Ten Thousand Birds

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Excerpts from some of the reviews of the book, most recent first:

Staffan Ulfstrand in Vår Fägelvärld in Dec 2014, translated from the Swedish

Here we have a very different book – a heavyweight of two kilograms and 525 pages with content that mixes ornithological research progress up to the present with detailed information about the scientists who made important contributions in this success story. It is elegantly written and superbly illustrated and a real treasure trove especially for anyone who is interested not only in research but also in bird researchers.

Joanna Burger in the Journal of Field Ornithology, fall 2014

This fascinating, wide-ranging synthesis of ornithological history since Darwin brings a mix of science, discovery, innovation, eccentricity, and personality to ornithology. Perhaps more impor- tantly, it brings to life some of the people who made some basic contributions, illustrating how they made their discoveries, and the birds that induced them to pursue ornithology…This book is an incredible and impressive tale of discovery.

Walter G. Ellison in THE MAYLAND YELLOWTHROAT newsletter of the Maryland Ornithological Society

This book is noteworthy in presenting an excellent broad overview of developments in ornithology over the last fifty years. Earlier accounts have been more concerned with how the field originated. This also is a lucidly written, engaging account that makes it clear that the study of birds is a human endeavor and a labor of love for those who engage in it…Above all this book provides an account of how science is done in the real world by real people with all of the strengths, flaws and vanities of real people. It shows how good science is done and that even scientific dead-ends and near misses are valuable in contributing to good and lasting agreement in science.

Nikilad at BIRDINGNZ.net, on 25 Sept 2014

it’s a fairly exhaustive review of the history of ornithology since Charles Darwin. As a non-academic I found it heavy going at times but just as I was losing interest the book would discuss some interesting area of research, or a researcher’s peculiar discovery in the middle of their own study.

YC Wee at the BIRD ECOLOGY STUDY GROUP blog, 16 Sept 2014

My favourite chapters are those on bird behaviour. After all, the Bird Ecology Study Group has been encouraging local as well as regional birdwatchers to look beyond the plumage since its started this website a decade ago.

Greg Laden in GREG LADEN’S BLOG at National Geographic on 13 Sept 2014

This could serve as a very readable core of a college elective in the history of science, though it is certainly not a textbook. Richly illustrated, well written, engaging.

Laurence A. Marschall in NATURAL HISTORY, Sept 2014

What makes this book so desirable, rather, is its authoritative review of the most pivotal discoveries in avifauna of the last 150 years, especially as they fit into broader general themes of science. The authors…have created a series of thematic essays, each one exploring the development of a major idea, such as the emergence of birds from dinosaurs, the divergence of species under various selection mechanisms, or the significance of avian social behavior. Complex ideas also develop within the framework of a historical narrative, with ornithologists appearing as characters in an unfolding story.

Rob Bijlsma in the ornithological journal ARDEA.

Ten Thousand Birds should be compulsory reading for biology students, particularly as many refrain from delving into knowledge that is not digitalised, older than five years or exceeding ten pages of text. How can you do science not knowing the shoulders on which you stand, the fallacies that come and go (but may persist for decades), the idiosyncrasies of protagonists of past and present theories, the many wonderful books that have been published and that grace progressively fewer homes…Pick up this book, and you will be rewarded with a treasure trove. 

Andy Stoddard on his blog; full review here

In short, this is a masterly overview of a broad and complex subject, comprehensive and well written. As a general reader/birdwatcher (and an avowed non-scientist) I just about managed to keep up with the flow. In the process I found ample evidence of science’s capacity to be reductive, cold and inward-looking but I was also pleased to find a proper recognition of three generations of personal science-writing heroes – Heinrich Gätke, Rachel Carson and Ian Newton – all of whom write not just with with clarity and precision but with enthusiasm and genuine passion. These authors are consummate communicators whose writings transcend traditional ornithology to reach audiences far beyond the world of academia.

Happily, this book also falls into this category. It should be required reading for ornithology students, providing an essential context for their studies, but it will also appeal to the general reader and birdwatcher too, providing ample confirmation of the contribution which ornithological science has made to our understanding of birds and the wider natural world.

Stephen Bodio in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s magazine LIVING BIRD, summer 2014.

