Colin Tudge 2008. The Secret Life of Birds. Who they are and what they do. London: Penguin, 484 pp.

A natural history of birds. Has a bit of an old-fashioned feel (despite the recent publication date) but rich in information and in appeal. There are chapters on feeding, breeding, migration and an interesting chapter ‘The Mind of Birds’, but the most interesting to me were chapters on the origin of birds, the complex evolutionary history of feathered dinosaurs and hence the ‘what is a bird?’ question, and the detailed tour of the major groups of birds and their diversity world-wide. A great overview, very helpful for someone who wants to give global context to their knowledge of a regional fauna. Also good context for Tim Low’s Where Song Began which is on the list…

(There is also a chapter on classifying, in which Colin Tudge demonstrates that he doesn’t realise the rules of taxonomic nomenclature are not about personal preferences but are about priority, and thus stability. But I’ll get over that.)

There are even two large fold-out cladograms at the end of the book, which largely summarise the view of bird phylogeny as presented in Figure 27.10 of Cracraft et al. (2003). There is endless (and futile) scope for comparisons with later more robust analyses. For example, the Cracraft tree has loons and divers (Gavia spp.) grouped with albatross, petrels and penguins but the next generation sequencing study of Prum et al., (2015) instead has them plesiomorphic to a those but also to a host of others including pelicans, herons, cormorants etc. (As it happens, other hypotheses from earlier mitochondrial genes were not fully taken on board by Cracraft et al. but they were much closer to the Prum et al., (2015) next gen hypothesis.)

But it is all good, and Tudge is constantly acknowledging that everthing he says (and that scientists say) is subject to revision as knowledge improves. As it has in the last 15 years, most of all in understanding of evolutionary relationships thanks to overwhelming evidence from DNA sequence data.

  • Cracraft et al. (2003) Phylogenetic Relationships among Modern Birds (Neornithes) Toward an Avian Tree of Life (add full chapter citation)

  • Prum, R. O., Berv, J. S., Dornburg, A., Field, D. J., Townsend, J. P., Lemmon, E. M., and Lemmon, A. R. (2015). A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature 526, 569–573.