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Book Review of

The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology

by Tim Birkhead

(Hardcover review copy published by Greystone)

ISBN: 978-1-55365-426-1
Reviewed by Ken Boorman

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When I first saw this 433 page book, I knew I was in for an exhaustive review of the subject – ornithology – the study of birds.  Reading about the history of a zoological discipline can be long and arduous, or it can be educational and entertaining.  This book is the latter.

The old style cover is simple, yet aesthetically pleasing.  The illustrations used throughout are pertinent and very well chosen.  Ornithologist Tim Birkhead has looked at all aspects of bird behavior, from the time of Aristotle to the present day.  Each of the book’s chapters covers a different topic - such as migration, birdsong, or territory - and he goes right back to the earliest writings of each subject and brings it through to the present day.

Birkhead introduces us to John Ray, a man who he considers to be the greatest of all ornithologists.  Ray (1622 - 1705) championed the remarkable innovation actually going out and observing birds, not in ancient books, but in the field.  Ray achieved answers to many questions about particular aspects of bird behavior.  Birkhead points out that, more importantly, he formulated the right questions about birds, questions to which he discovered at least partial answers.  One of the questions Ray asked about birds was just how it was that eggs could be fertilized and turn into chicks.  William Harvey (who is more famous for establishing how blood circulates) fastened onto this question and conducted investigations into this (at the time) thorny dilemma.  He couldn't find semen anywhere in hens after copulation, and so retreated (with dissatisfaction) to the early explanation that the ovum played the primary role in reproduction while the semen acted "in an ethereal manner" and added nothing materially to the developing embryo.  Ray understood that the sperm in semen and the ovum probably united to make the new embryo, but he couldn’t understand the process. He could not accept that God would be so wasteful with sperm, saying that the millions of sperm manufactured and lost "seems not agreeable to the wisdom and providence of Nature." It was another century and a half before the intricacies of avian reproduction were fully understood.


One particularly amusing section is about the odd beliefs of yesteryear about wild birds (barnacle geese spontaneously springing from timbers floating in the sea, swallows (and swifts and martins) hibernating underwater in the mud of ponds during Winter, etc).  I really enjoyed reading about the early European bird catchers and their training of singing birds.

In the chapter on infidelity among birds, Birkhead writes that ministers instructed their flocks to emulate the sober and strictly monogamous birds of the field.  They were wrong about the monogamy, but so were the writings of famous scientists like Darwin.  Ray asked, in the unsparing manner of the seventeenth century scientist, "Why should there be implanted in each sex such a vehement and inexpugnable appetite for copulation?"  He and the Victorian churchmen might be shocked by the answer -  female promiscuity.

The habit of male birds when faced with promiscuity is to produce lots of sperm and perform lots of couplings.  This simple fact wasn’t acknowledged until much. much later – in the 1960’s.  In all of the chapters, Birkhead traces the understanding of particular behaviours in birds from hearsay and superstition right through to the culmination of scientific desciptions. Along the way, he describes different experiments, like the ones to show how male canaries with the more complicated songs stimulated the females to build their nests faster.  He explains how the observations of latter-day field ornithologists eventually formulated the concept of male birds guarding a territory, and that such birds competed for territory directly, and only secondarily did they compete for the females.  To outline the investigations of how bird embryos become male or female, he tells us about the cock who was accused of laying eggs in 1474 in Basil, Switzerland.  The hermaphroditic cock was found guilty and burned at the stake.  It was dissected prior to the burning and was found to contain three more eggs.  Birkhead details how early bird catchers  would keep their captives in the dark before unveiling them as if to a false spring, artificially maximizing the months during which the birds would sing.  These were lessons that researchers determining how light affects the bird’s breeding cycles had to relearn in the last century. 

All in all I found this to be a very interesting book.  I will admit – I learned a lot about the history of ornithology from reading it and I have newfound respect for the pioneers of the science.  I recommend this book for anyone interested in any aspect of birds and their behaviour – either as “bird watchers” or “bird keepers”.

CONTENTS:

Preface    1

From Folklore to Facts: John Ray and Ornithology    17

Seeing and Not Believing: From Egg to Chick    53

Preparation for Life: Instinct and Intelligence    89

Disappearing Fantasies: The Emergence of Migration    131

Illuminating Discoveries: Light and the Breeding Cycle    173

The Novelty of Field Work: The Discovery of Territory    205

Choristers of the Groves: Birdsong    239

A Delicate Balance: Sex    273

Darwin in Denial: Infidelity    301

A Degenerate Life Corrupts: Reproduction and Longevity    331

Postscript    365

Notes    369

Bibliography    389

Glossary    405

Picture Credits    411

Index    415


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Last updated: June 3, 2011