Wednesday, February 26, 2014

T. Birkhead, J. Wimpenny & B. Montgomerie's "Ten Thousand Birds"

Bob Montgomerie is Professor and Research Chair in Evolutionary Biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He and his coauthors, Tim Birkhead and Jo Wimpenny, wrote their new book Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin to explore the various ways that the study of birds was central to the development of the biological sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Montgomerie applied the “Page 99 Test” to Ten Thousand Birds and reported the following:
Ernst Mayr was an icon of evolutionary biology in the twentieth century. Born in 1904 he lived to be 100 and oversaw much of the transformation of biology into a cutting-edge science. He was also an ornithologist, and we encounter him in chapter 3 on page 99 in a section called ‘Ernst Mayr’s Century’. That chapter—‘Birds on the Tree of Life’—is about the long and tortuous history of bird classification, a story in which Mayr was the dominant figure. On page 99 he is just 27 years old, having recently joined the staff of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) after a two-year-long and very successful bird-collecting trip to the South Pacific. Mayr was to stay at the AMNH for two decades before moving to Harvard for the next fifty years, laying the foundations for a synthesis of evolutionary biology, systematics and a philosophy of biology.

Page 99 provides a good example of some of the things we wanted to achieve with this book: stories about people who did meaningful studies of birds, and some insights into why the study of birds was—and is—so influential. To help us think about the page 99 question, we turned it on its head and asked whether any single page in our book would satisfy the “page-99 test” to be representative of the book. The answer is a resounding “no”. To meet that requirement a single page would have to tell a little-known story about an interesting character—like that of Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás, the eccentric, self-taught, Transylvanian palaeontologist who in the early 1900s developed original ideas about the origins of both birds and flight while traveling around Europe on a motorcycle with his male lover/secretary. It would also have to tell about some interesting discoveries about birds; to show some excellent photos and paintings of iconic birds; to include some historical pictures of interesting and influential people who studied birds—both amateur bird enthusiasts and professional ornithologists; and to provide historical context for the study of bird biology using both timeline diagrams and stories about the often serendipitous nature of discovery. Our book weaves together all those attributes and we have tried to do so in a way that makes the subject both interesting and accessible to anyone interested in learning more about birds and the people who have studied them.
Learn more about this book and the scientific study of birds at

--Marshal Zeringue