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Yearly Archives: 2014
Since the beginning of April Tim and I have been travelling and doing field work, with no time do post here. As a result we are going to close down this blog for a while, at least and will take it off-line at the end of May. Instead we will post more regularly on our Facebook site to keep up to date with events related to our book, and this website..
We still will occasionally write material to update and extend our book but will post all of that material on a new ESSAYS page listed under RESOURCES. Of the posts we have done so far, we will move the Henry Seebohm post and the Seabird Wrecks post to ESSAYS.
Early in April my family and I moved to a gîte in the small hamlet of Artigues in the French Pyrenees (picture to the right) where we have spent the past 3 spring months, while I worked on our book and conducted some small field studies of bird song and colour perception. This year I am developing a more in-depth study to look at the ability of birds to distinguish between colours in different parts of the spectrum. Some of that work will be done at the excellent CNRS research station in Moulis.
Tim, on the other hand, spent some time with his family in Gaucin, Spain, in April (photos below) and now is regularly back on Skomer where he has studied murres (guillemots) for the past 40+ years.
Getting away from the dreary end of a UK winter for a week in the Sri Lanka sun sounded irresistible. In the event, the UK had the mildest of winters and a veritable heat wave during the week I was away. Still, the UK couldn’t compete in terms of either sunshine or wildlife. Our first stop was Wilpattu National Park on the north west part of the island. Out of bounds until recently because of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Wilpattu is a haven for both birds and mammals and does not have too many tourists (unlike Yala NP in the south east). We were lucky enough to stay inside the park in a basic but comfortable bungalow overlooking a lake frequented by elephants, wild pigs, deer and a selection of birds. On our game drives we had spectacular sightings of leopard, for which the park is justly famous.
Wilpattu literally means land of little lakes and the central area of the park comprises a series shallow pans which attract many waders and herons. There were large numbers of pintailed snipe, Pacific golden plover, bar-tailed godwits, redshank, greenshank, woodsandpipers and many others. In the water itself there were pheasant tailed jacanas, black bittern, various egrets, grey and purple herons, open-billed storks, painted storks and woolly-necked storks. One of the most striking birds was the paradise flycatcher, the males – mostly of the white morph – floating like a white ribbon through the trees. On two occasions we saw white paradise flycatchers associated with back-naped monarchs (a beautiful cobalt blue flycatcher) and we were told by our guide that they often occur together. Why???
After Wilpattu we went to the north east of Sri Lanka, north of Trincomalee – another region that was off limits during the war. This is a dry area with relatively few people, although I predict that the beautiful coastline will soon be developed as a holiday destination. Lots of water bodies here and our main target was a huge wetland known as Kokkilai Bird Sanctuary – a massive, biologically productive lagoon. The birds were almost indifferent to the numerous fisherman: cormorants, herons, egrets, kites, sea eagles and many others.
Our final stop was Lion Rock, or Sigirya, a spectacular lump of rock some 200 m high situated smack in the middle of the island. Reaching the top involved a breath-taking (literally) climb up rickety steel ladders and steps, but it was worth it. Half-way up here are some great rock paintings of some special ethereal maidens. The view from the top was fabulous and included close views of the beautiful dark race of the peregrine.
Thinking of bird watching in Sri Lanka? I recommend it. The people are charming, the food is wonderful, and this time at least, there were very few mosquitos, and without trying too hard we clocked up around 120 bird species in just two main locations in 7 days.
16 March 2014
IMAGE CREDITS: Map from WorldAtlas.com; all other photos by Tim Birkhead
Dozens of dead seabirds washed up on beaches with no obvious cause of death, like oiling, are often referred to as ‘wrecks’. They have been known for centuries, and sometimes the birds even fly long distances inland before they die. Wrecks are usually caused by stormy weather. As storm after storm battered the west coast of Britain and France this year, I wondered whether we might see a wreck of seabirds.
And we have. Today, I heard that about 25,000 dead seabirds— mainly Atlantic Puffins, but also Common Guillemots [Common Murres] and Razorbills—have been found on France’s Atlantic coast, the Channel Islands, and Wales (see news here, here, here, and here).
