Burkitt, James Parsons (1870–1959), ornithologist and engineer, was born 20 August 1870 at Killybegs, Co. Donegal, second son among five sons and two daughters of Thomas Henry Burkitt, presbyterian minister, and Emma Eliza Burkitt (née Parsons). He was educated at Galway grammar school and graduated BA in maths and mathematical physics (1891) and BE (1892) from QCG. He was employed on the Midland Great Western Railway (1893–8) and subsequently on the Belfast waterworks, and was elected associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (1898) and member of the Incorporated Association of Municipal and County Engineers (1900). As county surveyor for Fermanagh (1898–1940), he undertook extensive road improvement and introduced tarmacadam road surfaces into the county (1904); he built Roscor Viaduct near Beleek, and a bridge at each end of Boa Island (opened 1927). In 1932–5 he built two Upper Lough Erne bridges (opened 4 April 1936) from south Fermanagh to Lisnaskea – the fourteen-span Lady Brooke Bridge from Corradiller to Trasna Island, and the ten-span Lady Craigavon Bridge from Trasna Island to Derrymacausey – which were fine examples of early reinforced concrete.
He became interested in birds only at the age of 37, and at the time knew no one else in that field. A highly original ornithologist, he initiated a technical revolution in the study of birds, which was immediately adopted by others. He placed metal bands, differently patterned (not coloured: he was colour blind), on the legs of his garden robins, a technique that for the first time made the study of individual birds possible. He was one of the first to observe threat display and interpret it correctly; made discoveries about territorial behaviour and song; and was the first to use ringing returns to estimate average age. He published ‘A study of the robin by means of marked birds’ in British Birds, xvii–xx (1924–6); and articles, mostly on song, in the Irish Naturalists' Journal. A deeply religious man, he admitted in a letter to ornithologist David Lack that ‘when I was doing the robin I had pricks of conscience that I was really more interested in the created than the creator.’ A list of his Irish Naturalist's Journal articles (1927–59) is in Peadar Livingstone, The Fermanagh story (1969), 513. He was a member of the Irish Association, a non-political, non-sectarian forum established in 1938 to promote reason and goodwill in Irish life. He was awarded the MBE. Burkitt died 30 March 1959 at Ballinamallard, Co. Fermanagh, and is buried in Trory churchyard, Co. Fermanagh. He married (1903) Gwendoline, daughter of architect William Henry Hill, and a member of the Church of Ireland; their two sons included Denis Parsons Burkitt (qv). After marriage James Burkitt joined the Church of Ireland and served as a synodsman of the Clogher diocese and as a member of the diocesan council. His four brothers all settled abroad: Francis Holy Burkitt (1880–1952) was chief engineer to the North-West Frontier Province, India; Robert Burkitt was an archeologist in Guatemala; Roland Wilks Burkitt practised as a surgeon in Kenya; Harold Burkitt worked with the Indian civil service, becoming provincial governor of Madras.