New book reveals how we’ve learned what we know about birds

5/20/2014 | 0

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, Princeton University Press, 2014.

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, Princeton University Press, 2014.

One of the persistent questions that we birdwatchers are asked is why. Why watch birds? Why provide food for them? Why list them? And why travel to find them?

Standard answers usually mention that birds, like us, are diurnal — that is, they are most active during the day, not at night — that most are easy to observe and study, and that they are beautiful to look at, a pleasure to listen to, and, on the whole, likable. All true.

But as this handsome history of modern ornithology makes clear, birds also play a vitally important role in the world of science: “There are currently very close to ten thousand species of birds in the world,” write co­authors Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, “and they have contributed more to the study of zoology than almost any other group of animals.”

From Deinonychus, Archaeopteryx, and, more recently, Xiaotingia zhengi, we’ve gained insight into the origin of feathers and the mechanics and evolution of flight. From Bar-­tailed Godwit, which makes a nonstop nine­-day flight from Alaska to New Zealand, we have glimpsed the extraordinary spectacle of migration. From Medium Ground Finch and Small Ground Finch in the Galápagos, we have come to understand evolution.

Birkhead, Wimpenny, and Montgomerie fill 11 readable chapters with such examples, addressing ecology, behavior, conservation, and other major areas of ornithological science. Their chief achievement, though, is bringing to life the visionary, sometimes controver­sial, and typically brilliant researchers who have enriched our bird knowledge since the middle of the 19th century — Erwin Stresemann, Ernst Mayr, Julian Huxley, David Lack, Niko Tinbergen, Robert MacArthur, Charles Sibley, Alexander Skutch, Gustav Kramer, Steve Emlen, and many more.

An editorial tenet of this magazine has long held that how we learn can be just as interesting as what we learn. This fine book proves the point.

Read about leading ornithologists who have written for Birder’s World and BirdWatching.

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, Princeton University Press, 2014, 544 pages, $45 hardcover, $25.99-$31.99, ebook.

To learn more about the book, read about the artists whose works appear in it, and see a complete list of references cited, visit the authors’ homepage.

A version of this review appeared in June 2014 issue. Subscribe. Contact us.

See all the new books about birds recommended in our June 2014 issue.

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