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Book Review: Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin

By Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie

This was an impressive book. Impressive in breadth, width, and, yes, weight. In fact, since I often read in bed before falling asleep, one of my biggest concerns was nodding off and having the book fall on my face. Its 524 pages would have easily broken my nose!Ten

Luckily, the writing made me anything but sleepy. While this is not a “curl up on the coach and read cover to cover on a cold winter day” book, it is exceedingly well-written for what is essentially a text book.  The authors have amassed a mind-boggling amount of information covering a range of ornithological topics.

Although the scientific study of birds can be traced back to ancient Greece, ornithology has really come of age in the century following the revolutionary work of Charles Darwin. A fascinating factoid in the preface mentioned that “in 2011, there were as many papers on birds published as there have been during the entire period between Darwin’s Origin (of Species) and 1955.”  Wow!

As noted in the Preface, there are several other compilations of ornithological history.  I will readily admit that when I first learned of this book, my first thought was “Really, another one?”  But this one is different.

They chose to begin with Darwin for good reason as “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.”  But no book could cover every aspect of ornithology; not everything we’ve learned could fit in any one volume. I’d break my back lifting it before I could break my nose dropping it.

Therefore, the authors narrowed down the focus to the highlight of ornithological research that has “influenced the course of scientific progress.” They explain the rationale that included ranking a database of citations and a survey of senior ornithologists. In the end, the authors decided to synthesize things into a topic-based series of chapters, guided by their findings of the most influential researchers and books:

Chapter 1: Yesterday’s Birds – a synopsis of the discovery and analysis of the first birds, and the history of the now-dominant “birds ARE dinosaurs” theory.

Chapter 2: The Origin and Diversification of Species– the evolution of these 10,000 or so birds that we share our planet with.

Chapter 3: Birds and the Tree of Life – the difficult process of figuring out which birds are related to whom and how.

Chapter 4: Ebb and Flow – about migration, the topic in the book that was of most interest to me personally.

Chapter 5: Ecological Adaptations for Breeding.

Chapter 6: Form and Function – the study of avian physiology: how birds do what they do and the evolutionary processes that shape the birds of today and how they exploit their specific niches.

Chapter 7: The Study of Instinct.

Chapter 8: Behavior as Adaptation.

Chapter 9: Selection in Relation to Sex – what birds look like and why. Spoiler alert: it’s about sex.

Chapter 10: Population Studies of Birds.

Chapter 11: Tomorrow’s Birds – what does the future hold for bird species, populations, and survival in the face of humanity and our changes to the planet?

So there’s a fairly wide range of topics, and each topic is covered in depth. There’s a lot of research into each topic and the players involved. A graphic timeline of important events and publications are included in each chapter, almost as a tour guide for the events and people in the coming chapter, or a “Cliff-Notes” version for convenient skimming. What is really remarkable about this tome however, is the very personal approach the authors take. They intentionally attempted to avoid a dull, boring history book.

“…Our experience teaching undergraduates show us that histories were brought to life by stories about the people that populate them. The history of ornithology is overflowing with extraordinary individuals and intriguing stories. Science – ornithological or otherwise – is conducted by real people with real human attributes, including ambition, integrity, jealousy, obsession, and deception. In telling their stories we encounter the full gamut of human frailties from fraud to murder.” 

No, this is not your run of the mill dry, boring textbook. The authors make it personal, and make it engaging by emphasizing the people involved. They want you to not just read about discoveries, but join the researchers as they make them – and embroil in controversies surrounding them. As exemplified by this passage in Chapter 3, “Birds on the Tree of Life”, the authors were not shy about delving into issues of these controversies:

“The first volley in what David Hall would later call the ‘Systematics Wars’ had been fired – the 1960’s and 1970’s would see one of the most contentious periods in the history of any branch of science. While not everyone likes this term, to those of us looking in from the outside, systematics at the time seemed clearly at war, as egos and emotions ran high, and the field seemed to attract some of the most arrogant, opinionated, and downright nasty individuals who have ever called themselves scientists.”

In other words, the authors were more than willing to call a spade a spade and that is refreshing; sugar-coating of controversies was held to a minimum. I loved that. Prosaic and engaging writing keeps the reader interested, and allows the non-scientist to absorb the wealth of information.

History is important, and the authors teach us the value of understanding ornithological history in order to 1) see a researcher’s own work in context, 2) knowing what predecessors have done is an “essential part of scholarship, and at the very least helps to avoid reinventing the wheel, and 3) Perhaps most importantly, “it can be a crucible of creation, triggering new ideas and new ways of looking at old problems.” And the authors went to great lengths to make this needed task as engaging and interesting as possible, and I believe they succeeded.

Each chapter includes added color with an autobiographical vignette from leading scientists, and closes each chapter with a “Coda,” that briefly summarizes what we have learned about the topic and how it applies to current research and why this particular topic is so important. Often, the authors include additional color-commentary as well and perhaps even a little opportunity for some brief opinionated editorializing.

I am not an “ornithologist” by any definition, and while the term “field ornithologist” could be applied to my previous career, I am not an expert in the rigorous science of any of these topics. Therefore, I would not be able to comment on any biases, any missing information, oversights, or errors within the information presented. I am most definitely a student of migration, however, and therefore found Chapter 4 to be the most interesting and valuable to me, and very well done.

I would argue that Chapter 11, however, is the most important, but unfortunately, I found it to be the weakest chapter in the book.  While every other chapter came across as very well laid out, planned, and thorough, I found “Tomorrow’s Birds” to be scattered, at times superficial, and sometimes even a little awkward as the authors skip from one topic to another. That disappointed me quite a bit, and it was a tough way to end. Perhaps it was nothing more than so much new information to be covered, that a sample was the most reasonable option, rather than the through surveys of the preceding chapters.

However, the last two pages of that final chapter, wrapping up the past, present, and future of birds and the study thereof, were poignant and valuable.

“Topics of interest will come and go, but there is one topic whose relentless progress should be of concern to us all. As the human population continues to increase, bird populations will continue to decline. Birds provide a convenient indicator of the quality of the environment, but they also contribute immensely to the quality of the environment and of our lives…A century from now, if someone decides to repeat our survey of the preceding hundred years, it is unlikely that they would be able to use the title  – Ten Thousand Birds…The long-term health of birds and other wildlife depend on teaching our children and students to value the natural world, but it also depends on our training them to be both effective ambassadors for ornithology and first-rate scientists, so they are able to make the right decisions.”

(As with all books reviewed in the blog, of course it is available here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply!)