a Desert.

In 1968 he returned to Africa, spending three years working in the marketing department of Nigerian Breweries in Lagos. While there he undertook a birdwatching expedition to Lake Chad, driving more than 3,300 miles in 12 days and carrying plenty of beer to ensure an easy passage from local officials.

Beguiled By Birds, Ian Wallace’s history-cum-memoir of birdwatching, published in 2004
Beguiled By Birds, Ian Wallace’s history-cum-memoir of birdwatching, published in 2004

In the field his willingness to push the boundaries did sometimes get the better of him, and he had several of his sightings rejected by the British Birds Rarities Committee as “not proven”. Frustrated, he temporarily withdrew from the birding establishment – “retired hurt”, as one observer noted rather cuttingly.

But Ian’s irrepressible character would not allow him to stay on the sidelines for long, and in 1986 he began writing a regular column for a new magazine, Bird Watching. His witty anecdotes and trenchant opinions soon endeared him to a younger generation of birders, many of whom were, until then, unaware of his achievements. They subsequently benefited personally from Ian’s approachability, encouragement and advice, for he was generous of spirit and perpetually enthusiastic about his hobby.

He retired in the late 90s and in later years focused on birdwatching in his local patch, an unremarkable corner of rural Staffordshire, where he continued to find unusual specimens while making careful observations of more common ones.

Every August he would also attend Birdfair – the annual gathering known as the “Glastonbury of birdwatching” – where he was instantly recognisable in his trademark kilt and tam o’shanter. A dazzlingly inventive public speaker, he would reduce audiences to tears of laughter as he wove increasingly absurd flights of fancy into his dispositions, while still making his point.

In 1958 he married Karin Bryde-Williams, and they had two daughters, Petra and Kirstie. They divorced in 1984, and in 1996 he married Wendy Stephens, with whom he had another daughter, Helen. Wendy died in 2020, and he is survived by his daughters and a grandson, Thomas.

Donald Ian Mackenzie Wallace, birdwatcher, born 14 December 1933; died 4 November 2021


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