Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book Review - Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin
Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny & Bob Montgomerie
Princeton University Press (a review copy was provided to me by Princeton University Press)
544 pp. | 8 x 10 | 94 color illus. 60 halftones.

Cloth | 2014 | $45.00 / £29.95 | ISBN: 9780691151977

I will get right to the point - I am enamored by this book. Although the title implies that it is a history of ornithology, the reader will notice that the word "history" does not show up in the subtitle of the book. Perhaps this was by design since this history book does not behave like a typical history book. Rather than the more traditional timeline approach, the book is broken into eleven topic based chapters, each with their story of how the topic evolved through time, an approach the authors thought would be "more interesting for both us and our readers and more meaningful in a broader biological sense."  I believe the have done just that. As noted in the subtitle, the book only covers the history of ornithology since Darwin since "nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution."

Each chapter begins with a full page of wonderful bird art relevant to the chapter topic. Not just good art, these paintings are also a bit of a tour through the history of bird art. Ranging from Keulemans and Hart (the era when bird art was the only depiction of birds available), to field guide artists Pratt and Tudor, and on to the more modern fine art of Bateman and Ching, each depiction provides visual context for the following text. Each chapter also contains numerous well chosen illustrations and photos of relevant subject matter as well as an informative illustrated timeline of key milestones from 1860 though 2010.

Each chapter is based on the words of the prominent ornithologists working in that field using either direct quotes from published sources or from the authors own interviews with the researchers. These provide a rich mix of context across generations of ornithological professionals and helps frame the context of each discovery and revelation in a meaningful way, often including a description of the initial hesitance or outright derision of new ideas. I particularly enjoyed how this aspect of the book made the history come alive and showed the people and their ideas in the context of the time and state of the science when they were working as well as the fact that as a group they were no different than any other segment of human society and exhibited a wide range of human quirks and foibles . Each chapter also contains a more detailed interview with a couple of the prominent ornithologists working on the subject explored in that chapter. 

Chapter one is, appropriately, a review of yesterdays birds - the paleontology of modern birds (otherwise know as today's dinosaurs). It begins just a few miles south of where I am writing this review and a few months before I was born, when John Ostrom and Greg Myer discovered the animal now known as Deinonychus - sometimes considered the most important dinosaur discovery of the mid-twentieth century. It is a good place to start. Chapter 2 continues with the Origin and Diversification of Species or how modern birds came to be; Chapter 3, Birds on the Tree of Life, explores the view of how modern birds are related to each other; Chapter 4, Ebb and Flow, delves into our understanding of bird migration; Chapter 5, Ecological Adaptations for Breeding, describes the emergence and development of our understanding of breeding biology; Chapter 6, Form and Function, explores our understanding of the internal bird; Chapter 7, The Study of Instincts, describes the journey to understand why birds do what they do; Chapter 8, Behavior as an Adaptation, integrates the discussion of behavior into the realm of the ecological context where the behavior is occurring (one of my favorite chapters); Chapter 9, Selection in Relation to Sex, takes breeding biology, behavior, and evolution and describes how the competition for mates makes many male birds look like they do (a very simple summary of this chapter, I would suggest reading it to get the full gist of the concept); Chapter 10, Population Studies of Birds, is pretty self explanatory - a journey through our understanding of bird number fluctuate what forces drive those fluctuations. The book ends with Chapter 11, Tomorrow's Birds, a sobering view of the conservation of birds and how our interest in birds have changed over the last hundred years.

The authors stated goal was to develop "the history of modern ornithology in a readable fashion." They more than succeeded in that endeavor - I have enjoyed learning of the intellectual journey each of these ornithological concepts has endured to arrive at our current state of understanding. In addition, the authors have also provided a primer on the current state of ornithological science. This book should be required reading for any student of Ornithology as well as anyone who has an interest in birds as the complex ancient creatures we share our world with.    

1 comment:

Blazingstar said...

Sounds like a good one to add to my Christmas wish list!