James Parsons Burkitt

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James Parsons Burkitt (1870 – 1959) was a civil engineer; he was County Surveyor in County Fermanagh from 1900 until his retirement in 1940. Burkitt was a keen amateur ornithologist and studied European robins in the garden of his home (called Lawnakilla) near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. He started ringing the birds in October 1922, and his research, which was published in the journal British Birds between 1924 and 1926, was one of the first studies of bird behaviour and territory to use rings that enabled individual birds to be identified in the field. Later, at Laragh, Ballinamallard, County Fermanagh, Burkitt proved the longevity of one female robin. He had ringed this bird on 18 December 1927 and trapped her again on 14 July 1938—this robin was at least 11 years old, "the oldest living robin in the world".

Burkitt's work was greatly admired by David Lack, who carried out further research on robins in the 1930s and 1940s.

Burkitt's elder son was the surgeon Denis Parsons Burkitt FRS (1911-1993), for whom Burkitt's lymphoma is named.

James Burkitt was born on 20 August 1870, at Killybegs, Co. Donegal, third son of Thomas Henry Burkitt, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Emma Eliza, née Parsons.

He was educated at Galway Grammar School, Queen's College, Galway, and the Royal University of Ireland, obtaining the degrees of BA (1891) and BE (1892) with first-class honours.

He then became an assistant to James Perry in Galway, during which period he superintended the underpinning of a large bridge and the erection of a pier and swing bridge over and estuary of the sea. In May 1893 he became assistant engineer to - Fisher on the Westport & Mulranny extension of the Midland Great Western railway, and in February 1894 to the partnership of Fisher & Le Fanu in the construction of the Collooney & Claremorris railway. On the completion of the latter, he continued to work for Fisher & Le Fanu on the Belfast waterworks. In 1897 he was employed on the Downpatrick waterworks under Peter Chalmers Cowan. He appears to have moved briefly to Co. Donegal before being appointed county surveyor for Co. Fermanagh at the end of 1898 in succession to Frederick Richard Thomas Willson.

He held the Co. Fermanagh surveyorship for over forty years. Responsible for extensive road improvements in the county and for the introduction of tarmacadam road surfaces in 1904, he also built several bridges during the 1920s and 1930s. He retired in April 1940.(1)

It was a few years after he had settled in Fermanagh, when he was thirty-seven, that Burkitt started to develop an interest in birds. Through his work on the methodology of plotting bird distribution, he became one of Ireland's most influential ornithologists; he also made contributions to the understanding of threat display and territorial behaviour and song, and was the first person to use ringing returns to estimate average age.

Burkitt died on 30 March 1959 at Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh, and was buried in Trory churchyard. He was married to Glendoline, a daughter of William Henry Hill of Cork.

Inst.CE: elected associate member, 1 March 1898; resigned 9 July 1915. Incorporated Association of Municipal and County Engineers: elected member 21 April 1900; remained a member until 1939 or 1940.

Addresses: Work: Courthouse, Downpatrick, Co. Down 1897; PO, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal, 1898; County Surveyor's Office, Enniskillen, 1899-1940. Home: Lawnakilla, near Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh.(2)

References All information in this entry not otherwise accounted for is from the entry on Burkitt by Helen Andrews in Dictionary of Irish Biography, ed. by James McGuire and James Quinn, 9 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 2009), II, 78-9, and from the archives of the Institution of Civil Engineers, kindly supplied by Mrs Carol Morgan. The fullest account of Burkitt's life and career as county surveyor is in Brendan O'Donoghue, The Irish County Surveyors 1834-1944 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), 119-121.

(1) IB 81, 29 Apr 1939, 351; 82, 3 Feb 1940, 79. (2) Davis Coakley, Irish Masters of Medicine (Dublin, 1992), 333 (B.O'.D).


  • Burkitt, J. P. (1924–6) A study of robins by means of marked birds. British Birds 17: 294–303; 18: 97–103, 250–7; 19: 120–4; 20: 91–101.


Nelson, E. C. & Haffer, J. (2009) The ornithological observations of James Parsons Burkitt in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. Archives of Natural History 36 (1): 107–128 [1]

Further reading[edit]

Nelson, E.C. 2010. James Parsons Burkitt (1870 - 1959): activities and natural history of a renowned Irish amateur ornithologist. Ir Nat. J. 31: 10 - 17.