Ten Thousand Birds

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A book like this takes several years of research and writing. Throughout the four years of this project we were in almost daily contact via email, skype and telephone. The three of us  got together on a number occasions, perhaps most notably at the magnificent ornithological library at McGill University in Montreal.

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Tim, Jo & Bob at McGill, 2010

At that library, with the excellent assistance of librarian Eleanor MacLean, we were able to explore their vast collection of rare books, letters, and artwork devoted to birds. In this picture (to the right) we are looking at John Gould’s fabulous A Monograph of the Trochilidae, or Family of Humming-birds, a five-volume work that took him 12 years to produce (1849-1861). It is valued at more than $150,000 today. The paintings were all done by William Matthew Hart, who also did the Blue Bird of Paradise painting that we use at the start of our chapter on sexual selection (Chapter 9 ‘Selection in Relation to Sex’).

Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at the University of Sheffield. His research on promiscuity and sperm competition in birds helped to re-shape current understanding of bird mating systems. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2004.  Tim has supervised 39 PhD students, several who are now professors. His undergraduate teaching (for which he has won three awards) includes courses in animal behaviour and the history and philosophy of science. He hates administration.

Tim’s research has taken him to Canadian High Arctic, Labrador, California, Australia, Africa, and Europe.  Since 1972 he has maintained a long-term study of common guillemots (Common Murres) on Skomer Island, Wales, which is where he did his D.Phil. Tim has been president of the International Society for Behavioural Ecology and is currently president of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB). He has also served on the management committee of the Darwin Correspondence Project. Tim initiated the biennial Biology of Spermatozoa (BoS) meetings in 1992, and is a founder member of New Networks for Nature, an alliance of creators including poets, authors, scientists, film makers, visual artists, environmentalists, musicians and composers, whose work draws strongly on the natural environment.

Birkhead: Wisdom of Birds

As well as a passion for research, Tim is committed to undergraduate teaching and the public understanding of science and. He has given talks to non-scientists at book festivals, the Royal Institution,  Café Scientifique and elsewhere.  He has written for New Scientist, BBC Wildlife, Natural History and the Independent, and for seven years had a regular column in the Times Higher Education. He has written or edited 13 books; his book The Wisdom of Birds (Bloomsbury 2007) is an illustrated account of how we know what we know about birds and won the Best Bird Book of the Year Award from the British Trust for Ornithology and the journal British Birds. His book Bird Sense (Bloomsbury 2012) was recognized as natural history book of the year by both the Guardian and Independent newspapers. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin is the product of a Leverhulme Grant that enabled Tim to employ Jo Wimpenny as a researcher.

Tim was made an Honorary Member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2010 and was awarded their Coues Medal in 2011 for outstanding contributions to ornithology. Tim was awarded the ASAB Medal in 2012 for a ‘significant contribution to the study of animal behavior and for very significant and valuable contribution to popularising animal behaviour research through a very impressive list of popular articles, books and talks.’

He is married and has three (recently fledged) children and a dog, and in his spare time enjoys walking, playing guitar and painting.

NCC with larva

New Caledonian Crow

Jo Wimpenny was a postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sheffield during the writing of this book. Like Tim, she has a D.Phil. from Oxford University, where she studied physical cognition and problem-solving ability in New Caledonian crows, demonstrating previously unknown cognitive abilities in these extraordinary birds. Jo is a keen science communicator, exhibiting at both the British Association’s Festival of Science and the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. She has also lectured at Science Oxford and written for the Oxford Times.  With a lifelong passion for natural history, Jo spends her spare time walking, trying to take good photographs, and painting. She also plays korfball.

Bob Montgomerie is Professor and University Research Chair in Evolutionary Biology at Queen’s University, Canada. He has had a life-long interest in birds, and has conducted research on more than 50 species worldwide over the past half century. He is also passionate about teaching, having taught undergraduate courses in natural history, behavioural ecology, biogeography, statistics, field ornithology, tropical ecology, pollination ecology, evolutionary ecology, history/philosophy, and animal behaviour, and graduate courses in evolutionary ecology, communication skills, and statistics. Like Tim, he loathes administrative work of any kind. In his 30-year career he has been primary supervisor for more than 100 postdoctoral fellows and thesis students, 25 of whom now hold faculty positions in Canada, USA, Sweden, New Zealand, and Australia.

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Rock Ptarmigan

Bob’s research focuses mainly on the evolution of sperm, genitalia and plumage colours in birds, in the context of social and sexual selection, but he has also conducted studies of avian foraging behaviour, courtship, biogeography, phylogeography, parental care, flight, sex ratio adjustment, cooperative breeding and mating systems. He spent more than 20 years working on birds in High Arctic Canada, Alaska, and Iceland, and more than 10 years in tropical Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia and the Cook Islands. He has studied a wide variety of birds from waterfowl to ptarmigan, raptors to hummingbirds, bowerbirds to thrushes, and blackbirds to tits. In 2010 he was awarded the Coues Medal of the American Ornithologists’ Union for outstanding contributions to ornithology, and in 2002 held a prestigious Killam Felowship from the Canada Council for his work on sperm evolution. He is married with 4 children, 3 of whom have fledged, and likes to spend his spare time reading mysteries, cooking, and trying to play the guitar.