The scientific exposition and explanation is every bit as good as the biogra- phies, but far more difficult to summarize. The authors’ accounts of evolution, sexual selection, behavioral ecology, and such concepts as cladistics, which is need- lessly considered arcane, are as good as and more detailed than any I know of in recent scientific journalism. Ten Thousand Birds is as informative as an encyclopedia and 10 times more fun, and it will remain a standard for some time to come. It also features beautiful illustrations and a fas- cinating list of ornithologists, many with photos.

Michael Collins review in the ornithological journal THE AUK, July 2014. Full review is here.

Ten Thousand Birds highlights the major scientific advances in ornithology since Darwin and brings to life the scientists who made these discoveries. The selection of topics is superb. Well-researched, clearly written, and nicely illustrated, this book is enjoyable to read and would make a wonderful addition to personal and institutional libraries alike.

Helen MacDonald review in the TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT on 4 June 2014. Full review is behind a paywall here.

Ten Thousand Birds sits squarely within a long tradition of celebratory, presentist and heroic insider histories of science. But unlike many historiographically sophisticated works on the cultural history of science, it gives us the science itself, and it does so superbly. It is therefore an inspiring and formidable resource for the historian as well as the fledgling scientist.

Natalie Lawrence reviews our book in the journal STUDIES IN HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY OF BIOLOGICAL AND MEDICAL SCIENCES, June 2014. Full review will appear here (once the full issue has been compiled)

Writing of more recent ornithological developments might seem more rigorously academic, and indeed Ten thousand birds is so. However, Birkhead, Wimpenny and Montgomerie portray their material in such a way as to make it of great value to both the ornithological community and the non-ornithologist. One way in which they manage this is by imbuing their text with the same sense of wonder at the avian world that is so evident in Drawn from paradise. Apart from the many photographs and artistic plates of birds and their ornithologists, Birkhead et al. portray the conceptual engagement with birds in a particularly appealing way. 

David Callahan review in BIRDWATCH (UK) magazine, June 2014 (review not available on-line, but magazine website is here).

There have been many histories of ornithology published in recent years, and all go into varying degrees of well-researched detail. However, they remain histories, essentially chronological lists of scientific developments—interesting and erudite, but often quite dry. To give these stories a lift, it is the introduction of the humans involved and their personalities that is often needed, and this book provides such interest in spades.

Dr Alan Knox review in the journal BRITISH BIRDS 107:373-374, June 2014. Not available online.

The writing is clear and elegant and the diversity of subject matter ensures that there is something to interest everyone. More than that, the authors provide an excellent overview of ornithological science as it is today…Descriptions of the sometimes convoluted path that ornithological research has followed provide human dimensions to findings that have for long been reported in journals devoid of emotion or personal detail. As a consequence, Ten Thousand Birds helps to show how science works, with its attendant joys and disappointments…[This book] is an outstanding contribution to the genre, skilfully doubling as a text covering many of the most exciting developments on the subject. Readers of British Birds will find much to enjoy and learn within its weighty pages, at a price that is extraordinarily good value.

Anonymous review in BIRDWATCHING (USA) magazine, June 2014. Not available online but magazine website is here)

An editorial tenet of this magazine has long held that how we learn can be just as interesting as what we learn. This fine book proves the point.

Henry T. Armistead review in the LIBRARY JOURNAL on 19 May 2014. Full review here.

This is the best history of ornithology ever. Most others are dated, focus on a limited period, or concern defined geographical areas….Hundreds of these remarkable scientists receive consideration, including Jared Diamond, Konrad Lorenz, Roger Tory Peterson, and E.O. Wilson. What might have been a clunky, laborious catalog of often arcane academic endeavors is instead very readable and comprehensible, as well as comprehensive. ​

Derek Lovitch book review on his MAINE BIRDING FIELD NOTES blog, 10 May 2014. Full review here.

This is not your run of the mill dry, boring textbook. The authors make it personal, and make it engaging by  emphasizing the people involved. They want you to not just read about discoveries, but join the researchers as  they make them – and embroil in controversies surrounding them…. the authors were more than willing to call a spade a spade and that is refreshing; sugar-coating of controversies was held to a minimum. I loved that. Prosaic and engaging writing keeps the reader interested,  and allows the non-scientist to absorb the wealth of information.

Claire Spottiswoode

Claire Spottiswoode book review in TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION, 10 April 2014. Full review here.