Estimating the numbers of birds killed during wrecks is difficult, usually involving counts of dead birds on stretches of coastline, and then some extrapolation. But only a proportion of the birds that die at sea get washed up, so the true numbers killed by storms are higher, probably MUCH higher.
Persistent bad weather clearly makes it difficult for seabirds to forage, probably because rough seas cause fish shoals to disperse. Most birds found during wrecks are underweight and appear to have starved to death. Stormy conditions must also impose additional metabolic costs on the birds, to keep warm and fight currents and winds (Blake 1984).
The last two major wrecks in the UK occurred in the autumn of 1969 in the southern Irish Sea and in February 1983 on the east coast of Britain.
The 1969 wreck (Holdgate 1971) resulted in the death of at least 12,000 birds, mainly guillemots [referred to as murres in the Americas]. The effect of that wreck was apparent the following summer when counts on Skomer, an island off the southwest coast of Wales, revealed a large drop in the breeding population. Counts of breeding Common Guillemots started on Skomer in the early 1960s; indeed, this was the first location to initiate such annual counts and they proved their value for they demonstrated the number of birds lost as a result on the 1969 wreck. The counts continue to this day and are part of the important business of monitoring.
The 1969 wreck pushed the already-declining Skomer guillemot population to its lowest recorded level, to about 2000 pairs. To put this into perspective: I estimated from old photographs, that there may have been around 100,000 pairs of guillemots on Skomer in the 1930s, so the decline was immense, and the effect of the 1969 wreck almost catastrophic.
During the 1960s there was widespread concern about toxic chemicals, and it was thought that some kind of poisoning might have been responsible for the wreck, not least because there was no sign of any other mortality factor. The 1960s was also a time of widespread oil pollution killing seabirds (Votier et al. 2005), but those involved in the Irish seabirds wreck were not victims of oil.
The birds were underweight, and chemical analysis revealed high levels of PCBs, so it was thought that PCB poisoning might have been the cause of the mortality (Holdgate 1971). With hindsight it became clear that the wreck was the result of bad weather disrupting feeding, and the birds had starved. The birds had metabolized all their body reserves and in doing so had released PCBs stored in their body fat.
The wreck in February 1983, also followed a period of stormy weather, and resulted in 34,000 dead seabirds (31,600 auks, including 10,000 dead guillemots and 18,000 razorbills and 1600 puffins (Underwood & Stowe 1984). This was the largest wreck of auks so far in the UK.
The current wreck also seems to be due to the persistent westerly storms during the early part of 2014. The English Channel and the sea off northern France are all important wintering areas for guillemots – based on what we know from ringing [banding] recoveries (Votier et al. 2008). Razorbills winter in the same areas as guillemots, as far as we know, but puffins are renowned for wintering across the north Atlantic. The birds found dead will be from various breeding colonies, but it seems certain that it will include guillemots from Skomer. Puffins seem to be the main victims of the 2014 wreck with several thousand found dead so far. It seems likely that many of the birds killed in this wreck will be from the Skomer breeding colony.
The origins of these birds will undoubtedly be confirmed when we start to get ringing recoveries. Indeed, we have several already, three puffins, one razorbill and one guillemot all bearing a GLS tags, and all from Skomer Island. Given the relatively small number of auks bearing GLS devices on Skomer, this is an alarmingly high proportion. We don’t yet know whether there have been ringing [banding] recoveries of birds from other breeding colonies.
The effects of this wreck on the Skomer seabird populations will also be confirmed during our monitoring programme in 2014 – providing we obtain the funding to carry it out.
Since 1972 I have been monitoring the population biology of guillemots on Skomer (and since the mid-1980s I have done this in collaboration with my colleague Professor Ben Hatchwell at Sheffield University). Long-term studies are essential when birds are long-lived and guillemots are just that—wrecks apart, typically living 20-30 years. Since the 1960s successive island wardens have counted the total number of guillemots on the Skomer cliffs each year, and my group has monitored guillemot adult and immature survival, breeding success, timing of breeding and the chick’s diet. Such monitoring is vital for assessing the health of a population, but also for giving us a picture of the state of the marine environment (Votier et al. 2005; Meade et al 2012).
