When and where did the ancestors of modern birds evolve? What enabled them to survive the meteoric impact that wiped out the dinosaurs? How did these early birds spread across the globe and give rise to the 10,500-plus species we recognise today – from the largest ratites to the smallest hummingbirds? Based on the latest scientific discoveries and enriched by personal observations, The Ascent of Birds sets out to answer these fundamental questions.
This book is divided into self-contained chapters, or stories, that collectively encompass the evolution of modern birds from their origins in Gondwana, over 100 million years ago, to the present day. The stories are arranged in chronological order, from tinamous to tanagers, and describe the many dispersal and speciation events that underpin the world's 10,500-plus species. Although each chapter is spearheaded by a named bird and focuses on a specific evolutionary mechanism, the narrative will often explore the relevance of such events and processes to evolution in general.
List of Illustrations
- Geological Ages
- Prologue: Evolution of an Idea
PART ONE: NON-PASSERINES
1. The Tinamou’s Story: Death of a Paradigm
2. The Vegavis’s Story: The Cradle of Modern Birds
3. The Waterfowl's Story: Refugia, High Living, and Sex
4. The Hoatzin's Story: An Improbable Voyage
5. The Penguin's Story: Phenotype and Environment
6. The Storm Petrel's Story: Sympatry versus Allopatry
7. The Albatross's Story: The Species Problem
8. The Godwit's Story: Quantum Compasses
9. The Buzzard's Story: Accidental Speciation
10. The Owl's Story: Nightlife
11. The Oilbird's Story: Evolutionary Distinctiveness
12. The Hummingbird's Story: A Route of Evanescence
13. The Parrot's Story: Vicariance and Dispersal
PART TWO: PASSERINES
14. The New Zealand Wren's Story: A Novel Foot
15. The Manakin's Story: Why so many Suboscines?
16. The Sapayoa's Story: Odd One Out
17. The Scrubbird's Story: Where Song Began
18. The Bowerbird's Story: Extended Phenotypes
19. The Crows' Story: Cognitive Skills
20. The Bird of Paradise's Story: Sexual Selection
21. The Starling's Story: Structural Colours
22. The Thrush's Story: Sweepstake Dispersals
23. The Sparrow's Story: Hybridisation and Speciation
24. The Zebra Finch's Story: Evolution of Birdsong
25. The Crossbill's Story: Adaptive Radiation and Coevolution
26. The White-eye's Story: Supertramps and Great Speciators
27. The Tanager's Story: A Final Flourish
Postscript: The Sixth Extinction
Appendix 1: Glossary
Professor John Reilly has been a keen birder all his life, visiting over fifty countries and observing nearly half the world's bird species. In the late 1970s, he led several pioneering bird and wildlife tours to the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. Since developing an interest in avian evolution, he has concentrated on tracking down and photographing species that have important evolutionary stories to tell, birds that provide the key characters for each of the book's chapters.
After graduating in biochemistry and then medicine, John worked as a consultant haematologist in Sheffield for 25 years. In addition to teaching, lecturing and clinical work, he led an active research programme into the causes and treatment of various blood cancers, authoring over 200 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals.
In 2014, he retired from the NHS to concentrate on travelling and writing. This career change was encouraged by the success of his first book, Greetings from Spitsbergen: Tourists at the Eternal Ice (2009) published by Tapir Academic Press. In 2013 he established Svalbard Press, with the aim of publishing the histories of different countries as revealed by their early postcards. The first volume in the series, Spitsbergen's Early Postcards: An Annotated Catalogue, was published in 2014.
- Awarded fifth place in the BB/BTO Best Bird Book of the Year 2018 competition
"[...] This is a useful summary of recent serious scientific discoveries, put together in a highly readable form.[...]"
– Christopher Perrins, Ibis 162(2), April 2020
"[...] The Ascent of Birds: How Modern Science Is Revealing Their Story will answer questions you never knew you had about birds. It’s simply one of the best ornithological books for the layperson around, and my favorite bird book of 2018."
– Grant McCreary (07-03-2019), read the full review at The Birder's Library
"[...] this ranks among the best popular science books and providtes a great guide to our current understanding of where, and how, birds evolved."
– Rob Robinson, BTO book reviews
"This book is for people with a passion for birds and a thirst for knowledge of where they came from, how they diversified and why they are not the same all over the world. The best of its kind, it is written as a series of exciting stories about each of the major groups of birds, with minimum jargon, maximum clarity, and in a warmly accessible style."
– Peter R. Grant
"Combines the passion of an ornithologist with a flair for explaining the latest scientific ideas in captivating prose. A wonderful read."
– Prof Nick Davies, Cambridge University
"A vivid account of some of the most interesting aspects of the evolution of modern birds, it shows the reader that current research in avian evolution covers far more topics than the well-popularised dinosaur bird transition."
– Gerald Mayr, Senckenberg Research Institute