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Ten Thousand Birds

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin

Tim Birkhead
Jo Wimpenny
Bob Montgomerie
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    Ten Thousand Birds
    Book Description:

    Ten Thousand Birdsprovides a thoroughly engaging and authoritative history of modern ornithology, tracing how the study of birds has been shaped by a succession of visionary and often-controversial personalities, and by the unique social and scientific contexts in which these extraordinary individuals worked. This beautifully illustrated book opens in the middle of the nineteenth century when ornithology was a museum-based discipline focused almost exclusively on the anatomy, taxonomy, and classification of dead birds. It describes how in the early 1900s pioneering individuals such as Erwin Stresemann, Ernst Mayr, and Julian Huxley recognized the importance of studying live birds in the field, and how this shift thrust ornithology into the mainstream of the biological sciences. The book tells the stories of eccentrics like Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, a pathological liar who stole specimens from museums and quite likely murdered his wife, and describes the breathtaking insights and discoveries of ambitious and influential figures such as David Lack, Niko Tinbergen, Robert MacArthur, and others who through their studies of birds transformed entire fields of biology.

    Ten Thousand Birdsbrings this history vividly to life through the work and achievements of those who advanced the field. Drawing on a wealth of archival material and in-depth interviews, this fascinating book reveals how research on birds has contributed more to our understanding of animal biology than the study of just about any other group of organisms.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4883-6
    Subjects: Zoology, History of Science & Technology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xix)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Yesterday’s Birds
    (pp. 1-41)

    LATE ONE HOT AUGUST EVENING IN 1964, near Bridger, Montana, the paleontologist John Ostrom and his assistant, Greg Meyer, made a discovery that revolutionized the study of ancient birds. Toward the end of a hard day in the field, they spotted, in the slanted light, some claws and bones protruding from the reddish-brown soil. Scrambling to the spot, they began digging with the only tools they had at hand—a jackknife, a small paintbrush, and a whisk broom. Rapidly running out of natural light, they marked the location so they could resume work the next morning. Given the fossil’s sickle-like...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Origin and Diversification of Species
    (pp. 43-73)

    DAVID LACK’SDARWIN’S FINCHES, PUBLISHED in 1947, was, like many of his other books (chapter 5), utterly transformative. The mere act of collecting and analyzing data for the book metamorphosed Lack from a virtually unknown Devonshire schoolmaster to director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology at Oxford, arguably the most prestigious post in the world of ornithology in those days. The book itself was a powerful confirmation of the strength of the emerging Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology described later in this chapter. Lack popularized the common name¹ of these finches and promoted the legend of Darwin’s discovery...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Birds on the Tree of Life
    (pp. 75-115)

    WALTER ROTHSCHILD WAS AT ONE TIME A very rich man. Heir to the Rothschild banking empire, he was born to wealth and privilege. His father, Natty, was one of the great Jewish bankers of nineteenth-century Britain, head of the family’s merchant bank,¹ who built a vast fortune from venture financing, diamonds, the Suez Canal, and loans to needy governments. By the time Walter was born, the family was arguably the wealthiest in the world—but Walter was passionate about birds and butterflies, and it soon became obvious that he would not follow in his father’s footsteps. Fortunately for Walter, his...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Ebb and Flow
    (pp. 117-159)

    IN THE AUTUMN OF 1903 FIFTY-YEAR OLD William Eagle Clarke was ferried by tender from Blackwall in the Thames estuary twenty-one miles out into the North Sea to the Kentish Knock lightship, his home for the next month. Life on those lightships was “one of considerable hardship and discomfort,”¹ yet Clarke was excited by the prospect of what he might discover. He was one of a small group of ornithologists appointed by the British Association and directed by Alfred Newton to study bird migration. After several years of compiling information collected by others on migrant birds from around the British...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Ecological Adaptations for Breeding
    (pp. 161-199)

    SWIFTS ARE AMONG THE MOST EXTREME birds—superbly adapted for high-speed life in the air. Short-legged (hence their family nameApodidae, meaning “footless”), long winged, and highly streamlined, swifts were once known as “devil birds.” In his bookThe Inner Bird,Gary Kaiser describes how a 100-gram (3.5-ounce) White-collared Swift he caught in the Andes “lay stiffly in my hand, more like a model plane than a living creature.”¹ The complete antithesis of a typical soft and fluffy small bird, swifts are fast flyers that feed, sleep, and copulate on the wing.