Energetic and direct, each story is galvanised by the authors’ enthusiasm and expertise. They equally relish the ideas and the characters that populate them, and do not shrink from telling it how it is…The book is as fascinating about the messy business of doing science as it is about the progression of ideas…This heady mix of ideas, discoveries and personalities left me feel- ing reinvigorated about my own small corner of the field. The book’s vast scope inevitably leaves the reader wanting more, which is of course the best way to be beguiled.

Dave Lewis at his BIRDING FROM BEHIND blog, on 23 March 2014

I’ve had this book for a while now…and I’m still reading it! Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie did a fantastic job with this book. I’m one of those short attention span folks…if it has more than ten pages and isn’t illustrated on every page, I’ll fall asleep. I was surprised and delighted when I discovered that this rather large and detailed tome was so easily readable.

Bob Grant capsule review in THE SCIENTIST magazine, 1 March 2014. Full review here.

Class Aves is a colorful and diverse group of organisms. But the scientists who’ve studied the winged animals for the past century are every bit as eccentric and fascinating—rare birds indeed! Ten Thousand Birds, a new book from veteran ornithologists Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie, together with animal behaviorist Jo Wimpenny, delves into ornithology’s recent history….The book is also full of useful information. It’s chock-full of interesting facts about birds and about how their study has evolved, making it essential reading for the ornithologically minded.

Dan Kunkle in a review forthcoming in Wildlife Activist, a publication of the Leigh Gap Nature Center in Pennsylvania. Thanks to Dan for allowing us to put an excerpt here in advance of publication.

The amount of scholarship and research done by these authors is astounding and the book is an amazingly enlightening, readable and enjoyable tome of over 500 pages. With a price tag of only $45, this is a bargain for the value of its extensive scholarship, literary excellence, and its appendices and bibliography. This is not a book for bird listers. It is a book for anyone fascinated about birds as organisms in dynamic ecosystems. And it is especially for those interested in how science progresses historically. I highly recommend Ten Thousand Birds for all students and practitioners of biological or ecological sciences and research, for conservationists and naturalists, and for anyone interested in the who, why, how, and when of ornithological research. I was captivated.

Mark Avery on his MARK AVERY blog, 2 March 2014. Full review here.

Mark Avery

This is a wonderful book… it is right up my street and it will be a book to which I return, often, over many years…Throughout the book, there are accounts by (surviving) major players in ornithology of how they became interested in birds and the way they have tackled their studies of birds. These are very good – I liked them a lot. Some of the people given this treatment are friends of mine, others are people I know, some are people whose papers I have read and a few are new to me completely. This approach gave the book a very human feel. The greatest ornithologists are still people – and this book brought out their humanity…If you read this book you will learn about birds – and birds are wonderful creatures! You will learn about the way the natural world works – and how birds have helped us to understand that (and that is worth knowing). And you will learn about the people, the mostly rather pleasant people, the ornithologists, who have shared a love of birds and disclosed the workings of nature to us. Birds are amazing! Ornithologists aren’t bad either.

It’s difficult to write about the history of ideas in an engaging way but the authors have carried it off very well.

Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy at the INDEPENDENT VOICES blog, published by THE INDEPENDENT, 24 February 2014. At the end of a post about saving the endangered Tahiti Monarch, here.

On the surface a history of modern ornithology, this is actually a riveting review of all the ways in which the study of birds has contributed to science in general over the past century and a half.

Vastly learned but entertainingly written, it focuses not only on ornithological developments but also on the scientists who made and are still making them, telling their stories in detail. There’s never been anything quite like it, and the illustrations are exquisite.

Steve Brenner on the NEMESIS BIRD blog, 21 February 2014. Full review here.

Steve Brenner

I was a big fan of this book because it’s all about the the process. As someone who has dabbled in field research (at the low end of the totem pole), I really enjoyed the in-depth and educational accounts of past research. Who knew about the vast array of migration hypotheses and tests that occurred during the 20th century? Who knew that storks pierced with tribal arrows were some of the first indicators of wintering grounds? We have clearly moved from the world being flat to figuring out it’s round in our recent ornithological past. It’s inspiring to see that research is able to shake up our understanding of things we ‘know’ to things that ‘are.’ If you are someone who appreciates the science behind birds, you will love this book. Even if you’re a scientific history buff with a casual fancy for birds, you’ll enjoy this book. With a beautiful cover, crisp illustrated timelines, and gorgeous chapter paintings, this book will hold a solid spot on any bookshelf.

“CapeCodAlan” at the ebBirdseed.com blog, 20 February 2014. Full review here.

