Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin
There are currently very close to ten thousand species of birds in the world, both
beautiful and improbable, and they have contributed more to the study of zoology than almost any other group of animals (Konishi et al. 1989). The reasons are obvious: birds are diurnal, they are often easily observed and studied, and we like them. As a result, the study of birds goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, although it is generally recognized that scientific ornithology began in the mid-1600s with the publication of John Ray’s Ornithology of Francis Willughby (Ray 1676). Since then, the study of birds has continued apace, with by far the greatest increase in ornithological knowledge occurring since the middle of the twentieth century. We estimate that there have been no fewer than 380,000 ornithological publications since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859.1 The temporal pattern reflects the change in numbers of ornithologists: increasing slowly between 1860 and 1960, but then more rapidly as more academic positions for zoologists became available in the 1960s. In 2011 there were as many papers on birds published as there had been during the entire period between Darwin’s Origin and 1955.
Several “histories of ornithology” have been written (appendix 1)—especially in the last few years, suggesting that the subject has come of age. Few of these, however, have included the twentieth century, possibly because of the sheer volume of information.Yet residing within this enormous mass of literature is a small number of wonderful, groundbreaking discoveries, and it is these that form the basis for this book. This isn’t to say that most of what has been done is of little value but rather that, as in most areas of science, the few individuals that make major breakthroughs have relied consciously or unconsciously on the substantial foundations provided by generations of ornithological foot soldiers.
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