In this column I salute Princeton University Press for its remarkable recent history of publishing books of special interest to both amateur bird watchers and professional ornithologists. Their books fit a wide range of categories. The Crossley guides offer new tools for bird identification of special interest to beginning birders. Books like “The Shorebirds of North America” provide insights into special groups of birds while others, like “The Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds,” treat particular aspects of their life histories. And for travelers, a whole series of books address specific parts of the world, like “A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies.”
Now Princeton has enhanced this reputation with two fine books that should be on the shelves of all whose interest in birds extends beyond watching a few common species.
The first of them is “Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin” by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie. The senior author is a University of Sheffield zoology professor and a fellow of the Royal Society of London. The artist, Wimpenny, is also at Sheffield and Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Agreeing with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s statement that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” the authors take as their starting point 1859, the year Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published. They then trace the ensuing 150-year history of scientific ornithology, which they separate from bird watching.
Despite this restriction, this is not a dull book and all those interested in birds will enjoy reading it. As the authors point out, “The history of ornithology is overflowing with extraordinary individuals and interesting stories.”
Of special interest to me is this book’s account of the important work of Charles Sibley, who was a personal friend. I am proud to note that our friendship was based on my defense of Sibley against one of the many attacks on his original and highly controversial studies, studies that stand today, as these authors note, “as a strong testament to the end of a long era in bird systematics research and a start in another.”
The second book is “Rare Birds of North America” by Steve Howell, Will Russell and artist Ian Lewington. These experienced and widely traveled birders illustrate and provide information about 262 avian species that should be on all our search lists. These are the birds commonly called vagrants. They arrive in this hemisphere from three sources: the Old World of Europe, Africa and Asia; the New World tropics; and the world’s oceans, often brought by unusual weather conditions. When these species are reported, birders travel thousands of miles to see them.
I have been a bird watcher for more than 75 years and it was interesting to go through this book to see which of these rarities, all of which have been recorded in North America, I have seen. I found exactly one: the fork-tailed flycatcher. The species appeared here on two different occasions, in 1990 and 1993.