The Diversity of Collective Living Strategies

December 17, 2023

A review by Dominic García-Hall

How Birds Live Together: Colonies and Communities in the Avian World, by Marianne Taylor

Princeton University Press, 2022

224 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15217

Hot on the heels of Homo sapiens, Drosophila fruit flies, and now SARS‑CoV‑2, birds might be the best-studied forms of life on the planet. So I was excited about reviewing this book, anticipating a deep dive into some quirky and novel colonial and breeding adaptations.

Then I realized it was just one book—and only 224 pages long. With photos. Which piqued my curiosity: How is that enough space to explain the huge diversity of avian social strategies?

The resulting book is something of a hybrid. Hints of stylistic introgression à la Richard Dawkins are married with some excellent photographs—whose collective photo credits are slightly bizarrely relegated to a reach-for-your-reading-glasses-footnote on the last page.

Is this a mind-blowing delve into one of the most studied class of animals on the planet? No. Is it something you can pick up, choose a chapter at random before you go to sleep, and feel satisfied with a sense of newly acquired knowledge? Yes, absolutely.

The introduction is cursory and doesn’t précis the structure of the book. But if you read the book in order, which I’d advise against, the narrative slowly reveals itself. And the narrative structure is good, if rather arbitrarily deployed. There are colony profiles and species profiles, some explored with nuance and detail, others a mere skimmer’s bill rippling the surface. Taylor’s book is analogous to older text-heavy field guides. Think of it as a guide to myriad ecological adaptations where the common theme is the benefits (or not) of being colonial. And just as you’d find quite a lot of birds in a field guide, here you’ll discover endless and intriguing variations on how birds utilize the concept of communal living.

I can’t think of a popular science book that has tried to do exactly what Tyler has done here, and for that alone it deserves applause. The choice of avian icons to represent the diversity of adaptations is fairly well thought through, conjoining the well-known—breeding Emperor Penguin shuffling on an icy merry-go-round and nicely drawn Northern Carmine Bee-eater nesting chambers—to the less well known. One of my favorite examples, and a well-chased and difficult Code 4 bird in North America, is the Fieldfare, well treated here.

Have you ever chased a Fieldfare? Staked out a frigid Newfoundland berry bush but not known much about the species’ ecology? Taylor presents a rich account of this Fieldfare’s variable nesting strategy, delving into resource availability and concomitant ecological conditions. In short, don’t be a corvid in a Fieldfare colony. You will fall victim to a well-fashioned defense of being collectively pooped on by a gazillion rattling and chattering Fieldfares until you are unable to fly for the weight of guano saturating your feathers. This was brought gloriously to life in the late 1990s by Sir David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History unit. And Taylor does justice to the great Sir Attenborough in print form.

There are writers who can discuss science and scientists who can write. But the middle of that Venn diagram is Bumblebee Hummingbird sized. I think Taylor just about squeezes in. One colony profile focuses on interspecific breeding at the Lucio de la FAO wetlands in Spain. The bar charts and explanation of how the colony grew following the pioneering nesting of Purple Herons is succinct and accessible and makes great use of data visualization—something many pop science books still eschew. But don’t expect Bernd Heinrich–level investigations—in his case research on the recruitment strategies and hierarchies of immature colonial ravens.  That took up an entire—and much longer—book.

And this perhaps leads to its bigger flaw. Where a Bernd Heinrich, David Quammen, or Jared Diamond would have pulled these examples of colonial living into an over-arching theory, Taylor does not. Is this down to the slightly disorganized choice of species and biogeographic case studies? It’s likely. But I was left waiting expectantly for some kind of grand finale—a novel set of ideas synthesized at the end. But the end is as abrupt as the beginning. Perhaps in hindsight I can empathize with the author’s decision not to do this. Again, it would require another book to explain the book.

In conclusion, the parts are all there. They’ll entice and excite a wide range of birders, as Taylor writes with clarity, and no formal biological knowledge is required. I say this having just read all 1,000 pages of Stephen Jay Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory. I was begging for some pithy writing. And Taylor delivered. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that other science writers would have pulled these disparate examples into something resembling a real point of view on how and why collective living strategies are both so diverse yet so frequently occurring among birds. For now, draw your own conclusions.

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Dominic García-Hall owned and operated a birding tour company in Argentina back in the day when there were very few. He sold it to go sit in an office all day in New York City but has since course corrected and now devotes most of his time to field recording, birding war zones, and forever editing a dawn chorus sound installation.