James Mackay Drummond was born in Thames, New Zealand, on 17 October 1869, the son of John Drummond, a surveyor, and his wife, Annie Mackay. He received his secondary education at Napier Grammar School, was apprenticed to the Poverty Bay Herald and then worked as a journeyman compositor in the Government Printing Office in Wellington. He was subsequently employed as a journalist or editor for the Evening Post and the Evening Press in Wellington, and the Southern Standard and Mataura Ensign in Gore.
While in Gore he met Mary Anna Temple Tracey who, having been forced to give up medical studies, had become an infant teacher and science tutor, and was an advocate of women's franchise. They married at Dunedin on 24 June 1899 and set up house at Christchurch, where James was chief reporter for the Lyttelton Times (later the Christchurch Times ). In this capacity Drummond established cordial relations with many distinguished visitors to Christchurch. He joined the Philosophical Institute of Canterbury in 1902, serving on the council from 1908 to 1912. At its meetings he met most members of Canterbury's scientific community, including Professor F. W. Hutton with whom he was to establish a productive literary partnership.
Drummond contributed regular articles on history and natural history to the Lyttelton Times and for 27 years his articles were syndicated amongst other newspapers, reaching many readers. In collaboration with Hutton two books were produced: Nature in New Zealand, a publication for schools produced in 1902, and The animals of New Zealand, which first appeared in 1904. This second book was to be a standard reference work for generations of New Zealanders. It combined scientific descriptions of the air-breathing animals with summaries of their habits and ecology. For decades it provided the only authoritative, readable account of the whales, seals and lizards. Most of the book, however, dealt with birds. It was so popular that a second edition was published in 1905, a third in 1909 and a fourth in 1923. Hutton made very little contribution to the second edition and died later in 1905. Drummond was therefore solely responsible for the last two editions.
One subject that interested Drummond was the degree of success achieved by introduced species, especially birds. Their behaviour as competitors with native species, as possible controllers of farm pests, and as predators of crops had been undocumented. Drummond, in collaboration with the biologist T. W. Kirk, carried out a survey on introduced birds with assistance from the Department of Agriculture. Circulars were printed and sent out to farmers, observers and others 'who would be likely to give intelligent replies to the twenty-nine questions'. Drummond analysed the replies and presented the results in a paper printed in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute in July 1907. A booklet, Our feathered immigrants, giving the same information in a more accessible form, was produced earlier that year. He also published short accounts of the Little Barrier Island bird sanctuary and the birds of Kapiti Island, and three other minor articles in the Transactions. These publications show clear evidence that his results were based on very accurate observation.
In addition to his scientific work, Drummond was a successful writer and editor of New Zealand history. In 1907 he published The life and work of Richard John Seddon, which was the only full biography until 1955. He edited John Rutherford, the white chief (1908) and produced the second edition of J. B. Marsden's Life and work of Samuel Marsden (1913). In publications such as In Maoriland: old times in a new country (1907), he described Maori customs and traditions. Whether writing on historical or scientific subjects, however, Drummond's idiosyncratic style and outlook were much in evidence; his view of the past and of nature appears idealised and romantic to modern readers.
Drummond's status as a journalist was recognised in 1932, two years after his retirement, by the award of the Gold Badge of the New Zealand Journalists' Association, the highest honour the association could bestow. In later life Drummond's health deteriorated and he died in Christchurch on 6 September 1940, survived by his wife. There were no children of the marriage.
The great volume and scope of Drummond's regular newspaper articles undoubtedly educated his readers and affected their attitudes. He continued to influence his successors, who used his major work as a source and who still refer back to his records and observations. New Zealand has been well served by popular writers on natural history; James Drummond ranks as a worthy member of this group.