For thousands of years people have been fascinated by birds, and today that fascination is still growing. In 2007 bird-watching is one of the most popular pastimes, not just in Britain, but throughout the world, and the range of interest runs from the specialist to the beginner.
In The Wisdom of Birds, Birkhead takes the reader on a journey that not only tells us about the extraordinary lives of birds – from conception and egg, through territory and song, to migration and fully fledged breeder – but also shows how, over centuries, we have overcome superstition and untested 'truths' to know what we know, and how recent some of that knowledge is. It was only in the nineteenth century that the ancient belief that swallows hibernated under water (!) finally gave way to general acceptance of the facts of migration.
In the same century of dazzling experimental science, even Darwin chose not to dwell on the sexual promiscuity of female birds to spare the blushes of his daughter, who was helping to correct the proofs of The Descent of Man.
Conceived for a general audience, and illustrated throughout with more than 100 exquisitely beautiful illustrations, many of them rarely, if ever, seen before, The Wisdom of Birds is a book full of stories, knowledge and unexpected revelations.
Tim Birkhead is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and his research has taken him all over the world in the quest to understand the lives of birds. He has written for The Independent, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife. Among his other books are Promiscuity, Great Auk Islands, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology which won the McColvin medal and The Red Canary which won the Consul Cremer Prize. He is married with three children and lives in Sheffield.
"[...] In The Wisdom of Birds, Birkhead takes a complicated and extensive subject and presents it in manner accessible to professionals and amateurs alike. Even more impressive is that it is fun to read! Don’t let the book’s size or subject put you off, as it would be unfortunate to let your preconceptions cause you to miss this wonderful book, as mine almost did. Highly recommended to anyone interested in birds and their study. Finally, a thought on this book’s seemingly awkward title. I believe it was meant as a homage to one of John Ray’s books – The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation."
- Grant McCreary (02-03-2009), read the full review at The Birder's Library
"This is one of the most entertaining, informative and enthusiastic accounts of the history of ornithology; and of the many different ways in which we have observed, studied and wondered about birds."
- Stephen Moss – The Telegraph
"Tim Birkhead's wonderful book The Wisdom of Birds explores themes such as migration and almost every other facet of avian science. [...] In a way, the evolving narratives attaching to certain birds, which Birkhead has so elegantly explored, demonstrate how important they have been to our understanding of natural science, but also more widely in helping us orient ourselves to the whole of life."
– Mark Cocker, The Guardian
"I found this book absolutely fascinating. It not only made an engaging read but it provided answers to ornithological questions that I have not seen properly resolved by other authors over the years."
– Mike Toms, Bird Table
"Tim Birkhead not only is one of the most renowned behavioural ecologists and a leading ornithologist who for example, introduced the topic of sperm competition into ornithology, but also a brilliant didactic writer with a big heart for all questions related to the formation of modern biology. In a fascinating and gripping way he knows how to explain to his readers the development of ornithology, and to bring the history of our trade closer."
– Karl Schulze-Hagen, Journal of Ornithology
"In his splendid, lively and beautifully illustrated history, The Wisdom of Birds, Tim Birkhead explains that the close study of birds and questioning of their baffling, morphology, reproductive habits and behaviour goes back at least to Aristotle. [...] even someone not particularly drawn to birds will surely finish reading Tim Birkhead's book amazed at their variety, quirkiness.. and ingenious ability to adapt to their environment."
– Harry Eyres, Financial Times
"Sure-footed and coherent in chronicling his profession or expounding science for the layman, Tim Birkhead underlines the enchantment at the heart of ornithology. The patron saint of ornithologists is, or ought to be, St Francis of Assisi. He would surely have blessed this book."
– Jonathan Keates, Sunday Telegraph
"One of the book's central achievements is to rescue the pioneering naturalist John Ray from obscurity. But Birkhead is not content with relating what such a philosopher or scientist wrote about a particular moment in time – although he does it brilliantly. His originality is to show how and why, as well as when, we discovered new things about birds.. Several histories of ornithology have hit the bookshops in the past few years, but this is the pick of the bunch."
– Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife Magazine
"The Wisdom of Birds assembles a wealth of both ancient and modern knowledge. it embraces many of the big topics in ornithology, but it is also rich in detail. Whether you want the wide sweep of history or details such as sperm nests, and half siders, or more pedestrian topics such as how female Acorn Woodpeckers gain acceptance to new groups, The Wisdom of Birds is a book you'll be glad to own, and you will return to it often."
– George Clulow, BC Birds
"This large and well-illustrated book is a wonderful introduction to the history of general ornithology."
– Jurgen Haffer, IBIS - The Journal of the British Ornithologists' Union