The tragedy is that after so many years of monitoring, our funds for this research have just dried up. The recently formed Natural Resources Wales (formerly Countryside Council for Wales CCW) have slashed budgets and as a consequence the long-term monitoring of Skomer’s guillemots has been terminated. So just at the time when the climate seems to fluctuating widely and when monitoring is most needed…
3 March 2014
FOLLOWUP: Michael McCarthy writes in THE INDEPENDENT on the seabird wreck and the disastrous funding cuts to research on the Skomer seabirds by Natural Resources Wales.
Blake, B. F. 1984 Diet sand fish stock availability as possible factors in the mass death of auks in the North sea. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 76L: 89-103
Holdgate, M. W. 1969. The Seabird Wreck of 1969 in the Irish Sea : a report by the Natural Environment Research Council. London.
Meade, J. Hatchwell, B. J., Blanchard, J. L. & T. R. Birkhead, 2012. The population increase of common guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer Isalnd is explained by intrinsic demographic properties. Journal of Avian Biology 43: 1-7.
Underwood, L.SA. & Stowe, T. J. 1984. Massive wreck of seabirds in eastern Britain in 1983. Bird Study 31: 79-88.
Votier SC, Hatchwell BJ, Beckerman A, McCleery RH and others (2005) Oil pollution and climate have wide-scale impacts on seabird demographics. Ecology Letters 8:1157–1164
Votier SC, Birkhead TR, Oro D, Trinder M and others (2008) Recruitment and survival of immature seabirds in relation to oil spills and climate variability. Journal of Animal Ecology 77: 974–983
IMAGE CREDITS: Map modified from Wikipedia Commons; puffin courtesy S. Kessel; razorbill courtesy J. Walmsley; guillemot courtesy B. Bueche
We are delighted that our book (with coauthor Jo Wimpenny) on the modern history of ornithology will be published today, by Princeton University Press. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin was the product of more than five years of hard work researching and writing, after several years of thinking and planning to undertake this project. Tim obtained some very welcome funding from the Leverhulme Trust to pay Jo’s salary for three years, and to cover the costs of travel and materials to research the book and interview ornithologists.
Princeton Press has really put this book together very nicely. The layout, fonts, paper, colour printing, dust jacket and binding are all superb, and the price seems to us to be remarkably low—if this were a college textbook the price would be five times higher, at least. They have also done a superb job of distributing the book to potential reviewers and you can read their reviews here. As of today there has been a handful of excellent reviews in advance of publication and we will continue to update that page of reviews as new ones appear.
At first, researching and writing a book like this—covering all of ornithology since the middle of the 19th century seemed a daunting, if not impossible, task given the huge volume of published material on birds since Darwin’s day. Maybe this is why nobody had tried this before . But we were fortunate both to get essential funding from the Leverhulme Trust and to be starting this project just as the internet was beginning to make available a wealth of historical material in the form of both published works and photographs. Even after we started work in earnest in 2008, the online BioDiversity Heritage Library, for example, added dozens of ornithological works from the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Without such internet resources tracking down an obscure reference, or determining what Thomas Henry Huxley had to say about birds and dinosaurs, would have taken weeks or months instead of minutes or hours. The web continues to burgeon with historical material about ornithology and we will do our best to keep you abreast of this material on this blog.
We were also very fortunate to know lots of great ornithologists personally. Tim did his PhD with Chris Perrins and worked with David Lack; Bob did his PhD with Peter Grant—and the works of Lack, Grant and Perrins figure significantly in several of our chapters. We personally interviewed another 50 professional ornithologists who made substantial contributions to the development of ornithology in the latter part of the 20th century. Without all of these personal connections it would have been extremely difficult to bring life to their stories and context to their discoveries.
