When I saw the title, Ten Thousand Birds, on the Princeton University Press message, I got excited. Linda and I got hooked on birding ten years ago, and birding opportunities are involved in most of our travel trips these days. And we hardly ever step out of the house without our binoculars. In fact, I just had to interrupt writing this column because I heard my first-of-the-spring Phoebe singing in a tree in the front yard and had to go out and take a look. While I was out there, two Bald eagles soared right over my head!
Since I started writing full time four years ago, including book reviews, I have been very impressed with the birding and wild animal books published by Princeton University Press. But I have to confess that when Ten Thousand Birds arrived, I was disappointed. It turns out that it doesn’t include photos of 18,000 birds! And it weighs four pounds!
So I set the book aside for a while, worked out to build up my strength, and then finally picked it up and started reading. It must have been the same feeling a brook trout gets when he finds he’s attached to my fly and can’t get off. Yup, I was hooked.
Ornithology Since Darwin
That’s the subtitle of the book, and yes, it presents the history of ornithology starting with Darwin. Just in case that might sound a bit boring to you, let me tell you that the stories of the sometimes visionary and oftentimes controversial personalities that drove birding forward are fascinating. Punches are not pulled here, as we learn about huge mistakes as well as major breakthroughs. And the authors also tell us what we still don’t know about birds.
As I turned to the first page, I thought to myself that this must have been written for folks like my friend Bob Duchesne, Maine’s top birding guide and author. But I quickly figured out that even the less-than-serious only-out-there-for-fun birders will be both entertained and educated by Ten Thousand Birds.
The three authors of this book are impressive people. Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches and conducts research on the behavioral ecology of birds with a particular focus on reproduction. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and has written several books.
Jo Wimpenny was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sheffield during the writing of the book. Bob Montgomerie is a professor of biology at Queen’s University of Ontario, where he studied the evolution of plumage colors and sexual behavior of birds.
The amount of work that went into this book is amazing. Hundreds of ornithologists were enlisted in the task.
“Histories can be dull,” write the authors. “But our experience reaching undergraduates show us that histories are brought to life by stories about the people that populate them. The history of ornithology is overflowing with extraordinary individuals and intriguing stories. Science – ornithological or otherwise – is conducted by real people with real human attributes, including ambition, integrity, jealousy, obsession, and deception. In telling their stories we encounter the full gamut of human frailties from fraud to murder.”
I really enjoyed the sidebar stories of these real people. The stories about the most influential ornithologists were particularly interesting. The audio recordings of the interviews with those ornithologists are available at myriadbirds.com.
Here’s the opening of Chapter 1, titled Yesterday’s Birds.
Late one hot August evening in 1964, near Bridger, Montana, the paleontologist John Ostrom and his assistant, Greg Meyer, made a discovery that revolutionized the study of ancient birds. Toward the end of a hard day in the field, they spotted, in the slanted light, some claws and bones protruding from the reddish-brown soil. Scrambling to the spot, they began digging with the only tools they had at hand – a jackknife, a small paintbrush, and a whisk broom.
Rapidly running out of natural light, they marked the location so they could resume work the next morning. Given the fossil’s sickle-like claws, Ostrom was convinced this was a carnivorous dinosaur. “I was almost certain, although still wary, that we had discovered something totally new.” And they had, as the subsequent week of excavation revealed – a specimen considered by some to be the most important dinosaur discovery of the mid-twentieth century, an animal Ostrom called Deinonychus, “The terrible claw.”
Turns out that Deinonychus was a “killing machine.” Wait until you see the full page drawing of that killing machine!
Probably the most important chapter is Tomorrow’s Birds. The beginning paragraph, “The Tragedy of Shifting Baselines,” begins with this story.
Spix’s Macaw is one of the largest and most spectacular parrots in the world. It is also balancing on the brink of extinction, and in the wild it is almost certainly extinct. A victim of habitat loss in its native Brazil and a corrupt global cage-bird trade, Spix’s Macaw currently (2013) consists of around just eighty-five captive individuals held at five locations around the world.
In this chapter, I learned a lot, including that, “The state of the world’s birds is not good, with many species in decline and 12 percent of all species at risk of imminent extinction.” I also learned about all the conservationists and organizations who are working to sustain our birding populations. You will learn about some outstanding success stories that give us hope.
If you read only one chapter in this book, make it this one. And don’t worry. There are some awesome bird photos and drawings in the book!