Where the Birds Are, or Were

By Joe Eaton
Wednesday August 17, 2011 - 07:52:00 AM

Ever-reliable Princeton University Press, which may have one of the best natural-history publishing program in academia, has a new and somewhat different product out: The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation by Mike Unwin ( Not an identification guide, the Atlas is a handsomely packaged compendium of information about birds, from their prehistoric origins to their mixed prospects in the modern world. 

Unwin, a British writer, has done an impressive job of pulling together a great deal of information from disparate sources and structuring it in an accessible way. Novice birders will find it a useful introduction to birdlife; the more experienced should learn a thing or two as well. 

An introductory section covers avian evolution, albeit in a necessarily simplified fashion, and the basic traits of feathers and flight. Then comes a global survey of habitats and species distribution, with double-page maps for endemism and diversity. The most speciose countries, it turns out, are Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Indonesia, all in the 1500-1821 range. The most species-poor include Belarus, Western Sahara, and Kyrgyzstan, each with fewer than 250. China, Madagascar, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand have the highest proportions of endemic species. Each continent gets its own survey, with Important Bird Areas identified by BirdLife International mapped. 

The taxonomy chapter shows the size and global distribution of each avian order, groups on the level of the waterfowl or the songbirds. Here Unwin reflects recent thinking about the status of oddballs like the hoatzin, sandgrouse, and tropicbirds. That’s followed by a treatment of form, function, and behavior: adaptations for flight and feeding, the senses, courtship and nesting, sociality, migration and other movements. 

There’s a section on avian-human interactions: birds as food sources, pets, hunting partners, feather and guano producers, cultural icons, environmental indicators, nuisances and pests, and, of course, objects of the birder’s desire. Who would have thought the South had a higher percentage of admitted birdwatchers (33) than the West (21)? Note that this is “birdwatchers,” not “birders.” In any case, I suspect Texas and Florida contribute disproportionately to the Southern lead. 

After that, the inevitable depressing part, dealing with extinction, endangerment, and a catalogue of threats: habitat loss, pollution, legal and illegal hunting, the pet trade, competing alien species, commercial fishing, and global warming. (I’d really like to know which 12 species are threatened by renewable-energy development.) That’s balanced by case studies of conservation successes, with profiles of BirdLife International and some of its country-level affiliates, conservation campaigns like the Ramsar Convention on wetlands, species-specific projects, and habitat protection and restoration efforts. 

This is a lot of ground to cover, and it’s generally covered well. The maps, charts, and other graphics are for the most part exemplary, although there’s a caption error in the range map of the house sparrow in the “Alien Invasion” pages. Likewise the illustrations (but why use a Cuban postage stamp to depict the moa? Aren’t Charles R. Knight’s paintings in the public domain by now?) 

Not least, the Atlas is a mother lode of avian trivia. If you want to know the most frequently mentioned birds in Shakespeare’s plays, here’s the list. The dove leads with 60 references, followed by the goose, eagle, crow, and owl; the relatively obscure chough, a personal favorite, gets a respectable 16. Here also is the history of the pigeon post, the geography of the H5N1 bird flu, the chronology of the California condor captive-breeding program, and much more. Well done!