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Book takes flight with awards

[Bob Montgomerie]
Bob Montgomerie (Biology) holds up a copy of Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, the book he co-authored with Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield and Jo Wimpenny. The book has recently won a number of awards. (University Communications)

Much like the plumage of the Bird of Paradise on its cover, a recently-published book on ornithology, co-written by Queen’s University’s Bob Montgomerie (Biology), is garnering a lot of attention. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is earning rave reviews and a slew of awards for its depth, reach and readability.

The book recently was named the best book in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology category of the American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE) and was listed by CHOICE, a magazine of the American Library Association, as one of the Outstanding Academic Titles of 2014.

This is no mere “bird book.” Ten Thousand Birds is an in-depth scholarly look at the major scientific advances in ornithology since the time of Charles Darwin.

The project was started by Tim Birkhead, a zoology professor at the University of Sheffield and a long-time colleague and friend of Dr. Montgomerie. Birkhead had earlier published a book called Wisdom of Birds, looking at the entire history of ornithology, but in the new book wanted to focus on the 20th century, something he had little space for in Wisdom. He knew it would be a tough task so he turned to his friend at Queen’s, who would also bring a North American perspective to the work.

The initial plan was for Dr. Montgomerie to research, edit and supplement what Dr. Birkhead’s initial drafts, as they had done in other collaborations. They also enlisted the help of Jo Wimpenny, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sheffield at the time to do some of the background research and interviews. But it soon became apparent that the task of writing was too much for one person. A point of pride for the authors is that no one, not even close colleagues, has been able to tell who wrote what chapter. “The writing was very much a totally cooperative effort,” says Dr. Montgomerie.

Overall, the project took five years, including a sabbatical year for Montgomerie in 2009. The most difficult part was choosing what to include and what to omit, he says, adding that the team easily had enough material to write 10 volumes. But a multi-volume work wasn’t the goal, and even the most flexible publisher has limits.

So they whittled their initial 30 chapter plan down to 11, making some tough choices. One obvious chapter that was let go was on birdsong. But as Dr. Montgomerie points out some excellent books had just been published on that topic and they figured they couldn’t improve on those. It was better to stay focused on other areas.

In the end, research and fact checking took up the most time. Thankfully though, the internet proved to be a timesaver, especially the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium of university and academic libraries that are scanning rare books and historic studies onto the web.

Without the internet, Dr. Montgomerie estimates Ten Thousand Birds would have been a 30-year project, at least.

For example, Dr. Montgomerie needed to check a book on avian anatomy written by a German scientist in 1878. He did an online search and quickly found what he needed in about 10 minutes. Until very recently, he figures, the search would have taken a month and at significant cost, including traveling to the library and getting the excerpt translated.

Other times, he says, he would be looking for rare publication and, after not being able to locate it online, would put the search aside for a while. A month or two later, another search would prove fruitful. There is just that much old material being scanned and made available online.

At the heart of the book, are the men and women involved in pushing ornithology forward since the time of Darwin. This, perhaps, is why the book is getting the most attention from readers.

Limited in what they could include in the book, Dr. Montgomerie says they chose to write mainly about people and their discoveries. Some people were obvious, because they are such big names, but they also chose people who were interesting that nobody knows about.

An example is Hilda Cinat-Thompson, who, living in Latvia in 1927, did a “fabulous study” on mate choice, half a century before it became an important area of study.

“We’re pretty sure few people had ever heard of her. We couldn’t find out anything about her either but we thought this is the kind of thing we wanted to put in this book that would make people go, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know about that,’” says Dr. Montgomerie. “We wanted to include a bunch of people who made really great contributions that nobody had heard of. That’s what makes a book like this both interesting and academically useful.”