Book Review: Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin

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Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny & Bob Montgomerie (2014). Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, i-xvii, 524 pp. ISBN 978-0-691-15197-7.

The title of the book reflects the total number of birds we have in this world. Because of their numbers and visibility (we can always see, if not hear their calls), many of us become emotionally attached to birds. What else can be the reasons why birds had been observed and studied as far back as ancient Greece? And over in Singapore, some birdwatchers even lobbied for the conservation of any grove of trees where masses of birds land, without taking other criteria into consideration.

However, this book is not about watching birds or about people watching them. Rather, it is more about the people, amateurs as well as scientists, who contributed to the development of major aspects of bird studies since the time of Darwin.

There are 11 major chapters – fossil records, evolution and speciation, taxonomy and systematics, migration, breeding ecology, physiology, instinctive behaviour, behavioural ecology, sexual selection, population studies and bird conservation. Each chapter has a timeline that shows the chronology of key personalities, ideas and publications.

Also useful is the inclusion of a “coda” at the end of each chapter that summarises the historical significance of the topic presented together with the authors’ views. There is also an account on selected personalities after each chapter, about how they got started in their bird watching career. In addition, there are two appendices, one listing publications of ornithological history and the other a list of 500 key ornithologists referred to in the text.

Naturally the first chapter looks at “yesterday’s birds” or the ancestry of modern birds. Long believed to be Archaeopterex, the recent find by Chinese paleontologist Xu Xing of a new feathered dinosaur, has opened the doors to controversy. Well, scientific studies are never static and as new information is unearthed, future researchers will develop from it, as can be seen in all other chapters.

Many of the early bird enthusiasts were amateurs, mostly the gentry who had the means to spend fulltime collecting and studying birds. Many amassed huge collections, purchased from professional collectors, the best known being Alfred Russel Wallace. These collections were meticulously curated and the owners made serious studies and published scientific reports on them. Museums were also involved and with financial backings they were always on the lookout to purchase private collections. A good example was the American Museum of Natural History buying over Walter Rothschild’s entire collection, then the biggest and best in the world. Collections, especially those from exotic locations, have contributed to the knowledge of bird distribution and systematics.

Up to the 1920s ornithology was still involved mainly with studying museum specimens. Fieldwork was confined to shooting birds for specimens. But once the naming and descriptions of all known species known at the time were completed, a culture of studying birds in the field emerged. This in turn brought ornithology into mainstream biology that saw the explosion in ornithological knowledge.

Of the different aspects of bird studies, the account on migration, specifically that on bird ringing, brings things closer to home. The Migratory Animal Pathological Survey (MAPS) was ongoing in the early 1960s. Based in nearby Kuala Lumpur and led by Elliott McClure, volunteers ringed more than a million birds that provided the first ever information on bird movements throughout Southeast Asia. I distinctly remember the rumours that this US military-funded project was to gather information for a future biological warfare. But the study was actually to find out the possibilities of wild birds transmitting the Japanese encephalitis virus to humans.

My favourite chapters are those on bird behaviour. After all, the Bird Ecology Study Group has been encouraging local as well as regional birdwatchers to look beyond the plumage since its started this website a decade ago. The quote of Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988) as seen in the beginning of the chapter on Afterword: “You can know the name of a bird … but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. … So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts…” This has been our guiding principal since the group started a decade ago LINK.

YC Wee
September 2014

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