Clifford B Frith
Oxford University Press, £45.99
For anyone interested in the history of biology, this book is a treat. It is a very readable account of the role that birds played in Charles Darwin's life. Indeed, this book is best thought of as a biography of Darwin, not as a naturalist, but as an observer of birds in all their wondrous forms.
No special interest in birds is required and, although it's a scholarly work, it is eminently readable and complete with a large collection of pictures in the centre.
There are plenty of Darwin anecdotes, drawing from letters and technical writings to create an empathetic portrait of Darwin the ornithologist, showing him as not so much a lone genius but as firmly embedded in the research community of his time.
For readers with a particular interest in Darwin and his birds, the book also has extensive appendices of birds both discovered by and named after the naturalist. Chronicling Darwin's entire life with birds, from childhood and university to the Beagle and beyond, the book contains everything from Darwin's opinions on turkey chest tufts to descriptions of his (sometimes wonderfully eccentric) experiments involving everything from sparrows to ducks' feet.
Every reader is sure to learn something new about Darwin from this book. For example, was it finches or mockingbirds that he came across on the Galápagos?
Josephine Hellberg MRSB