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1 July 2011 Book Reviews
R. Todd Engstrom, Scott R. McWilliams
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The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists' Union.

The need to better understand how birds work—their physiology and anatomy in relation to their ecology—continues to grow as environmental challenges such as climate change demand reliable predictions of how birds may respond to relatively dramatic changes in the environment. Their cosmopolitan and mobile nature makes birds ever popular as well as excellent bio-indicators for the health of our planet's ecosystems. Thus, those of us who study birds must continue to learn more about them, as attention on birds seems well placed and growing. How can we make sure that our understanding of the basic biology of birds stays current in the face of the burgeoning literature? How about having some of our trusted colleagues provide us with a state-of-the-art review that summarizes recent advances, provides us with an entry into the primary literature on the topics, and points out unknowns that require further study.

Oxford University Press bets that we would appreciate (and purchase) these types of reviews and has begun publishing, under the watchful editorial eye of Warren Burggren, a series of volumes that provide an overview of the ecological and environmental physiology of different taxa. The first volume focused on amphibians, and this second one focuses on their more distant and popular relatives, the birds. The series is designed to provide state-of-the-art reviews on the physiological ecology of key taxa that should be of interest to graduate students and researchers. Ecological and Environmental Physiology of Birds accomplishes this state-of-the-art review and provides a worthy supplementary text for those teaching various “-ology” courses (e.g., ornithology, comparative physiology, vertebrate biology, and wildlife ecology) as well as for researchers who would appreciate a book-length review of key topics in avian physiological ecology.

The importance of a bird's physiology and anatomy was appreciated even in the first ornithology texts, although it was typically presented from a functional-morphology perspective—for example, the four-chambered heart provided separation of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood, the air sacs of birds enabled a flow-through respiratory system, the digestive system was relatively simple and was distinctive from that of mammals in having a gizzard that replaced functional teeth. We have entered a new age in our understanding of avian physiology that acknowledges the merits of functional morphology while highlighting the impressive phenotypic flexibility of physiological systems and the tight linkages between avian ecology and physiology. This new textbook, co-authored by some very qualified ornithologists and physiologists from throughout the globe, is firmly consistent with this contemporary perspective of avian physiology.

The book begins with a “Blueprint of a bird,” a summary of the functional morphology of birds, including the evolution of birds and adaptations for flight, and a second chapter that describes basic physiological principles (i.e., gas and heat exchange, energy flow, and water and ion fluxes) and their implications for birds. Summarizing such far-reaching topics in a concise manner is a formidable challenge, and I found these first two chapters to be unsuccessful primarily because the author(s) did not find the right balance between dense descriptions of key topics, effective visuals to depict key concepts, and eclectic yet intelligibly detailed descriptions of key concepts. I suspect that many readers who are unfamiliar with the topic or have forgotten the traditional physiological principles that they learned in a basic vertebrate physiology course will consult other fine textbooks for figures and descriptions that clarify these concepts. On the other hand, these chapters provide a succinct, factual, well-referenced, and contemporary review of these topics so that the interested reader can easily delve deeper into topics of particular interest.

The next five chapters focus on important contemporary topics in avian physiological ecology: the physiological basis for fecundity-longevity tradeoffs; nutritional ecology and digestive physiology; physiological adaptation associated with living in arid, cold, and high-altitude environments; neural and sensory physiology; and developmental physiology. These five chapters constitute more than 60% of the book volume, are the heart of the book, and warrant the price of admission. As promised, these chapters provide state-of-the-art reviews on these key topics in physiology that should be helpful to graduate students and researchers who appreciate a succinct synthesis that provides key inroads into the literature on these topics.

The eighth chapter provides an overview of contemporary methods for measuring energy expenditure and movement patterns of birds, and a reminder of many of the new stable-isotope and molecular methods that avian physiologists and ecologists have at their disposal. The brave new world of ornithology is incredibly bright if we all embrace these new technologies and understand both their promise and limitations. The book ends with a concluding chapter on selected future directions that highlights several of the current “hot” topics in avian physiological ecology, although within this final six pages the authors have tried to inspire us rather than provide details about fruitful future directions.

In general, this book achieves the goal of this series in providing a succinct state-of-the-art review on the physiological ecology of birds. Graduate students and researchers interested in updating their knowledge of this field will be well served by this book. The lack of figures and other illustrations to depict key concepts, and the relatively brief reviews of key topics, make the book less appealing for use as a textbook for an upper-division course. However, it has much value when placed next to your favorite ornithology and physiology text(s) so that you can use it as a fine supplement as you prepare your lectures, when you need reminders of the breadth and depth of a key topic, or as you plan your next research project.

© 2011 by The American Ornithologists' Union. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press's Rights and Permissions website,
R. Todd Engstrom and Scott R. McWilliams "Book Reviews," The Auk 128(3), 593-594, (1 July 2011).
Published: 1 July 2011
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