In this beautiful study, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, Tim Birkhead traces the history of ornithology as it has developed from the faltering first steps taken by the philosophers of classical times to our present levels of understanding of avian behaviour and motives. It is, to an extent, the story of the tension between the theorists – men of the study and later of the museum – and the watchers, those who based their conclusions on their observations in the field. The two disciplines have united in our times in men like Birkhead himself, a professor of behavioural science and evolution who has travelled widely, like any good ‘birder’, to put his theories to the test.
As Birkhead demonstrates, prejudice – often religious, working through the scientist’s fear of the Inquisition – was for long a barrier to progress in understanding the animal kingdom, especially that most visible portion of it, the lives and behaviour of birds. But in some of the more obvious cases, sheer