Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, Bob Montgomerie: A review

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since DarwinTen Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin by Tim Birkhead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is really not a book for the casual reader. It is a big, dense, heavy book and would be useful as a textbook. It would also be useful for those who want to build up their arm muscles through weightlifting.

But for those who are seriously interested in the science of ornithology, how it developed, and the contributions it has made in the areas of evolution, ecology, conservation, and the classification of birds, this is a valuable work, one that is certainly worth all that heavy lifting - both physical and mental.

The authors, as the subtitle of the book suggests, explore the history of ornithology since Charles Darwin. While humans have a centuries-long history of fascination with the world of birds, it was really only after Darwin's unifying theory of evolution in the mid-nineteenth century that the scientific study of birds - ornithology - began.

The book organizes its historical overview into twelve major areas of ornithology and it uses a biographical approach to focus on the lives of major contributors to the science. The authors explore the social and scientific contexts in which the work of these scientists developed. They also discuss the controversies that developed around the resulting research and theories and show how these have helped to shape the discipline.

The history of modern ornithology really began as a museum-based discipline in the middle of the nineteenth century. Scientists spent their time examining dead birds and describing the anatomy, taxonomy, and classification of them. By the early 1900s, some pioneering individuals had recognized the importance of studying live birds in the field. This major shift was the birth of ornithology as we know it today and eventually gave rise to the development of field guides which spurred an explosion of interest in birds and in watching them, rather than shooting them, as a hobby. The authors write:
The general public interest in birds was given an enormous boost by the publication of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds in 1934, covering only the birds of the eastern half of the continent. An accomplished artist with a background in education, Peterson - who was just twenty-five at the time - recognized the value of simple, aesthetic images that captured a bird's essence to aid identification. His western bird guide was published in 1941, but the European "Peterson" did not appear for another thirteen years. It is no understatement (sic? -  Did they mean overstatement?) to say that Roger Tory Peterson changed bird watching forever.
The rest, as they say, is history. Birding, or bird watching, is one of the most popular leisure time activities not just in the United States but in the world today.

But, of course, Ten Thousand Birds is not about birding, except tangentially. It is, instead, the history of how the work and achievements of ornithologists have contributed so much to our knowledge of animal biology. In fact, one would be hard pressed to name another field of study that has done as much for our understanding of biology and of how the world of Nature works. It is a fascinating story written in a very readable, accessible style. It's well worth the effort if this subject matter is of interest to you.

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in return for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

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  1. This sounds like a really interesting book. I live in Ithaca NY where lots of people come for birding and I love books that focus on the people behind science, so this book appeals to me for both of those reasons :)

    1. You may indeed be the ideal reader for this book! It is well-written and it really is a fascinating story for anyone interested in ornithology.


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