J. Denis Summers-Smith

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J. Denis Summers-Smith
Born(1920-10-25)25 October 1920
Glasgow, Scotland
Died5 May 2020(2020-05-05) (aged 99)[1][2]
Known forResearch on sparrows, books on tribology
AwardsTribology Silver Medal (1975)
Stamford Raffles Award
Scientific career
InstitutionsImperial Chemical Industries
Author abbrev. (zoology)Summers-Smith

James Denis Summers-Smith (25 October 1920 – 5 May 2020) was a British ornithologist and mechanical engineer, a specialist both in sparrows and in industrial tribology.

Early life[edit]

Summers-Smith was raised in Glasgow, where he was born in 1920.[3] He spent childhood holidays in County Donegal, in northwestern Ireland, where one of his uncles, a country parson and a naturalist, taught him about birds. For nearly six years of World War II, Summers-Smith was an intelligence officer in the British Army.[4] He received his commission in 1940,[5] and reached the rank of captain. He served with the 9th Battalion, The Cameronians, stationed on the east coast of England. During that time he had little time for birdwatching, except when surveying "such likely spots for invasion" as coastal marshes in Suffolk.[4] Summers-Smith was among the second wave of troops involved in the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. He was badly wounded in a later action in Normandy, as a result of which he spent 18 months in hospital.


After the war, Summers-Smith was employed as a mechanical engineer by Imperial Chemical Industries.[3][6] He obtained several degrees in engineering around this time, and a PhD in physics in 1953.[7] In 1975, Summers-Smith received one of the three annual Tribology Silver Medals given by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.[7] His job as an engineer allowed him to travel widely, and he used trips abroad as opportunities to study sparrows.[4]


Summers-Smith began his study of the house sparrow in 1947. He decided to make a serious study of a particular bird species, and chose the house sparrow because of the difficulty of travel at the time, under post-war rationing.[4] Summers-Smith has studied the house sparrow in Highclere, Hampshire; in Hartburn, County Durham; and latterly at Guisborough in North Yorkshire, where he settled in 1961.[4] During these studies, he was questioned by a policeman on the street twice for looking around yards with binoculars at early hours. Summers-Smith was a founding member of his local bird club (The Teesmouth Bird Club) in 1960, and he wrote the instructions for the British Trust for Ornithology's first Common Bird Census in 1962.[6] His study of the house sparrow resulted not only in a number of papers in respected journals, but also in his 1963 monograph The House Sparrow, published as part of the New Naturalist Monographs series.[8][9][10] After The House Sparrow was published, Summers-Smith began studying the house sparrow's relatives in the genus Passer.[11] Over the course of these studies, he visited dozens of countries, and made observations on all the Passer species (recognised in his classification) except the Socotra sparrow.[6][12] This research into the sparrows as a whole resulted in a monograph on the genus Passer, published in 1988 as The Sparrows, and one on the Eurasian tree sparrow, the 1995 The Tree Sparrow, both of which were illustrated by Robert Gillmor. He also wrote In Search of Sparrows, an account of his worldwide travels researching sparrows.[11] In 1992, Summers-Smith received the Zoological Society of London's Stamford Raffles Award, for his "world-renowned work on sparrows".[13]

In The House Sparrow, Summers-Smith predicted that the house sparrow would have "a bright future", but instead it went into a severe decline in many parts of the world, beginning in the 1970s.[14] Summers-Smith studied this decline extensively, but he called it "one of the most remarkable wildlife mysteries of the last fifty years". When The Independent offered a £5,000 prize for an explanation of the decline of the house sparrow in 2000, Summers-Smith acted as a referee.[15] In 2008, the prize was almost awarded to Dr. Kate Vincent of De Montfort University and several colleagues, who attributed the decline of the house sparrow to falling insect numbers.[16][17]

In 2009, Summers-Smith was the author of the section of the Handbook of the Birds of the World on the family Passeridae.[18]


  • The House Sparrow, 1963
  • Introduction to Tribology in Industry, 1970
  • Tribology Problems in Process Industries, 1970
  • Granivorous Birds in the Agricultural Landscape, 1980 (editor)
  • The Sparrows: a Study of the Genus Passer, 1988
  • In Search of Sparrows, 1992
  • An Introductory Guide to Industrial Tribology, 1994
  • The Tree Sparrow, 1995
  • A Tribology Casebook: a Lifetime in Tribology, 1997
  • Mechanical Seal Practice for Improved Performance, 2002 (editor)
  • On Sparrows and Man: a Love-Hate Relationship, 2006
  • "Family Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)" in Handbook of the Birds of the World, volume 14, 2009


  1. ^ British Ornithologists' Union announcement
  2. ^ James Summers-Smith funeral notice
  3. ^ a b McCarthy, Michael (2 August 2006). "The secret life of sparrows". The Independent. Retrieved 5 April 2010.
  4. ^ a b c d e Summers-Smith, J. Denis (1992). In Search of Sparrows. illustrated by Euan Dunn. London: T. & A. D. Poyser. ISBN 978-0-85661-073-8.
  5. ^ "No. 34981". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 October 1940. p. 6236.
  6. ^ a b c Parker, Ted (2006). "Profile – Denis Summers-Smith" (PDF). Teesmouth Bird Club Newsletter.
  7. ^ a b "Principle and Associate Consultants: Denis Summers-Smith BSc PhD CEng FIMechE". Neale Consulting Engineers. Archived from the original on 24 September 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2011.
  8. ^ Summers-Smith, J. Denis (1963). The House Sparrow. New Naturalist (1st ed.). London: Collins.
  9. ^ Lowther, Peter E.; Cink, Calvin L. (2006). Poole, A. (ed.). "House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)". The Birds of North America Online. doi:10.2173/bna.12. Retrieved 21 April 2010.
  10. ^ Heimerdinger, Mary A. (1965). "Review of The House Sparrow" (PDF). The Auk. 82 (2): 289–302.
  11. ^ a b Breitwisch, Randall (1994). "Review of In Search of Sparrows" (PDF). The Auk. 111 (4): 1028–1036.
  12. ^ Clench, Mary H. (1990). "Review of The Sparrows: a Study of the Genus Passer" (PDF). The Wilson Bulletin. 102 (3): 562–570.
  13. ^ "Stamford Raffles Award Winners" (PDF). Zoological Society of London. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 September 2012. Retrieved 21 April 2010.
  14. ^ De Laet, J.; Summers-Smith, J. D. (2007). "The status of the urban house sparrow Passer domesticus in north-western Europe: a review". Journal of Ornithology. 148 (Supplement 2): 275–278. doi:10.1007/s10336-007-0154-0.
  15. ^ McCarthy, Michael (16 May 2000). "It was once a common or garden bird. Now it's not common or in your garden. Why?". The Independent. Retrieved 12 December 2009.
  16. ^ McCarthy, Michael (20 November 2008). "Mystery of the vanishing sparrow". The Independent. Retrieved 17 January 2009.
  17. ^ McCarthy, Michael (19 August 2010). "Mystery of the vanishing sparrows still baffles scientists 10 years on". The Independent. Retrieved 24 September 2011.
  18. ^ Summers-Smith, J. Denis (2009). "Family Passeridae (Old World Sparrows)". In del Hoyo, Josep; Elliott, Andrew; Christie, David (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 14: Bush-shrikes to Old World Sparrows. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. ISBN 978-84-96553-50-7.