We also had invaluable help from librarians and museums, where much of the historical material is stored in the form of books and notebooks, as well as literally millions of bird and egg specimens. Bob went to school at McGill University in Montreal where he got to know the wonderful Blacker-Wood Library of Zoology and Ornithology and its librarian, Eleanor MacLean. Eleanor, who is recently retired, gave us unprecedented access to their vast collections of rare material. Similarly, Tim and Jo both went to Oxford and were able to get access to historical materials from the Alexander Library of Ornithology there, one of the finest ornithological library in the world. Clair Castle, Librarian at The Balfour and Newton Library in the Zoology Department at Cambridge University was simply fantastic at about allowing us access and locating historical material for us, often on very short notice. Curators and staff of the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History (Joel Cracraft, George Barrowclough, Mary LeCroy and Paul Sweet) in New York, and at the Natural History Museum at Tring, UK, allowed us to explore their collections and historical archives so that we could learn more about those great institutions, probably the finest two ornithological museums in the world. Visiting those two museums took us back into the very history of ornithology.
Our biggest disappointment in writing this book is that we had to leave so much out. Had we included all of the interesting material that we gathered, the book would have run to 10,000 pages instead of 500. It seems to us a shame to keep all of that material to ourselves so we hope to ‘publish’ much of it on this blog in the hopes both that others will find it interesting and future historians of ornithology will not have to redo some of the research that we have already done. To that end we will also publish here the audio and video recordings of the interviews we conducted, and the huge collection of largely never-before-published collection of photographs and drawings that we could not put in the book.
Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie
26 February 2014
PHOTO CREDITS: Bob Montgomerie
After my good friend Jürgen Haffer died in 2010, his widow sent me some of his books. These included the 1976 reprint of Henry Seebohm’s Birds of Siberia, originally published in 1880 as Siberia in Europe, recounting his two monumental journeys to Siberia. I hadn’t previously read it, but I found it a revelation and one that captures a distinctive era of ornithology.
Seebohm (1832-1895) lived in Sheffield, northern England, where he owned a steel manufacturing business. He used his wealth to undertake ornithological collecting trips, including two to Siberia: one to the Petchora River in 1875, the other in 1877 to the Yensei River.
At first sight Birds of Siberia appears to be little more than a list of birds shot, interspersed with notes on the anthropology of the Samoyed people. As I was reading, I wished I had kept a list of the species and numbers collected—but I then discovered that the last chapter gives the full score from his first trip: about 1000 skins of 110 species and 600 eggs.
At one level we think of this kind of slaughter as shocking because it wouldn’t happen today. On the other hand, we shouldn’t judge Seebohm by today’s ethical or scientific standards. There were undoubtedly many more birds then and this was the way ornithology was conducted in the late 1800s. Seebohm would have been equally shocked if we had told him that in hundred years time ornithologists would be studying the personalities of birds (and in the future, we’ll look back on that too with amazemen
After shooting some ridiculously tame yellow-browed warblers, a Siberian chiff-chaff and a European willow warbler, Seebohm wrote ‘it seems too bad to shoot these charming little birds, but as the “Old Bushman” says, what is hit is history, and what is missed is mystery’ [italics in the original: I’m not sure who the ‘Old Bushman’ is, and curiously, that phrase is attributed on Wikipedia to the childrens’ author Arthur Ransome from a later date: Ransome presumably read either Seebohm or the Old Bushman].
I wondered what happened to all those shot birds? Seebohm and his companions ate the flesh of those they considered palatable, such as hazel grouse and golden plover. But where are all those study skins? Did any survive? My own departmental museum—the Alfred Denny Museum (http://www.shef.ac.uk/alfred-denny-museum)—of which I am curator, boasts a mounted pair black grouse from Archangel, Siberia, collected and donated by Seebohm. Many of his other specimens—both taxidermic mounts and study skins—are in Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum, and some are in the Natural History Museum (BMNH) at Tring.
As Seebohm discovered, the switch from winter to summer in Siberia occurs without the pleasnatries of spring, and is heralded by the northward sweep of vast numbers of migrant shorebirds, landbirds, wildfowl and raptors. Seebohm watched in awe, overwhelmed by the incontrovertible evidence for migration before his eyes, reflecting that only a few decades previously the very existence of migration had been in doubt. By the 1870s, however, migration was considered the greatest of ornithological mysteries. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then to find tucked away amidst the list of birds shot and eggs collected, Seebohm includes two fascinating chapters on migration, summarizing both the current state of knowledge and his own his views.