    In 1946 David Lack and his wife, Elizabeth,...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Form and Function
    (pp. 201-243)

    IN NOVEMBER 1998 KEVIN MCCRACKEN traveled from Louisiana State University to Argentina to collect specimens for a study of duck systematics. Impressed by the size of the male Lake Duck’s cloacal swelling, McCracken dissected out the phallus from the little pouch in which it is stored when not in use and was overwhelmed by its size and bizarre spiny appearance. At 20 centimeters (8 inches) long, the penis of this bird is larger than that known in any other duck. Describing his findings inThe Auk, McCracken speculated that the Lake Duck’s phenomenal phallus may have evolved through sexual selection...

  10. CHAPTER 7 The Study of Instinct
    (pp. 245-285)

    IT IS LATE AFTERNOON ON AN EARLY WINTER evening; a flock of Common Starlings is foraging busily in a grassy field. A Peregrine Falcon appears high in the sky, and the starlings crouch in fear. As the raptor glides away, apparently uninterested, the starlings resume feeding in the grass. They eventually take flight in an untidy flock and head toward their roost. Suddenly the peregrine is back, and in an instant the starlings bunch together in flight, weaving and undulating in unison as the raptor swoops at them. The peregrine is trying to break up the flock and isolate a...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Behavior as Adaptation
    (pp. 287-321)

    BY THE EARLY 1970S THE FIELD STUDY OF animal behavior was in need of new ideas and new approaches. Not surprisingly, then, the experimental, hypothesis testing, evolutionary-based advent of sociobiology and behavioral ecology was enthusiastically welcomed, especially by younger researchers. Selection thinking triggered a major change in attitude and ultimately generated a new corpus of knowledge (Birkhead and Monaghan 2010).

    As with all revolutions, there was resistance, especially from the old guard. John Krebs and Nick Davies, editors of the textbookBehavioural Ecology(1978), bore the brunt of this criticism in Britain. Krebs¹ told us: “I recall going to give...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Selection in Relation to Sex
    (pp. 323-353)

    IN KENYA’S FERTILE GREEN HIGHLANDS, thirty-three-year-old Swedish ornithologist Malte Andersson is on vacation with his wife, escaping the worst of a Scandinavian winter. Every few minutes a male Long-tailed Widowbird emerges from the long grass in a magical floating display flight. Like a black sparrow sporting a tail 50 centimeters (20 inches) long, the male widowbird is distinctly unbirdlike. The female, on the other hand, is dull, brown, and all but tailless. Seeing the male display for the first time, Andersson is captivated.

    A bird watcher since childhood but with an interest in physics, Andersson trained first as an engineer....

  13. CHAPTER 10 Population Studies of Birds
    (pp. 355-387)

    IN OCTOBER 1962 ROBERT MACARTHUR, A talented, thirty-two-year-old bird ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania wrote to David Lack in Oxford:

    My main motive for writing is the understanding derived from Gordon Orians and Evelyn Hutchinson that you are contemplating a book whose purpose would be in part to refute Wynne-Edwards. May I take the liberty to urge you not to? . . . First, I think the quickest and surest fate of incorrect science is oblivion. . . . Second, and more important, I am sure that an analysis of group selection would be premature.¹

    Four months later, in...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Tomorrow’s Birds
    (pp. 389-424)

    SPIX’S MACAW IS ONE OF THE LARGEST AND most spectacular parrots in the world. It is also balancing on the brink of extinction, and in the wild it is almost certainly extinct. A victim of habitat loss in its native Brazil and a corrupt global cage-bird trade, Spix’s Macaw currently (2013) consists of around just eighty-five captive individuals held at five locations around the world. Most are derived from a single breeding pair and are so inbred they are effectively clones of each other: clones with an unlikely future.

    Discovered by Johann Baptist von Spix in 1817, the species was...

    (pp. 425-430)

    WHY IS IT THAT WE KNOW MORE ABOUT THE biology of birds than almost any other group of animals? What has driven ornithology to its current level of sophistication? In our opinion, four things: people, education, funding, and technology—and in that order. It is clear from our survey of developments since Darwin that particular individuals have played a key role in promoting ornithology through the twentieth century: most notably Stresemann, Mayr, and Lack. Through their personality and intellectual attributes, these individuals changed the nature of ornithology: Stresemann in the 1920s to 1940s for recognizing that there was more to...

    (pp. 431-433)
    (pp. 434-442)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 443-466)
    (pp. 467-496)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 497-518)
    (pp. 519-524)