Snow, David William (19242009), ornithologist, was born on 30 September 1924 at Eastbourne, Bowness-on-Windermere, Westmorland, the elder son and second of the four children of Thomas William Snow (18971977), preparatory school headmaster, and his wife, Margaret Caroline, née Aspland (19001993). His early interest in birds was fostered by his father and his great-uncle, the naturalist Sidney Long. The latter gave him Max Nicholson's How Birds Live (1927), which opened my eyes to the idea that watching birds, as well as being an enjoyable hobby, could be a kind of research, leading to a better understanding of the natural world (Snow, Birds in Our Life, 10). Strength in classics led to scholarships to Eton College and New College, Oxford, but his undergraduate career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on destroyers and frigates.
Demobilized in 1946, Snow returned to Oxford but switched to zoology. As an undergraduate he undertook studies of titmice in Sweden and of the biology of São Tomé and Príncipe. He graduated with a first-class degree in 1949, and won the Christopher Welch scholarship the same year. In 1953 he completed a doctorate (supervised by David Lack) on geographical variation and habitat preferences in European tits, which he followed with postdoctoral work at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology on blackbirds (based on a population in the Oxford Botanic Garden). These studies gave him the wide experience that was the foundation of an unrivalled depth of ornithological knowledge. His book A Study of Blackbirds (1958), a significant contribution to general understanding of bird behaviour and ecology, was written in the lively and accessible style that became his hallmark.
Wishing to undertake intensive fieldwork on tropical birds, Snow spent three years at the New York Zoological Society's research station in the Arima valley, Trinidad, run by William Beebe. In England he had already met Barbara Kathleen Whitaker (19212007), daughter of Alfred Garth Whitaker, medical practitioner. She had been warden for four years of Lundy Island, and they married in Trinidad in 1958. Their work there, on nectar- and fruit-eating species, was the start of an extraordinary ornithological partnership that lasted until her death. It also led to Snow's insights into the adaptations of South American frugivores to a diet which, while abundant and easily obtainable, is probably deficient in some nutrients important for the growth of their young, ideas expounded in another important book, The Web of Adaptation (1976).
As director of the Charles Darwin Research Station from 1963 to 1964, Snow elucidated the various adaptations of the two Galapagos gulls to breeding in the presence of marauding frigate-birds and conducted surveys of giant tortoises, a conservation priority. He cut short his tenure to return to Britain with his family (soon to include two sons). A significant, though temporary, change of direction followed when, as director of research at the British Trust for Ornithology (19648), he led the development of research methods into bird populations using extensive data sets contributed by thousands of amateurs. He showed that they produced results for the whole country as sound as those of intensive professional work based on small-scale studies.
From 1968 to 1984 Snow was head of the bird room at the Natural History Museum, and supervised the move of the unit from London to Tring. But he never enjoyed administration and took voluntary demotion in 1972 to concentrate on his research (including several expeditions to South America), a demotion later reversed through a special merit promotion. Both before and after retirement, he worked with Barbara on the unusual social system of the dunnock and on British frugivorous birds, the latter leading to another major book, Birds and Berries (1988). In 1970 he mounted a campaign, then fiercely opposed but eventually successful, for more responsible collecting policies by museums.
Snow was awarded the William Brewster memorial prize of the American Ornithologists' Union (jointly with Barbara) in 1972 and the GodmanSalvin medal of the British Ornithologists' Union in 1982. He was an honorary member of the ornithological societies in France, Spain, Germany, and the United States. Though disliking committee work and ornithological politics, he served as president of the British Ornithologists' Union from 1987 to 1990. At various times he skilfully edited The Ibis, Bird Study, and the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists' Club; with C. M. Perrins he condensed the nine volumes of The Birds of the Western Palearctic into an edition of two volumes (1998). Despite his eminence, he was quietly spoken, shy, and modest. He appeared at meetings of his local bird club as an ordinary bird-watcher and his last publication was a note in the club bulletin just weeks before his death on 5 February 2009 at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Aylesbury, following a heart attack. He was survived by his two sons. The David W. Snow award for the best student presentation at the international symposia-workshops on frugivores and seed dispersal was named after him in 2005.
Jeremy J. D. Greenwood
D. Snow, Birds in our life (2008) · D. Snow, Barbara Snow, 19212007, Ibis, 150 (2008), 6623 · Daily Telegraph (18 Feb 2009) · The Times (28 Feb 2009) · The Guardian (18 March 2009) · Irish Times (21 March 2009) · Ibis, 151 (2009), 61113 · British Birds, 102 (2009), 3946 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · d. cert.
Bodl. Oxf., Alexander Library, miscellaneous letters and typescripts
Natural History Museum, Tring, Ornithology Library, MSS Snow, research data
NHM, papers and corresp., additional records (notes, corresp., photographs)
Wealth at death
£618,531: probate, 12 Aug 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales