How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals about Their Origin, Lives, and Diversity

How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals About Their Origin, Lives & Diversity
Douglas J. Futuyma
Princeton University Press (2021)

Birds are one of the most fascinating group of animals. They have a great deal of diversity and live in nearly every habitat on the globe. Many have beautiful coloration, fascinating behavior, and beautiful voices. And of course, most of them fly.

How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals about Their Origin, Lives, and Diversity


How Birds Evolve goes way back in time to analyze how, why and when birds split off from dinosaurs. It uses a lot of scientific terms, but still remains fairly readable. The author is a birder, and it felt that the book was geared towards more than casual birders. Futuyma provides a good argument for birders to obtain a deeper understanding of why birds look like they do and behave in certain ways. This doesn’t make birding analytical but instead enhances our ability to find and identify birds. It goes hand in hand with understanding habitats and plant life as ways of seeking specific birds.

Since I started birding, bird taxonomy has been changing (and will continue to change). I was always surprised and a bit confused when there was a “split” or “lump”. The way birds are categorized is constantly changing, and those changes continue to ramp up as science gets better at discovering DNA links. The fact that falcons have been found to be more closely related to parrots is tough to wrap my brain around. It means that birders are always challenged to keep learning. And that’s a good thing.


Outside of the dinosaur link and taxonomic changes (plus Archaeopteryx) the origin of birds is less interesting to me than their actual behavior. The chapters discussing nesting and bird social lives were especially interesting. Futuyma covers the variations of nestling-raising among birds. These include: female only, male only, both parents, none, or the really odd way: laying an egg in a mound and letting the nestling fend for themself (Malleefowl).

The author also discusses the potential costs of birds forming large groups. They compete for food, have more chances of disease/parasites, and have higher chances of direct conflict, including egg destruction. A huge benefit of course is “safety in numbers”. This is seen in many types of animals beyond birds. Essentially, fly a bit quicker than the guy next to you.


The best part of the How Birds Evolve are the final chapters covering diversity. The variance amongst bird species has always been my main fascination of birds. I keep a casual list of species I’ve seen and I desire to see as many as I can. But that is minuscule compared to studying the myriad of bird behaviors that are found a vast array of types of birds.

Being able to watch a swallow hunting insects, a woodpecker hammering away at a tree, a hawk gliding across an open field, and then a warbler gleaning insects from a leaf is what makes birding so amazing. Globally, there are so many interesting birds that the mere idea of their existence is hard to understand. Which leads into the final chapter on the future of birds.

Unfortunately, the outlook of birds is not good. Futuyma drives the point home that birds are declining nearly across the board. Many species are likely to go extinct in the next 50-100 years (although this is a moving target). Habitat loss and degradation are still the main culprits. Climate change of course is covered, but not in the usual apocalyptic way.

There are some successful conservation stories and some definite hope. Once you make it through the doom and gloom, there are some valid points of correcting this problem. Beyond humans changing their ways and putting conservation at the top of our priority, birds may adapt or even evolve to be able to live with us. Some have already done it, so we can never lose hope.

Parting Notes

Overall, this book is geared towards more science-based birders or science-loving non-birders. The amount of technical terms, while explained well, is still heavy. But the book is packed with information about bird evolution and I can see it being an ongoing reference for questions that will continue to arise in my own birding and learning adventures. received a copy of How Birds Evolve: What Science Reveals About Their Origin, Lives & Diversity from the publisher, Princeton University Press to review.

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