Queen's University

Professor's interest in birds spans 50 years

 
2014-02-27
Dr. Bob Montgomerie on a recent trip to Brazil watching
a rare hummingbird. (photo credit: Bruce Lyon)

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

After studying birds for half a century—his first academic paper on birds was published while he was still in high school—Bob Montgomerie has turned his attention to history in a new book, Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin, to be published this week by Princeton University Press.

Ten Thousand Birds, a joint project with Drs. Tim Birkhead and Jo Wimpenny from the University of Sheffield, tells the story of ornithology, the scientific study of birds, beginning with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and ending with present-day research.

“My hope is that people will read this book not just to learn about birds, but to learn about the interesting characters and discoveries that have made the study of birds so influential in the development of biology as a science,” says Dr. Montgomerie, who holds the Queen’s Research Chair in Evolutionary Biology. “You learn so much reading historical material, we found, and it’s a shame that most scientists know so little about the development of their own field of research.”

His involvement with Ten Thousand Birds grew from a long-time friendship with co-author Dr. Birkhead. This collaboration was driven not only by their like-mindedness and research interests but also by a desire to provide a more balanced perspective—both North American and European—than either of them could have accomplished alone.

Having gathered much more information than could be put into a single book, the team knew they would have to find another way to make it available to others. To that end, they plan to share much of that material in a blog they launched last week.

For Dr. Montgomerie, learning about ornithology has been a lifelong pursuit, and he notes that writing a book about the history of his discipline actually broadened his own of knowledge on the topic.

His interest in birds started before high school and his first paper was published in the journal Bird Banding. When he enrolled in university, he studied mainly zoology, philosophy and statistics, but admits that he spent more time watching and studying birds at the Long Point Bird Observatory on Lake Erie than actually working on his course material. 

“I just wanted to be outdoors, but I knew that I needed an education to work in my desired field,” he says.

Dr. Montgomerie loves the freedom and travel opportunities that come along with his research. He’s travelled to a wide variety of places, such as California to study hummingbirds over the past Christmas break, and for 15 years to the Melville Peninsula, Nunavut, to study High Arctic birds. His favourite places though are islands—Attu Island at the western end of the Aleutians in Alaska, and Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef—where birds are often tamer and evolve different plumages and behaviours from those on the mainland. 

"The best part of my job is being able to travel where I need to, to study the species I'm interested in," says Dr. Montgomerie. "It's great to have that freedom."

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