The Ascent of Birds: How Modern Science is Revealing their Story

The Ascent of Birds
John Reilly
Publisher:  Pelagic Publishing, Exeter
2018
Hardback
Page Count:  364
ISBN Number:  9781784271695
£
24.99

If, like me, you are continually perplexed by the seemingly random re-ordering of birds on the British List every year, then this is the book for you.

Any list of species needs to be ordered in some way, and all modern lists try to reflect the order in which species diverged, from earliest to most recent. Until the ground-breaking work of Charles Sibley in the mid 1980’s, a relatively stable consensus had emerged based largely on anatomical and physical characteristics. Unfortunately, these turn out not to be terribly helpful, distantly related species may look similar because they occupy similar habitats, and closely related ones may diverge markedly to fill unoccupied niches. The rapid advancement in molecular techniques is now providing, in ever finer detail, a picture of the true relationships, based on genetic differences.

In 27 chapters, each based around a particular bird group, this book follows these relationships and the evolutionary adaptations that have led groups to diverge in different ways. The author was a medical scientist during his working life and this shows: physiological and biochemical adaptations are well covered, ecological ones perhaps a little less so. Although he doesn’t shy away from details (concentration is required in one or two places), the writing is engaging and the story never less than fascinating, so I found it hard to put down.

Is this the last word on the topic? Undoubtedly not. Two initiatives: the Birds 10,000 Genomes (B10K, https://10k.genomics.cn) and the just launched OpenWings (blog.openwings.org) projects aim to sequence all or part of the genomes of every bird species in the same manner over the next few years; more surprises undoubtedly await.

In the meantime though, this ranks among the best popular science books and provides a great guide to our current understanding of where, and how, birds evolved. 

Rob Robinson