Two New Books by Princeton University Press


(This 1202nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 6, 2014.)


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 treat specific parts of the world, like A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies.


But this year Princeton has already enhanced this reputation with two fine books that should be on the shelves of all those 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 Professor Montgomerie is 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 carefully 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 course, the expected famous ornithologists play roles here, among them Darwin himself, for he based much of his research on birds; as well as David Lack, Ernst Mayr, Niko Tinbergen, Charles Sibley and Konrad Lorenz.


But not just the good guys make it. So too does the "eccentric and notorious" Richard Meinertzhagen, "a prolific author of scientific papers and popular books about birds and a valued friend, confidant and colleague of many of the world's leading ornithologists, writers and politicians. But he was also, as it turns out, a pathological liar and self-promoter, fabricating just about everything about his work, stealing specimens from major museums, changing labels on specimens, and quite likely murdering his wife so he could take up with a much younger woman." Major museums worldwide have struggled to correct the mess he made of their collections.


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."


Evidently our friendship was unusual for he is described here as "brilliant, mercurial, arrogant, tyrannical at times, driven, and often difficult even to his closest associates." I knew Sibley from his early days at Cornell and I identified only the first of those characteristics.



The second book is Rare Birds of North America by Steve Howell, Will Russell and artist Ian Lewington. In this book these experienced and widely traveled birders illustrate and provide information about 262 avian species that should be on the search lists for all of us. 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 over 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. Remarkably, this species appeared here on the Niagara Frontier on two different occasions, in 1990 and 1993.-- Gerry Rising