What Is a Bird?: an exploration of anatomy, physiology, behavior and ecology

By Tony Williams (editor)


Princeton University Press

Hbk, 368pp; 400 colour illustrations

ISBN 978-0-691-20016-3; £30.00

Princeton University Press certainly knows how to put a good bird book together. This is a sumptuously – one might almost say seductively – produced and illustrated compendium of birds, covering (as its subtitle indicates) a wide range of topics. The text, contributed by seven different authors, is eminently readable and impressively up to date. It is no mean feat to cover so much ground in such relatively little space, and this is achieved by adopting a magazine-style format across the ten chapters. Like an encyclopedia, this is a book to dip into rather than to be read from cover to cover. Inevitably, perhaps, when dealing with such breadth of material, some topics are treated in more detail than others. I’d like to have seen a bit more on the effects of climate change, for example.

Knowing how much effort must have gone into its production, it seems unkind to identify some of the book’s limitations. A few species (e.g. p. 142) and eggs (p. 300) are identified incorrectly; the lack of detail in some figure captions will leave readers scratching their heads, and most disappointingly, there are no references in the text, reducing the likelihood that this otherwise excellent volume could be used as an undergraduate ornithology course textbook. That in turn makes me wonder who the book is aimed at. We are not told, but it is presumably the interested amateur who, while gaining access to a lot of recent research, may also have to sometimes use the glossary, or look elsewhere for explanations of some of the technical terms (e.g. Log mass specific metabolic rate) used in the text.

I was particularly struck by the quality of the photographs, most of which I had not seen before – always refreshing in a book like this. In most cases these nicely complement the text, which in turn is also supplemented by a small number of graphs, maps and boxes containing additional information.

This is extremely good value, and I can envisage What Is a Bird? being snapped up by those wanting a beautifully illustrated, up-to-date account of bird biology.

Tim Birkhead


Issue 4
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What Is a Bird?

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