Review: Ten Thousand Birds – Ornithology Since Darwin

Steve BrennerBooks, ReviewsLeave a Comment

There is nothing quite like going back to your roots. As avian enthusiasts, we have so much wonderful information available to us about birds that it can be convenient to take for granted the blood, sweat, and tears behind distribution patterns, breeding ecology, and behavior. Ten Thousand Birds recaps, in thorough detail, the course of ornithology over the past 150 years.

This is not a history of birding – this is a history of ornithology; or rather, an account of ornithologists whose research and discoveries put us where we are today in our understanding of birds. It’s easy to forget that without these people, we would hardly know a thing about our feathered friends. Ten Thousand Birds is really their stories and their histories, charting the course of the collective understanding of the major aspects of ornithology to where it stands today.


Each chapter focuses on a central area of ornithology after The Origin of Species hit the world, and as Birkhead, Wimpenny, and Montgomerie take you through taxonomy, migration, and behavior, we get a unique look into each era and the lives of those who built up the knowledge base we work from presently. In the pages of Ten Thousand Birds, you’ll find the battles over classification, the sometimes bitter specimen collecting rivalries, and the “Eureka!” moments of true scientific breakthrough. This is what I really appreciated when reading Ten Thousand Birds. Each stepping stone of knowledge moving towards a larger understanding of biology was addressed with such detail that the even the study designs and ‘real-world’ circumstances surrounding any point of major research were flushed out. Such a perspective on science is rarely gotten these days and often overlooked.

It’s the ornithologists themselves that are the topic of this book: while major players like David Lack and Ernst Mayr get their due, I appreciated the coverage that everyone received who contributed to important bird research (and not all are ‘ornithologists’: geologists and statisticians get their recognition as well). Each chapter ends with a small, personal account of one or two ornithologists whose major ideas were discussed in the chapter. This is an excellent touch that adds a depth to the ‘classic history book approach’. There is even a list of 500 ornithologists at the end of the book, and lists of major papers and cited works. The take home point: no stone was left unturned in this account. If there is an important end of avian research you want to learn about, you will find it in this book.

I was a big fan of this book because it’s all about the the process. As someone who has dabbled in field research (at the low end of the totem pole), I really enjoyed the in-depth and educational accounts of past research. Who knew about the vast array of migration hypotheses and tests that occurred during the 20th century? Who knew that storks pierced with tribal arrows were some of the first indicators of wintering grounds? We have clearly moved from the world being flat to figuring out it’s round in our recent ornithological past. 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.


Ten Thousand Birds is organized into a historical overview of twelve major areas of ornithology, including work on evolution, classification, migration, behavior, ecology, and conservation. The authors use a biographical approach, focusing on the lives of the major players and the social and scientific contexts in which their work developed. In doing this, they show how controversy and context have shaped each discipline under the influence of dominant personalities.

Drawing on published and archival materials, interviews with senior ornithologists, and their own experiences spanning the last half of the twentieth century, the authors have produced a compelling and readable account that will appeal to historians of science, ornithologists and bird watchers alike.

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny & Bob Montgomerie

Hardcover, 524 pgs – $45.00

I would like to thank Princeton University Press for a review copy of this book.