Later, Seebohm presciently identified daylength as the proximate cue timing the onset of migration. Apparently no one noticed. A few years previously, in 1870, the Finnish poet Johan Runeberg had suggested the same idea in one of his poems—but that idea was squashed by Alfred Newton[RD1] , the pompous old man of Victorian era ornithology. We don’t know whether Sebohm knew of Runeberg’s poem, probably not. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the idea took hold, thanks to a publication by the physiologist William Sharpey. The full story is told in The Wisdom of Birds (Birkhead 2008:181-184).
The main purpose of Seebohm’s life-long ornithological work was—like that of all serious ornithologists of the day—to study the classification and geographical distribution of birds. His trips to Siberia revealed marked geographic differences in plumage and size in species he was familiar with in Europe: ‘the Siberian form of the lesser spotted woodpecker … has the whole of the under parts unspotted silky white…It is larger than the South European form… ‘. The Siberian form of the nuthatch…is another case in point. Examples from the Yenesei, and also from the north island of Japan, have the underparts almost pure white’.
It was because of this geographic variation that Seebohm favoured the trinomial system of nomenclature (TTB: 90): ‘Here again the confirmed habit of the older ornithologists of either treating these little differences as specific, or of ignoring them altogether, is much to be deplored …. I venture to suggest, as a punishment for their delinquencies, that they should be exiled to Siberia for a summer to learn to harmonise their system of nomenclature with the facts of nature’.
Alfred Newton despised Seebohm, saying this of his books: ‘downright errors and wild conjectures there are enough, and they are confidently asserted with the misuse of language and absence of reasoning power that mark all the author’s writings, though the air of scientific treatment … has deluded many an unwary reader’ (Newton 1896: 44 n 1). On the other hand, Mullens and Swan (1917) wrote that: ‘Seebohm’s name will ever rank high among those of British ornithologists, not only as the author of one of the most important histories of British birds, but as … a successful businessman…[and who became] a really scientific ornithologist’.
It seems to me that Seebohm has been overlooked and his ornithological work, especially that on migration and systematics, would benefit from a present-day appraisal. Jürgen Haffer knew this, and just before he died was beginning to research Seebohm. Indeed, his copy of Birds of Siberia that I inherited has a few pencil annotations, marking passages he felt were significant. Someone needs to take up the challenge.
Birkhead TR. 2008. The Wisdom of Birds. London: Bloomsbury.
Mullens WH, Swann HK. 1917. A Bibliography of British Ornithology. London: Witherby & Co.
Newton A. 1896. A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
Seebohm H. 1880. Siberia in Europe. London: John Murray.
TTB= Birkhead T, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie B. 2014. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
…Tim Birkhead 2 January 2014
Today is Charles Darwin’s 205th birthday and a fine winter’s day to launch a new blog about ornithology, the scientific study of birds. We had hoped to lunch our new book on the modern history of ornithology today, but it will not be available for general distribution until Feb 26th, two weeks from now. You can read about it here, and on the other pages at this website. We are excited about this book, and it has already had some very gratifying reviews by both professional ornithologists and birders.
This blog is an offshoot of our extensive research on the history of ornithology that began with Tim’s The Wisdom of Birds, an overview of the entire history of ornithology, and culminating with our new book (with Jo Wimpenny) that focuses on the study of birds over the past 150 years, Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin.
We began those projects in part because we realized how little our students and bird-minded colleagues knew about the history of our discipline. Our research students sometimes claim that anything published before 2000 is too old to be relevant, and our professional colleagues rarely have the time to read the general ornithological literature any more—as we point out in Ten Thousand Birds, more papers were published about birds in 2010 than in the entire period from Darwin to the end of the twentieth century. Most important, we realized from our own forays into the old literature that there is a wealth of ideas, data, inspiration, and lessons to be had there [see reading list below].
We wrote Ten Thousand Birds to bring some of that historical material to a more general audience in a manner that we felt would be both interesting and accessible. In the process of writing, we realized that we would have to leave out much more than we included. This was necessary because the book would have otherwise been too large both for any publisher and for any reader to feel engaged for very long. So, what we put into both of those books is an eclectic mix that we felt were particularly interesting stories about subjects where the study of birds made important contributions to biology and to science in general.
