The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology

A labour of love pays tribute to our fascination with the winged world, writes Jim Reynolds

January 1, 2009

Birds play prominent roles in our lives. They feature in folklore (predictions of fortune from an abundance of Eurasian magpies); they are companion animals (Winston Churchill's African grey parrot); they occupy our recreation (birdwatching) and professional lives (university research); and they constitute one of the UK Government's 15 headline indicators of the sustainability of lifestyles. Over a million people in the UK are members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and, as one of the most charismatic taxa that we encounter, birds add to our ever-increasing interest and knowledge.

Our love affair with birds is not a modern romance; we have revered them for many centuries. Tim Birkhead's book takes us on an inspirational long-distance migration through the discipline we call ornithology, replenishing our reserves at staging areas describing birdsong, mating strategies, and annual and breeding cycles.

His account begins with the hero of the piece, John Ray, who published two seminal works that changed ornithology forever. The first, The Ornithology of Francis Willughby, was published in 1678 and described a framework to classify and study birds in a systematic way for the first time. The second was The Wisdom of God, published in 1691.

Birkhead argues that Ray's books, taken together, laid the foundations for modern ornithology. Ray was both a man of the church and an excellent naturalist. His work represented a sea change: for the first time people were freed from the ecclesiastical shackles of subjugation by an "angry and jealous God", and were instead graced with a benign one. His conception was an appreciation of nature's majesty in the context of how organisms fit environments - what was once called "physico-theology", later "natural theology" and today ecology, one of the cornerstones of adaptation.

Despite containing all of the necessary ingredients, The Wisdom of Birds is far more than just another textbook of ornithology. It is a social history; it charts the history of scientific ideas and not just ornithological ones; and it is very much a personal (ie, autobiographical) sketch of the author, one of the eminent behavioural ecologists of modern-day ornithology. The result is a fascinating read that is compelling for students of ornithology, either in the armchair or in the academic environment. I will be recommending this book as a core text for both my undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Clearly, it represents a labour of love for Birkhead, who has gone to great lengths to unearth rarely glimpsed passages of text and sumptuous avian imagery from rare literature sources. We learn much about the founding forefathers of modern ornithology, including Konrad Lorenz and David Lack, and how their imposing personalities and ideas shaped the thinking of their contemporaries. We also learn how far ornithology has travelled since the early writings of Aristotle in 300BC to the modern day.

While Birkhead celebrates relatively modern findings such as the DNA fingerprinting-aided revelation that in most species female promiscuity prevails, thus dispelling Lack's contention that social bonds reflect sexual ones in most species, he finishes the main text with a sobering thought. Without sustained conservation efforts founded in a comprehensive understanding of avian life histories, species such as the Hawaiian goose, the Kakapo and the Seychelles magpie robin would have been lost on our watch for ever.

I firmly uphold Birkhead's premise that Ray was as influential as Charles Darwin in shaping modern ornithology in which we study such diverse disciplines as micro- and macro-evolutionary processes, behavioural ecology and biodiversity. It remains a mystery to me that, as we prepare to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday on 12 February 2009, Ray's name is rarely uttered in the same breath and is barely known to modern-day ornithologists, despite his substantial contribution preceding that of Darwin by some 150 years.

Birkhead convinces me that Ray did far more than illuminate the path for 17th-century ornithologists; he provided a blazing sun that continues to burn brightly, allowing us to appreciate birds in glorious Technicolor.

The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology

By Tim Birkhead

Bloomsbury, 448pp, £18.75

ISBN 9780747592563

Published 6 October 2008

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