Ten Thousand Birds

There are over 10,000 species of bird on the Earth today. There is one blog called "10,000 Birds" for which I write a monthly article, in case you did not know. But this post is about Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, a book by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Monegomerie.

Birds and various studies of birds are central to evolutionary theory and the development of all of the surrounding biology and science. Here's a short list of key roles birds have played in evolutionary biology:

  • Darwin's study of pigeon breeding was central to On the Origin of Species and later works.
  • The Galapagos finches and other birds, observed by Darwin during The Voyage of the Beagle were also key in the development of his work.
  • Darwin's work involved a great deal of other birds, such as the Rhea and helped shape his thinking about species.
  • Skipping past many examples, and far ahead in time, The Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy was the first major application of DNA to develop phylogeny.
  • As described in The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, the Grants' study of finches in the Galapagos advanced evolutionary theory with detailed tests of Darwin's models, and influenced one of the most important works on the origin of humans.
  • Birds have often been used as examples in teaching evolution. Have a look at this example: It May Be Hard To Swallow, But Bumpus Could Get Bumped To The Back Burner
  • Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is an absolutely spectacular book. It is big and heavy and over 500 pages long. It is dark green like all great scholarly books. Despite it's great lenght it has only 11 chapters, so you know the material is treated in depth. It has dozens and dozens of pages of notes and references. It has an appendix with a list of 500 ornithologists. It has a separate appendix with a list of ornithologies.

    That's all nice but the meat of the book is in those long intense chapters. These chapters provide a very thorough, detailed, and fascinating history of ornithology, often focusing on the ornithologists, their quirks, their visions, the contexts in which they worked, and their findings. So, yes, this is a history of the science. The story starts when birds first flew into the field of evolutionary biology, or perhaps, were captured by it, and traces the history of biology from a birds eye's point of view, including the development of the modern synthesis, and on to the behavioral revolution of Lack, the conceptual revolution of Tinbergen, and the ecological reframing of MacArthur.

    This could serve as a very readable core of a college elective in the history of science, though it is certainly not a textbook. Richly illustrated, well written, engaging.

    Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at Sheffield, and has done major bird research. He wrote The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology and Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. Jo Wimpenny is a bird researcher at Sheffield. Bob Montgomerie is professor of biology at Queen’s University in Ontario, and studies the evolution of plumage and bird sex.

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