…I have never read anything like this before. It’s part historical (relative to science in general and ornithology in particular), biographical, and story telling. It is a telling (not lecturing) of the maturation of ornithology since 1860. The authors have walked that fine line between superb research and scientific context, and making their work palpable for mere humans. This a book for the ornithologists obviously, but also for all scientists, for teachers, and even the adventurous. It’s for biographers, editors, and writers. Serious readers will also probably enjoy this too.

Finally, a couple of observations: First, I wouldn’t suggest that you plow your way through this text.. That’s like trying to wolf your way through an eight-course meal and then grasp the nuances of the lobster bisque. Take it one chapter at a time, highlight, make notes, and mull. Secondly, Each chapter has a time line stretching from 1860 to 2010. Use it as a guidepost for that chapter. And don’t be afraid to bounce between time lines. As I said, this book is woven together. All told, remarkable stuff…

Adrian Barnett in NEW SCIENTIST magazine, 17 February 2014. See the full review here.

…lovingly well-researched and beautifully written,Ten Thousand Birds is huge without being tome-like, fact-packed without being overwhelming, and has truly breathtaking scope.

As the authors admit, they don’t cover everything, but with 11 chapters ranging from palaeontology, reproductive control and anatomy to instinct, sexual selection and conservation, they have a good try. Each chapter follows conceptual advances in an area, which, taken together, show the development of modern ornithology and its strong influence on science.

There have been other histories of ornithology, and the authors have clearly examined them and worked out how to avoid the pitfalls. A clear narrative laid out in the foreword, innovative timelines at the start of each chapter, and lucid, jargon-free writing on technical topics mean that this book is definitive, absorbing and highly recommended. A sentence one can rarely write.

Anonymous at the American Press Travel News blog. Full review here.

And yet another Princeton University Press spectacular book has reached my desk. The book is for the birder and every nature lover, not just serious watchers of colored wings, breasts and beaks…[the authors] tell the fascinating and incredibly rich story of the who, what, where, when, why and how  (the 5-W’s and H) of modern twentieth- century ornithology…The authors use biographical approach, focusing on the lives of the major players and the social and scientific contexts in which their work developed. Drawing on published and archival materials, interviews with senior ornithologists, and their own experiences spanning the last 50-years of the twentieth century, the authors have produced a compelling and readable account that will appeal to historians of science, ornithologists and bird watchers alike.

Phil Slade

Phil Slade

Phil Slade at ANOTHER BIRD BLOG, 10 February 2014. Full details here.

If anything the chapter titles give little away as to their contents and might fool a reader into thinking the text to be the dry and dust that history is reputed to be. Far from it, each and every chapter makes for engaging, exhilarating and often exciting reading encompassing the day-to-day science, the exploration of ideas, the trials and tribulations of a workaday ornithologist and the sanity or otherwise of the early collectors whose egos or lust for fame led them to visit dangerous realms.

I could go on to describe and praise this brilliant book, picking out some of the simply wonderful stuff within but I would prefer that blog readers discover it for themselves.

I imagine that Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin is a book which will be bought by every professional or amateur ornithologist the world over. Almost certainly it will be on a wish list of many, many amateur and professional naturalists, whether their speciality is birds, bees, butterflies or other more esoteric disciplines.

It is a book which should be bought and read by every serious bird watcher, but as is today’s focus on instant thrill, it may not be. I sincerely hope that my praise will influence some who may not otherwise have done so to buy this book; better still that a young person may somehow find this book the inspiration they need to follow a career in science and ornithology in particular.

Bo Beolens

Bo Beolens at the FATBIRDER website, January 2014. Full details here.

This is a very large book with a huge amount to say and should be essential reading for all future students of ornithology. If, as a birder, you want to understand the milestones in ornithology then you need look no further than this work. I’ve already learned a great deal and I’ve only just read a couple of chapters so far. This is not one for skimming as what it has to say will underpin your knowledge and answer a lot of the questions that all birders ask afresh. ‘Hugely impressive’ it truly is and it deserves the widest audience.

Matt Merritt

Matt Merritt in the British magazine BIRD WATCHING, February 2014

…it packs a wealth of information about birds, as well as birders, into its pages…written in an engaging and far from academic style…an excellent history of the study of birds in modern times, as well as a genuine insight into the scientific method.

Ben Sheldon (Professor and Director of the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology,  Oxford University) January 2014, NATURE 505:158.  Full review available here (though it’s behind a paywall).

