Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Ten thousand birds

Birkhead, Wimpenny and Montgomerie
Princeton University Press 2014 ISBN 978-0-691-15197-7
Because a bird has no placenta, Eggs is how this world they enter (Simon Drew). Yet it would be remiss of me not to mention this lucidly written and lavishly illustrated narrative of the history and philosophy of ornithology.

The opening chapter, "Yesterday's Birds," is a fascinating account of the progression of ideas on the origin of birds, including the influence of the Danish artist and self taught palaeontologist Gerhard Heilmann, who surmised birds evolved from thecodonts (Pseudosuchia). The alternative view of birds as dinosaurs (BAD), promoted in the 1970's, was slow to take hold. A related story concerns the origin of feathers, which were long thought to be highly modified scales but now are seen as a novel evolutionary development. The chapter brings us up to date with feathered but flightless dinosaurs, including superb fossils from China, the colours of fossil feathers and the different type of keratin that distinguish scales from feathers.

One word of caution: despite the title this is not an overview of the various families of birds although it does contain many paintings and photographs to delight the eye of the amateur ornithologist (a group not recognized by the authors to whom ornithologists are scientists and the rest mere bird watchers).

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