Review: All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology

All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology,  Valerie Chansigaud, Princeton University Press, 2010

One afternoon in the Egyptian Museum Holly and I identified 27 species of birds which were carved, painted, and sculpted into the artifacts. I cite this experience because the artifacts in the Egyptian Museum are among the oldest that have been preserved, but the museum is in no way unique in the ubiquity of bird images. Take a walk through any of the world’s great museums, visit any of the collections from any period, and you will find them chockablock full of birds. Indeed the history of birds is bound to the history of humans. They have fueled our imaginations, our poetry, our fashion, and our myth. They are the stuff of childish musing. They are prophets who warn of the consequences of callous treatment of our environment, and they have recruited more people to the cause of conservation than perhaps any other single factor. Birds have served honorably in war. They have conferred political legitimacy.  They have provided sport. They have been the subject of scientific inquiry since we first began to order and make sense of the world we share with them.

The history of ornithology is the history of our understanding of the natural world. Anyone who is more than casually interested in birds will heartily welcome the publication of All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology by Valerie Chansigard which outlines the history of scientific bird study from Aristotle and Pliny the Elder through the twentieth century. Following a timeline (which is outlined in the back of the book) Chansigard provides entries about all of the major contributors to bird science. Fully half the volume is devoted to the 19th century during which ornithology came into full flower. The book is richly illustrated, very accessible, and has a good bibliography. It is a nice addition to the literature tracing the history of our passion.


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