Book Review: Ten Thousand Birds

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie
Princeton University Press, 2014
544 pages, $45.00 hardcover
ABA Sales / Buteo Books
How did today’s birds come to be? How has the history of ornithology evolved since Darwin’s time. These questions, and many more, are answered comprehensively in the new book, Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin.
Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin chronicles the history and biological discoveries made several fields in ornithology. Published by Princeton University Press and written by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, the book takes a scientific and objective approach to fields of ornithological study and the people behind these fields. Although the 544 page book (including over 100 pages in appendices, notes, references, an index, and image credits) appears daunting and almost like a textbook, the book explains very technical concepts in understandable terms, with beautiful visuals. The internal citations sprinkled throughout the book make finding notes and references simple. The authors highlight possible faults, noting that their respective backgrounds lead to a bias focusing primarily on ornithologists from Europe and North America, telling us that, “Others with different backgrounds and expertise would have undoubtedly written a different account—indeed, we hope they will.” Informative timelines pertinent to the subject in discussion allow for a visualization of the developments in different fields of ornithology while colorful photographs and paintings  of ornithologists, fossils, birds, and maps are peppered throughout the book to bring a picture to the subjects being discussed.
The lives and stories of many individuals are linked around the common goal of discovery, which sometimes included deceit or persecution by radical religious groups. “Where there is treasure, though, there are often pirates, and the world of fossil collecting has had its share.” The books points out that religious radicals have slowed the progression of ornithology, making it difficult to get the populace to “believe” the findings of ornithologists, especially in relation to fossil discoveries: “There will always be gaps in the fossil record but the big ones fuel scientific hypotheses and are grist for the creationist, antievolution mills.” At the end of each chapter, a number of modern ornithologists that are experts on the topic are featured, in their own words—inspiring to any budding ornithologist.
My only complaint, if any, has to do with the significant number of people discussed at great length in each chapter of the book. Sometimes anecdotes of their lives or additional information was included. Although this was very interesting, it tended to pull away from the subject at hand. Obviously, the number of people discussed in the book cannot be reduced as all of their contributions to ornithology are integral to the understanding of modern ornithology as we know it. Ten Thousand Birds is a fantastic book on ornithology from a very scientific perspective. It is for birders with a serious interest not only in birds themselves, but in their science and origin.BINbutton
If you are looking for simple cataloguing of the birds currently known to science, this is not it. This is a comprehensive history of the field of ornithology, detailing every major step along the way. The book has no central focus, except that all of the chapters in one way have contributed to our current knowledge of ornithology. In normal cases, I could consider the lack of a central focus as a weakness. However, this is not a normal book. Ten Thousand Birds is an amazing patchwork of the history of ornithology in various research fields, from evolutionary biology to molecular systematics.
Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book is how applicable many of the concepts in the book are to other biological fields of study. The first chapter details the search and discovery of the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds—Archaeopteryx, and its necessity is explained through the words of Charles Darwin, who stated, “…no group was so isolated as Birds…” In the third chapter, Birds on the Tree of Life, the authors discuss how the use of DNA research is proving that morphological similarities do not always mean phylogenetic similarities. The recent use of DNA research is not only altering our view of bird evolution, but the evolution of life in all of its forms.
The book also explores bird anatomy and mechanisms, and how these are inspiring engineers in different transportation fields. Étienne-Jules Marey stated: “…examples of locomotion which man has achieved are in general obtained by methods very different than those of nature.” It is important to say these human-made forms of locomotion are much less efficient, and by discovering methods that are more similar to nature, our forms of transportation will be more efficient.

Why birds breed when they do, and why they lay a certain clutch size, seem at first sight to be relatively simple questions, and one might naively imaging that they require only simple answers. This is now clearly not the case. Nature is often complex and many life history traits—including clutch size and timing of breeding—are influenced by a wide range of factors and often in subtle ways. —Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, “Ecological Adaptations for Breeding,” Ten Thousand Birds, 194.

The last chapter of the book, Tomorrow’s Birds, was the most inspiring and compelling to me. It discusses about the decline of species by human action, such as the Spix’s Macaw and the Passenger Pigeon. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is referenced as one of the most powerful and effective examples of speaking out against detrimental human action.
This book is an amazing call-to-action for all naturalists, emphasizing the importance of all fields of ornithological study, such as ethnology (the study of instinct), anatomy, evolution, behavior, physiology, and perhaps the most important of all, conservation. The more we understand about our feathered friends, the more we will be able to conserve them not only for future generations to enjoy, but to maintain a healthy biosphere. The authors explained in the Afterword if another version of this book were to be written 100 years from now, at the current rate of extinction, the book would not be named Ten Thousand Birds, as there would probably be only 9,000 or fewer bird species left in the wild. This is an important wake-up call that every birder should be aware of, for to truly love birds is to strive to make sure they stay around for as long as possible.
As Professor Georgina Mace, Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at University College London once stated, “Every living species represents one unique pathway to success, developed over millions of years. What we lose with each passing species can never be replaced.