on 6 August 2009
Set in Linotype Goudy Old Style typeface (which was popular in the 1940s), this book feels as though it should be full of history - and it is. Chapters describe the growth of bird study during the last 500 years. The range of issues covers subjects such as egg development, instinct and intelligence, migration, the influence of daylight on the breeding cycle, territoriality, vocalisations, sexual differentiation, infidelity, reproduction and longevity.
Those who have already purchased either of the two recent books which both curiously sported the title A History of Ornithology might anticipate that nothing new will be learnt from this new book - but they'd be wrong. In their books Michael Walters (Christopher Helm 2003) and Peter Bircham (Collins 2008) focused on the individuals behind the development of ornithology while Tim Birkhead is more interested in what they discovered. However he makes an exception for John Ray, the 17th Century naturalist whose Ornithologia was better than anything than had gone before it.
Illustrated throughout with mainly colour illustrations from some of the world's most valuable bird books, this work contains many gems of information. For example in the chapter on birdsong we discover how German foresters used to train young Bullfinches to sing popular song tunes. Other fascinating facts include the example of Ulisse Aldrovandi who, in 1600, discovered that after having its head removed a bird could still vocalise! Perhaps more usefully we discover that Linnets can be trained to sing like Nightingales.
Flitting from discoveries by the likes of Charles Darwin and Francis Willughby to those of David Lack and John Krebs, this book is a real mixture of the facts that we all know already together with many that are hidden away in scientific papers that are rarely accessed. By bringing them together in one place Birkhead has produced an entertaining and topical book.
Reviewing Martin Rudwick's Bursting the Limits of Time, about the early days of geology and palaeontology, I speculated as to the origins of another science, ornithology, hazarding that it similarly was based upon a wealth of local knowledge brought together and systemised by the protoscientists of the day, or savants, as Rudwick calls them. Tim Birkhead, in The Wisdom Of Birds, appears to confirm this premise.
Using as his starting point the 16th Century ornithologist John Ray, Birkhead describes how ornithology developed from folklore and superstition into a coherent science. Ray's own book, The Wisdom Of God, provides Birkhead's title, although it is knowledge rather than wisdom which is shown accumulating. As with the sciences dealt with by Rudwick, some knowledge originates from the museum, some from commerce (poultry farmers and hunters), some from what we may call hobbyists (bird keepers) and, eventually, from savants in the field, and like the early geologists, such ornithologists were considered strange birds indeed at first. Far better, some felt, to send a minion out to catch the birds and bring them into the museum than actually sully oneself doing it personally. There is an account of how Ray and his partner Willughby travelled Europe assembling their knowledge-base and library, as did the early geologists, and coincidentally a number of the other people namechecked include some mentioned by Rudwick, most notably the Comte de Buffon and Georges Cuvier.
The account commences, naturally, with the egg, and moves on through chapters dealing with bird intelligence, migration, breeding and territory, and birdsong and its significance. There are chapters on sex, which tackles the question of parthenogenesis - virgin birth - which is due to the female bird, unlike the female mammal, being heterogametic (they have two chromosomes), infidelity (which is one of the areas where modern knowledge parts company with Darwin in confirming that females as well as males will take multiple partners) and lifespan. In this final section the author raises a very interesting point: apart from in a cage, birds showing the signs of age are never seen. They either look hail and hearty or they're dead.
Throughout the work Birkhead has found some beautiful pictures to illustrate his point, although this is also one of a number of sources of frustration, as often there is very little advantage taken of them, or explanatory comment, as for example where a picture appears of a bird looking remarkably like a Northern Cardinal but labelled in its 17th Century setting as a Virginian Nightingale, with no covering narrative, including why this North American bird should appear on a page accompanied by five European birds (four finches and a sparrow).
Other minor annoyances are in the references to early ornithologists without acknowledgement (or otherwise) of their contributions to the naming of birds, as in Thomas Bewick (Bewick's Swan, amongst others), two Temminks (which, if either, gave his name to the Temmink's Stint?) and George Montagu (Montagu's Harrier, I assume). These are the kinds of trivia which sometimes provide the extra colour to such books as this. There is also a reference to Julian Huxley studying the courtship behaviour of Great Crested Grebes with his brother, but which one? Was it Andrew (actually his half brother), or the rather more well-known Aldous, author of Brave New World and himself once destined for a life in science, ultimately thwarted by bad eyesight?
Nevertheless, although there are plenty of wide open goals that Birkhead has missed here, the result is still an excellent book.
on 29 March 2012
This is a fabulous book, well researched, brilliantly organised and very well written. It's a joy to read. Anyone with an interest in birds, or the history of scientific research, should read this. The book looks beautiful, too, and Tim has found superb illustrations.
on 15 February 2009
This book tells what we (humans) have learned about birds over the centuries. It is an excellent and lucid examination of Man's wisdom, or sometimes lack of it. Tim Birkhead is an academic who can communicate brilliantly with the ordinary reader. From bird intelligence, migration, physiology to reproduction, the author covers a wide range of material. The illustrations also are terrific. A 'must have' book for all bird lovers with any wisdom at all!