Music to the ornithologist

Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds
November 1, 1996

Biologists are commonly supposed to resemble some features of their study animal. I have studied birds which sing short, simple songs and this may explain why I feel it necessary to provide an executive summary for those of you in a hurry. The bottom line is that you must own this book if you have more than a passing interest in acoustic communication in birds or in animal communication generally. Its chapters will stimulate research and influence thinking for at least the next decade.

Bird song is frequently claimed to be the best understood of animal communication systems. A glance through the contents pages of this book shows why such claims are made. The 25 chapters and appendix cover an impressive spectrum of interests, ranging from ontogeny and perception through genetics, speciation and the behaviour of communicating birds, to a plea for researchers to archive their sound recordings. Furthermore, it is clear from the contents of the chapters that studies of bird songs and calls have many interactions with other areas of research, to their mutual benefit.

When soliciting chapters for this book Donald E. Kroodsma and Edward H. Miller asked authors to produce something other than "just another book chapter". They wanted chapters on subjects that excited their authors and which contained ideas with the potential to "dominate research in the future". The extent to which the authors are judged to have succeeded will vary according to the interests, background and perspective of the reader. However, I would be astonished if any researcher on acoustic communication in birds did not find much to stimulate and inform them in this book.

While there is no doubt that it is a must for anyone actively researching acoustic communication in birds and that it will fulfil the editors' wish to "excite young investigators", its other intended readers are less clear. It is perhaps misleading to read too much into the choice of a word in the preface, but the editors' wish for the book to be a "showcase" carries an unfortunate implication. The implication is that the research it reports is somehow being held up as a model to researchers on other communication systems. This is unfortunate because much exciting work today addresses the broad field of animal communication and does not restrict itself to one taxonomic group (eg birds) or to one signalling modality (eg sound). As many of the chapters, including those by the editors, emphasise the power of the comparative approach, I cannot believe that the editors intended such an implication. Acoustic communication in birds is, after all, only one area of animal communication, albeit a well-studied one.

No multi-authored edited volume should be judged on the degree of integration of the chapters; by their nature such chapters stand alone and can be tackled in any order that suits the reader. However, in this book the chapters are arranged in more or less coherent groupings with an overview of each group by the editors.

One aspect of the book's organisation is irritating and as it is common to other edited volumes comment seems worthwhile. All the literature cited is grouped into one section at the end of the book rather than each chapter having its own reference section. This arrangement is usually justified as a way to prevent the excessive repetition of commonly cited references. I have long suspected that this is a weak argument for edited volumes with wide-ranging chapters because there just are not that many commonly cited references. This book provided a chance to see if my hunch was right because it lists the page on which each reference is cited. Picking four pages at random from the list of literature cited yielded 100 references; over 90 per cent were cited in only one of the chapters and less than 5 per cent were cited in four or more chapters. This is hardly repetitious or a major waste of paper. There are two good arguments for each chapter having its own reference section. First, small lists of references are quicker to search. The list in this book contains about 2,000 references running to 77 pages, so finding a reference involves a fair amount of page-turning. Second, it is a fact of life that most chapters of multi-authored edited books are read as photocopies. Statement and citation are fundamental to scientific exposition, yet no one is going to photocopy the whole literature cited section to accompany a chapter. Therefore, a crucial part of the authors' work will become divorced from the text, which seems a pity.

This book has a hard act to follow. In 1982, Kroodsma and Miller edited Acoustic Communication in Birds, a two-volume work. It became the benchmark in this area of research for over a decade. Therefore researchers will have high expectations of the 1996 offering from the same team. They will not be disappointed. Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds will guide research and influence thinking in this area for the next decade. Not only will it become one of those books that immediately identify the interests of the researcher on whose bookshelves it is to be found, but also, being moderately priced, it should sell well and therefore maximise its chances of being on the shelf when needed, rather than having been borrowed by a colleague.

Peter McGregor is lecturer in zoology, University of Nottingham.

Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds

Author - Donald E. Kroodsma and Edward H. Miller
ISBN - 0 8014 3049 6 and 0 8014 8221 6
Publisher - Cornell University Press
Price - £58.95 and £.50
Pages - 587

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