Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Why Birdwatching is Cool

Review by Ann Skea

The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology.
Tim Birkhead.
Bloomsbury. 2008. 433 pp.
ISBN 978 0 7475 9256 3.

Tim Birkhead's The Wisdom of Birds arrived on my doorstep at the same time as Esther Woolfson's Corvus, and I read Woolfson's book first. Although the two books are very different, many of the topics they cover, such as flight, instinct, intelligence and bird song, are the same. Clearly, Birkhead and Woolfson share a passion for everything to do with birds.

The Wisdom of Birds is a beautifully and richly illustrated history of ornithology. It is detailed and factual, but it is characteristic of the author's easy, anecdotal style that he begins the book "standing waist-deep in very cold water in the midst of a vast open wetland". He is there, he tells us, as part of a team of ornithologists trying to capture and ring a rare European aquatic warbler. That ornithologists doing serious scientific research should be out in the field (so to speak) observing and ringing birds is, as his book makes clear, a relatively new phenomenon. Even in the early twentieth century, such outdoor activities were contemptuously known "bird-watching," and were regarded as the unscientific occupation of amateurs and dilettantes. Serious ornithologists, it was believed, confined their work to museum study, measurement, taxonomy and classification.

Birkhead begins his ornithological history by describing the work of John Ray who, in 1676, published an encyclopaedia of ornithology based on his collaboration with his friend and patron Francis Willoughby. At that time, there was a new emphasis on experiment and close observation as a basis for reliable knowledge. Willoughby and Ray were amongst the first to abandon reliance on historically derived information, much of which was based on speculation and folklore, and to investigate flora and fauna for themselves and systematically record their studies. They traveled widely, collecting and dissecting specimens, read widely and discussed natural history with other naturalists. Willoughby died before any of their work was published, but Ray, financially supported by Willoughby's wife, continued and expanded their work, transcribing Willoughby's incomplete notes and formulating a system for the presentation of their studies. The Ornithologiae was eventually published, in Latin, with the help of the Royal Society, of which Willoughby had been a founding member.

From this beginning of The Wisdom of Birds, Birkhead charts the growth of ornithology as a scientific study. In doing so, he looks closely at the gradual development of knowledge about many aspects of bird life, including such topics as the debate about whether swallows migrate or hibernate in the mud each winter; when and how chickens' eggs obtain their shells; the claims that cockerels sometimes lay eggs; and how scientific knowledge has been influenced by religious beliefs. Birkhead charts the major developments and the most important discoveries, and he looks at the important contributions to ornithology made by many people (scientists and non-scientists) up to the present day.

Birkhead displays an infectious delight in his subject. Everywhere in The Wisdom of Birds facts are presented clearly and in easily digestible fashion, together with history, myth, folklore and anecdote. Just to read the table of Contents is tantalizing: Chapter 2, for example, is entitled "Seeing and Not Believing: From Egg to Chick," Chapter 9, "Darwin in Denial: Infidelity" and Chapter 10, "A Degenerate Life Corrupts: Reproduction and Longevity."

Make no mistake, however, this is a serious book and it discusses much serious scientific research. Yet it is a rewarding and enjoyable book for dipping into by anyone who is interested in birds, however serious or not their interest may be. It is written with wit and humour. It is full of curious and intriguing information. The illustrations, mostly taken from old books and manuscripts, are a delight. And above all, for an amateur bird-watcher like me, it is gratifying to note that even the most unacademic bird-watcher can make, and often has made, invaluable contributions to the ever growing knowledge of birds. In fact, whilst discussing the theory of pair-bonding which has been postulated to explain the display behaviour of grebes, Birkhead notes: "Saying that a particular behaviour helps to maintain the pair bond is merely another way of saying we have no real idea what it is for." He adds that "the idea of pair-bonding remains one of the big unexplored ideas in ornithology" and he throws out this challenge to his readers: "Any ideas?"


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