Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology – Review

Cambridge Encyclopedia of OrnithologyPoachingFacts rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology, edited by Michael Brooke and Tim Birkhead, offers a reasonably comprehensive and detailed explanation of avian anatomy, behavior, scientific classification by family, and natural history among other topics. Thirty-nine individuals from top universities as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds contributed to the text of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology to make it a clear and accessible reference to those seeking a macro-scale view of bird life. Specifically, it does not summarize features, coloration, or vocalizations of specific species, but reflects on the characteristics and behaviors of birds as a taxonomic family. Those seeking detailed descriptions of bird species should look to the many Princeton field guides and similar field references.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology is divided into 11 chapters which are then divided by major subject ranging from “Migration and Navigation” to “The Daily Activities of Birds.” Each section is further subdivided into multi-paragraph explanations on topics such as: reasons for migration, leap-frog migration, mental maps (under “Migration and Navigation”). Each subsection concisely explains the topic and the superb organization of the table of contents means that specific concepts, like “the principal types of nests” or “history of domestication” can be easily found and flipped to, without having to skim long passages.

“Special Features” are interspersed throughout the book, offering explanations on tangentially related “special interest” topics that didn’t fit into the overarching structure. This format allows glimpses at ecological segregation, radio tracking, tool-using, and a dozen more topics. It is unfortunate that these information panels could not be further expanded and incorporated into existing subsections, but it does provide a “cameo appearance” for the terms and aspects of bird life which amateur- and novice-ornithologists can then look up in other, more up-to-date and robust texts. Many color photos, black-and-white illustrations, and charts accompany the text. Although many of them are small, they’re large enough and of a high enough quality to more than adequately provide nuance for the text.

Three indexes provide ways of finding the exact topic or species the reader is looking for. Since the book is not structured as an encyclopedia about individual bird species, this format is designed for finding which pages a specific species is referenced on and which family it falls under. Due to the age of the book not all of the scientific names will be accurate, and some species may have been moved to added to families not listed in this desk reference. However the Index of Common Names (pages 346-350) provides a very handy and very layman-friendly means of finding a specific species. It really underscores how much effort was put into making this a friendly reference without dumbing down the information contained within. Looking up “Owl” for instance, one would find a list of several owl species by common name, each with their scientific name, and then the page numbers each species is referenced on. This is a much superior index format for those that might not know the exact common name of “Short-eared Owl” or who have the scientific name Asio flammeus and need to cross-reference.

Although this book is over 25 years old it would be a good – and inexpensive – starting point for students 10-18 years old, budding amateur ornithologists, and novice ornithologists not yet ready or willing to read denser works, or for people who want a starting point to dive deeper into ornithology.

The format of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology would lend itself well to an e-book, so we hope that if there is ever a reprinting, especially a revised edition updating any classification inaccuracies, that we can see a second life brought to this information in an even more accessible way.


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