Ben Sheldon

This is a serious book that manages to be compulsively readable. The authors are at their most vivid when offering vignettes of individuals or specific events from the modern history of ornithology: pivotal moments of discovery or the presentation of new ideas. Some are familiar. We have British evolutionary biologists David Lack and then Peter and Rosemary Grant successively exploring the evolution of Darwin’s finches from the 1940s to the present, and the explosion in discoveries of fossil birds in China since the 1990s. Such cases act as scene-setters in each chapter, and are supplemented by wonderful, less well-known examples. We meet, for instance, the wealthy Hungarian palaeontologist Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás (whose theories on early bird flight were influential), who in 1907 crossed Albanian rivers disguised as a shepherd and using an inflated goat’s bladder as a flotation device. There is a fine description of ornithologist Charles Sibley striding arrogantly into a 1986 conference bearing a tapestry-sized poster illustrating his revolutionary new avian phylogeny. The book is beautifully illustrated, and also contains charmingly candid autobiographical sketches contributed by more than 20 of today’s leading ornithologists.

The following four reviews are from ornithologists who read the whole book in advance of publication and provided us with some excellent feedback.

Frank Gill—author of the textbook Ornithology (3rd ed, 2006, WH Freeman), former president of the American Ornithologists’ Union and Senior Vice President of the Audubon Society:

Frank Gill

First off, I have to say that as a professional ornithologist I found the prose not only engaging but downright riveting; frankly, I had a hard time stopping. … For both current and future students of ornithology, I predict this book will be one of the first they acquire and read. It’s certainly one that I’ll not only enjoy having on my bookshelf but will plan on giving to students as they finish their Ph.D.s!

The mix of science, history, personality, and human interest is unique and one that a lot of people will find highly engaging. In terms of scientific interest, I think the book fills an important and often neglected niche. In this era of what seems like ever-expanding publication, young scientists often fail to learn much about the history of their field-where ‘history’ means anything that was published more than a few years ago.

Jeremy Mynott

Jeremy Mynott

Jeremy Mynott—author of Birdscapes (2009, Princeton Univ Press), former editor and chief executive at Cambridge University Press:

This is hugely impressive – congratulations all round!  I think it synthesizes an enormous amount of information in a very accessible and engaging way, and  – even more importantly – explains some of the leading ideas and theories behind all this research in a way that contextualize them in the larger movement of scientific ideas more generally over the period.  It’s a terrific achievement.

Ian Newton—author of many technical and popular books about birds (including Bird Populations in 2013 and Bird Migration in 2010, both published by Collins New Naturalist Library), formerly Senior Ornithologist at the United Kingdom‘s Natural Environment Research Council:

Ian Newton

Ian Newton

This book will be a major contribution in ornithology, first by pulling the key developments together, and demonstrating their importance; and secondly in giving practitioners the historical background that has shaped the field as it is today. It will provide a readable summary of the essence of a century of ornithological research.’  .. It should be of value not only to professional ornithologists and students, but to anyone with a wider interest in biology or bird life, including amateur birders who want to enrich their field experience with greater understanding. It will also be of value to those with an interest in the history of science. Although dealing at times with complex issues, the text is light and engaging, eminently readable, and in places makes a gripping read.

Karl Schulze-Hagen—coauthor (with Bernd Leisler) of a highly acclaimed book on Reed Warblers (,2012, KNNV Publishing) that was awarded ‘Best Bird Book of the Year for 2012’  by the British Trust for Ornithology. Karl is the author of dozens of papers on both birds and the history of ornithology. This is an English translation of an excerpt from his review to be published in German in the journal Vogelwarte.

Karl Schulze-Hagen

Karl Schulze-Hagen

A wealth of such “stories”, significant episodes in the lives of their characters, is presented in this new book by Birkhead, Wimpenny, and Montgomerie, reminding us that behind every scientific achievement there are real people with their individual qualities and characteristics. Anecdotes hold the reader’s attention and give more than dry theory can. But here they accompany the actual leitmotif  of this book: the development of modern ornithology, its functioning as a science, and how our knowledge grew and grows from it. … if there are any today whose huge fund of knowledge allows them to provide an overview of the rapid changes in the subject then it is the authors of this work. They have successfully managed to chart the course of these changes in a logical and understandable way, and the result of this marathon of labour, complete command of the literature, and exemplary networking. A magnificent achievement!

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