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1 January 2013 Book Reviews
R. Todd Engstrom, Tony Gaston
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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.

I must begin with a disclaimer: the first thing I did on opening this book was to check whether my own work was cited. When I found, not only that my work was featured, but that it was accurately reported, I became very well disposed towards it.

The book sets out to cover the effects of climate change on birds, and the authors admit to placing more emphasis on the negative consequences than on any benefits. Both the title and the masthead quotation, from the mid-20th-century conservationist Mary Stoneham Douglas, suggest that what happens to the birds can be used as an early warning to alert us to our own peril. However, there is little in the book concerning this idea. The bulk of the text describes examples of birds affected in one way or another by climate change, and the last chapter reviews some of the broader consequences for conservation of a warming planet: there is little attempt to draw conclusions for us from what is happening to the birds.

The chapters deal, variously, with phenology, migration, seabirds and ocean change, changes in range, changes in populations and tropical regions, and climate islands. The text is dense with examples and exceptional in its geographic scope, with the action switching rapidly from Pied Flycatchers in Europe to manakins in Costa Rica to sub-Antarctic penguins. A very large proportion of the avian studies that have claimed to detect change in bird distributions, populations, migrations, and phenology in relation to climate change, at least in the major ecology journals, get a mention somewhere. This is certainly a strength, but also a slight weakness, in that the story is made to look more complex than was perhaps necessary. Where individual studies are described, the accounts generally seem accurate. However, I found myself questioning some of the broader generalizations (e.g., “Like other warm-blooded animals they [birds] are predisposed to live in a particular thermal environment”—tell that to the raven and the peregrine), and although I am quite sure the authors understand evolution by natural selection perfectly well, some of the text concerning climate adaptation sounds a little off key.

There is an introductory chapter, but it does not set out any clear framework for what we can expect in the way of climate change and what will happen to the biosphere in general, although changes in specific ecosystems and ecozones are referred to throughout the text. It seems the authors decided that enough has already been written about climate change at the planetary level and about the results of the IPCC process, and they may well be right about that.

The book is decorated with three sets of eight pages of color plates illustrating some of the species mentioned in the text. Many were taken by the second author, and they provide good evidence that he must have accumulated a heap of frequent-flier points. For the most part they do not relate to climate change (no shots of heat-stressed birds or dried-out potholes) and, hence, seem to be added simply for eye candy. However, the picture of a rockhopper penguin in the act of rock-hopping is priceless, and I believe this is the first time in a Western text where I have seen a picture of conservation in action in Turkey.

For me, the strangest feature of the book is the lack of text figures. Usually, diagrams and attractive line drawings are a feature of popular science books, enabling complex concepts to be readily visualized (e.g., the wave vs. photon theories of light). In this case, there are only three diagrams, all reproduced as plates. The chapters on migration and on range changes cry out for maps, but there are none in the book and I think a reader who had stayed in North America all their life might find this a real problem. References are numbered by chapters and gathered as endnotes: 337 in total. I found myself wanting more than are given, which is some measure of the broad scope of topics covered.

Published in Australia and printed in China, the book's design and production are somewhat pedestrian, but the font size should satisfy those with poor eyesight. The title and tone of the book, as well as the fact that the first author is a science journalist, suggest that it is intended as popular science, appealing to non-scientists. However, there are plenty of technical terms used, not all defined (e.g., endogenous rhythms, niche, North Atlantic Oscillation, density dependence—although phenology gets a detailed definition, as well as an etymology), which contrasts with the liberal use of “climate finger-print” (I would have preferred “sign”) and “yard-stick” applied to timing of egg laying as a measure of phenology.

For most researchers in the field, the book is probably too general and too skimpily referenced to be of great value and Møller et al.'s Effects of Climate Change on Birds (Oxford University Press, 2010) would be a better choice. The topic should appeal to many birders and naturalists, although more thought about presentation, especially the provision of text figures, would have made it more attractive. On the other hand, I know of no other popular treatise on this topic, and it certainly provides a very wide-ranging entry into the burgeoning literature on birds and climate change. It would be a good book for an undergraduate course on either birds or climate change. Mark: A—. Strength: lots of ground covered. Weakness: insufficient integration.

© 2013 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 Tony Gaston "Book Reviews," The Auk 130(1), 196-197, (1 January 2013).
Published: 1 January 2013

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