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Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin

By: Tim Birkhead (Author), Jo Wimpenny (Author), Bob Montgomerie (Author)

524 pages, 60 b/w photos, 94 colour illustrations

Princeton University Press

Hardback | Feb 2014 | #207470 | ISBN-13: 9780691151977
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £34.95 $43/€39 approx

About this book

Ten Thousand Birds provides 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.

Ten Thousand Birds 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. Ten Thousand Birds 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 Birds brings 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.

Click here to download a PDF sample chapter.


"[...] Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin is an excellent summary of what we know about birds and how that knowledge was gained. As such, it is indispensable for students and practitioners of ornithology, or anyone else interested in the study of birds. It’s a good read, and since it’s organized by subject you don’t have to read it straight through, but can skip around according to your interests.[...]"
- Grant McCreary (19-12-2014), read the full review at The Birder's Library

"[...] Rather than try to cram in the entirety of the past 150 years, the authors have focussed on some of ornithology’s greatest contributions to the study of biology. While this inevitably leaves large gaps in the history, the eleven chapters ranging from evolution to behaviour, migration and conservation are a thoroughly engaging read. [...]"
- David Hodkinson, BTO book reviews

"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."--Steve Brenner, Nemesis Bird
"[...] an excellent history of the study of birds in modern times [...] "
– Matt Merritt, Bird Watching

'''Hugely impressive' it truly is and it deserves the widest audience."
– Bo Beolens, Fatbirder

"Compulsively readable."
– Ben Sheldon, Nature

"A riveting, entertaining, enlightening and frequently inspirational read [...] 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 specialty is birds, bees, butterflies or other more esoteric disciplines."
– Phil Slade, Another Bird Blog

"Lovingly well-researched and beautifully written [...] Definitive, absorbing and highly recommended."
– Adrian Barnett, New Scientist

"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."
– Alan Speakman,

"A first-class review not only of the recent history of ornithology but also of the key players involved. No other book of this type comes anywhere near this one in its breadth of coverage and depth of scholarship. Ten Thousand Birds is in a class by itself, and an outstanding read."
– Ian Newton, author of The Migration Ecology of Birds

"This book fills an important and neglected niche. The mix of science, history, personality, and human interest is unique and one that people will find highly appealing. I found the prose not only engaging but downright riveting."
– Walt Koenig, coeditor of Ecology and Evolution of Cooperative Breeding in Birds

"This is a hugely impressive book that synthesizes an enormous amount of information in a very accessible and engaging way, and makes an original contribution not only to the history of modern ornithology but also to the general history of biological science since Darwin. It will be an invaluable reference for general readers and students, and offers specialists a paradigmatic case study of the scientific method in action."
– Jeremy Mynott, author of Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience

"This brilliant, wide-ranging book examines the debates, mistakes, and major conceptual breakthroughs that advanced our knowledge of avian biology. It documents how science proceeds, and skillfully humanizes it. Ten Thousand Birds is not only the best modern treatise on the history of ornithology. It is also a powerful summary of the remarkable biology of birds and what we still don't know. This book is not just for ornithologists or serious birders."
– Frank Gill, author of Ornithology


Preface vii

Chapter 1 Yesterday's Birds 1
Chapter 2 The Origin and Diversification of Species 43
Chapter 3 Birds on the Tree of Life 75
Chapter 4 Ebb and Flow 117
Chapter 5 Ecological Adaptations for Breeding 161
Chapter 6 Form and Function 201
Chapter 7 The Study of Instinct 245
Chapter 8 Behavior as Adaptation 287
Chapter 9 Selection in Relation to Sex 323
Chapter 10 Population Studies of Birds 355
Chapter 11 Tomorrow's Birds 389

Afterword 425
Appendix 1: Some Histories of Ornithology 431
Appendix 2: Five Hundred Ornithologists 434

Notes 443
References 467
Index 497
Image Credits 519

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Tim Birkhead is professor of zoology at the University of Sheffield and a Fellow of the Royal Society. His books include The Wisdom of Birds and Bird Sense. Jo Wimpenny was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sheffield during the writing of this book. Bob Montgomerie is professor of biology at Queen's University in Ontario.

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