Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ten Thousand Birds by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press. 2014 524pp ISBN: 978-0-691-15197-7-524


A remarkable and timely tome this has become. The world of ornithology science needed updating on the level of avid birders who want to understand its history. Over the last several centuries other great ornithologists have made the history current and Birkhead et al have done it for now.

Birkhead etal cover just about anything one could think of regarding ornithology. It is written in a style that is user friendly yet it is filled with a wide array of varying topics as they relate to birds.


Understanding birds is not simply recording sightings or having the bragging rights of most species seen (or heard). It is understanding animal behavior and the science that goes into a better understanding of observations. These authors chronicled a 150 year process of that. Bird counts, the authors suggest is important to environmental research and they gave me a better appreciation as to its efficacy. However being one far more interested in behavior than in numbers this book informed me of much.


About history they briefly introduce John Ray and Francis Willughby from the mid-17th century in order to give us a perspective on the field prior to Darwin. They described the personalities of the great bird scientists and they were not always very pleasant. Yet the descriptions of many of them match what has been read previously by this bird history fan.


“Darwin’s Finches” is a concept bandied about significantly. Darwin was pretty broad based but he was not really an ornithologist per se. He utilized the help of a more significant (and ornery) birder John Gould to help with categorizing and identifying the birds that Darwin shot on his way around the world. Darwin only wrote the few tracts on birds at the urging of others and after his information was vetted by Gould. The authors cite Frank Sulloway’s thirty year old debunking the concept of “Darwin’s Finches”. However Darwin and his theories play a big role in the premise of this book.


While addressing the many ornithologists and their miens, it is important to note some of the good ones such as Konrad Lorenz (while a great ethologist, also a member of the Nazi Party) Nikolaas Tinbergen (and his Four Questions), Joseph Grinnell (ecological niches), Ernst Mayr (systematics) or Bernd Heinrich (with many books on birds particularly corvids) were rapscallions, prigs and petty.


Only brief mention was made of Roger Tory Peterson and the hagiography attended to him a few years ago by Rosenthal. It was harsh and it should have been. Kenn Kaufman got nary a mention in the book which tells the readers that “Life Birds” were not important to the authors and that was a relief for this reader.


All told ornithologists were not monolithic. Some were naturalist explorers visiting exotic locale and collecting specimens for scientific research by others and some were the scientific researchers. During the latter half of the 19th century there were also the wealthy who paid the naturalists for their booty and funded the researchers. This symbiotic relationship brought us great information about birds and at a cost to birds.


To talk about the personalities of the history of ornithology can only come with a discussion of the technologies. Early on bird study included killing the specimen in order to study it. In those days then taxidermy was a specialty for real scientists. Rifles improved, binoculars improved and recorded sound was introduced. Cameras improved while activists were trying to persuade the world that we were losing species for the sake of research and fashion. There was a bumpy but ultimately successful formation of the Audubon Club and a group of women bought the land which is now the Hawk Mountain preserve. The Endangered Species Act was borne of these efforts. I digress though.


A mindset shift came to ecologists including birders as cameras improved. No longer was it necessarily (or legal) to kill many species of birds. Now photography could preserve them. So could sonograms. No longer was it necessary to actually see birds to learn about them. Today there are many studies of bird ecology that rely on sounds-how they are made, when they are made and what they indicate.


There is radar to inform us of migrations and there is the GPS to tell us where we are and where the birds are. There are more refined methods of tracking birds from banding to miniature GPS devises that do not hinder bird flight. Likewise there a cameras that allow us to travel with the flight of a species.


Ethology, systematics and behaviorism are also important ways to study bird life and the authors describe the changes in scientific thinking that are part of the cumulative knowledge we have of avians. The changes in scientific thinking about animals in general has been profound and not without animus. There are many schools of thought about bird intelligence, ethology and evolution. The whys of adaptation, speciation or mimicry are many and the camps often very opposed to other camps. The writers describe many of these and you can learn more by reading the book.


Many new species of birds are discovered every year and when that occurs it becomes obvious that they are endangered. Their numbers are too few (one virus or hurricane can wipe them out) and their niches shrinking. Some will adapt by changing their habits. They will seek new territory and if successful will ultimately undergo speciation. Most won’t though. They may be too small in number or too highly specialized to survive.


The impact of humans on bird life is immense. House Sparrows and Crows thrive amongst us. Kirtland Warblers on the other hand, less so. The authors devote the last stages of the book to ecology of birds and it is not so good and we are to blame. Michael McCarthy was quoted in the book and it is worth citing here:


“Your grandfather saw thousands of skylarks, your father saw hundreds, you have seen dozens and your children will see the odd one, and each of you thinks that this is the way things normally are”.


The authors assert (very astutely) that the more we learn about birds the less of them there are. This all gets pretty gloomy since the odds of tearing down condos built on salt marshes or convincing farmers to create ecologically sound habitats are not good. However it does occur that more people are interested in slowing development and making the same more viable for our flora and fauna. It is tough, we do not have enough environmentalists in the legislative bodies to have confidence in those bodies. We also have very loosely applied laws and repercussions for miscreants.


To give up though is nearly suicidal. Less so for my generation. I’ll see fewer birds and have fewer places to see them. My children will have less and generations that I will not meet will have less again. That is if the abundant research and planning and collective action is deemed too futile. If the fight for preservation and restoration is given up then the whole web of life will shrivel and the world will hasten its way to one without humans.


Long range planning and cooperation among citizens, academia, business and government can slow the problem(s). Hopefully those efforts can buy some time and sway more of us to see the issues that we humans are causing to the environment and ironically to our species. Let’s face it, we cannot scientifically recreate a livable habitat with synthetic devises to replicate the boon of nature. We are all in this web of life together; all the flora and fauna depend on each other.


This book is one of the most informative books about the intricacies of ornithology that have passed my eyes. There is much to it that have not been identified in this review due to readable space. It covers the bases and so informs specialists about aspect of the history of ornithology and it informs us generalists as well. It is a book well worth the time to read it. There is a lot there.

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