We now want to use this blog in part to tell about the wealth of material that we were not able to cover in those books. Our goal is to focus on the study of birds especially where we can provide some interesting historical context. To that end we will blog about interesting people in the history of ornithology, as well as modern discoveries about birds where we can provide some interesting historical background. We will also write about our own adventures as professional ornithologists and sometime birders.
This is not another birder blog but we hope that birders read and contribute comments. There are dozens of excellent birder blogs out there including, in alphabetical order: ABA blog, Another Bird Blog, Bill of the Birds, BirdChick, BirdWatching, Stokes Birding Blog, and 10,000 Birds.
This blog, Myriad Birds, is instead focussed on the scientific study of birds. We have been ornithologists for more than 100 years in total (we started young!) so we have a wealth of experience to bring to this blog. Tim has studied birds in Africa, Europe and North America, while Bob has spent most of his research time in North America and Australia. We are both interested in sexual selection and sperm competition but we have also published on mating systems, migration, song, breeding biology, foraging behaviour, parental care, genetics, and anatomy. Our intention is to blog about current research that catches our interest as well as about people, bird art, books, photos, and discoveries that we simply had no room to put in our books. In the course of writing Ten Thousand Birds we also interviewed about 50 working ornithologists and we will post those interviews here as well, as time permits.
Our initial goal is to publish a new post every Monday and the occasional additional post during the week. We are both busy academics so even this seems like a daunting prospect. We suggest you subscribe to our RSS feed to get weekly updates by email, and also to our Facebook and Twitter feeds if you are into social media. For now, we will moderate your comments before they are posted on the blog. If you have suggestions for subjects that you’d like to read about, especially if they have a potentially interesting historical context, send us a note on our website’s Comments & Feedback page.
Our blog title Myriad Birds is a bit cryptic. There are, of course, myriad birds—though the numbers of both species and individuals are dwindling at an alarming rate. The English word myriad, however, derives from the Greek word μυριάδες (myriades) which is the number 10,000, approximately the number of bird species in the world, and the reason for the title of our new book. In English, the word myriad has come to mean ‘some big number’ but we like the Greek definition when talking about birds.
Ultimately this blog is about birds. Today in Kingston, Ontario, where Bob lives (and works at Queen’s University) it’s a frosty –23°C but sunny so the chickadees are trying out their spring songs, the juncos are lingering near the feeder waiting for one of the (too) many local grey squirrels to leave, and a peregrine is calling somewhere in the distance; in Sheffield, UK, where Tim lives (and works at the Univ of Sheffield) it is a much balmier 6°C and there are three pairs of bullfinches on his feeders, and pair of Peregrines in the University’s nest box [webcam link].
Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie
12 February 2014
Readings (some of our papers on the history of ornithology)
Birkhead, T. R., Schulze-Hagen, K. & Kinzelbach, R. 2004. Domestication of the canary Serinus canaria – the change from green to yellow. Archives of Natural History, 31, 50-56.
Birkhead, T. R., Butterworth, E. & van Balen, S. 2006. A recently discovered seventeenth century French encyclopadeia of ornithology. Archives of Natural History, 33, 109-134.
Birkhead, T. R. & van Balen, S. 2008. Bird-keeping and the development of ornithological science. Archives of Natural History, 35, 281-305.
Charmantier, I., Greengrass, M. & Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Jean-Baptiste Faultrier´s Traitté general des Oyseaux (1660): an evaluation. Archives of Natural History, 35, 319-338.
Charmantier, I. & Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Willughby’s angel: the pintailed sandgrouse (Pterrocles alchata). Journal for Ornithology, 149, 469-472.
Montgomerie, R. & Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Samuel Pepys’ hand-coloured copy of John Ray’s ‘The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1678). Journal of Ornithology.
Schulze-Hagen, K., Stokke, B. & Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Reproductive biology of the European cuckoo Cuculus canorus: early insights, persistent errors and the acquisition of knowledge. Journal for Ornithology, 150, 1-16.
Birkhead, T.R. & Gallivan, P.T. 2012. Alfred Newton’s contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis 154: 887-905