Climate Change: for the Birds


Bird Migration and Global Change . Cox, G. W. 2010 . Island Press , Washington , D.C . 297 pp. $45 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-59726-688-8.
Fraser's Penguins: a Journey to the Future in Antarctica. Montaigne, F. 2010. Henry Holt, New York, NY. 288 pp. $26 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8050-7942-5-93.
Effects of Climate Change on Birds. Møller, A. P., W. Fiedler and P. Berthold, editors. 2010. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom. 344 pp. $62.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-19-856836-0.

Three recent books document the predominantly detrimental effects of climate change on birds and predict even worse effects in the future. But the orthogonal approaches to this issue taken by each author provide distinct insights through highly differentiated styles and perspectives.

Why examine the effects of climate change on birds in particular? Birds are nearly everywhere—on all seven continents and in or over every ocean. They fly, swim, run, and dig. In addition, people like birds. More than one in five U.S. adults watch birds as a hobby, which makes bird watching one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities (USFWS 2003). Birds are also a major focus in both the taxonomic and conservation literature, and the number of published articles on birds far exceeds their relative proportion in nature (Clark & May 2002). Because birds are ubiquitous, people care about them, and scientists preferentially study them. Perhaps birds can first play a key role improving our understanding of the effects of climate change on biological diversity, and second, help shift public and political attention to better address these effects. So, birds it is.

Each of these three books presents independent and generally nonoverlapping perspectives on how climate change affects birds, and each will appeal to very different sets of readers. Want the hard-core science perspective? Pick up Effects of Climate Change on Birds. Prefer a synthesis of the scientific literature translated into the vernacular? Read Bird Migration and Global Change. For a travelogue- and memoir-style book, try Fraser's Penguins: a Journey to the Future in Antarctica.

Effects of Climate Change on Birds is an edited compilation of articles written in scientific journal style that will be most useful to academics. Many edited volumes of scientific research are poorly organized and highly uneven in terms of writing style, quality, and content. This compilation is skillfully organized and edited and suffers from none of these flaws.

The book begins with an in-depth, stand-alone chapter that introduces the topic of climate change. This bird-free chapter is general enough to be useful to any academic wanting an introduction to the science of climate change. The remainder of the book is divided into two sections: methods used to study climate change and the biological effects of climate change.

The first section provides a rich and concentrated introduction to the primary research methods used by scientists studying responses of biota to climate change. With the exception of the first chapter on long-term time-series data on birds, this section is also almost entirely bird free and focuses on models that are not specific to bird research.

Birds at last become the focus in the second, and larger, section. Here, the chapters address the biological effects of climate change on bird migration, breeding, resources, genetics, populations, communities, and interspecies and ecological interactions. Although the chapter order seems random, the content does not. The must-read chapter of this book addresses potential conservation responses to effects of climate change on birds. This pithy summary provides essential information for understanding how climate change is affecting birds and ends with a brief list of general conservation priorities that are not limited to birds.

Several of the chapters, particularly the methods chapters, should appeal to a wide audience and would be a useful resource for any number of university courses. But, many readers will want to hop directly to the section on the biological effects of climate change on birds, and readers who are short on time should fly directly to the penultimate chapter on conservation effects.

The scope of Bird Migration and Global Change is narrower than Effects of Climate Change on Birds and focuses on how climate change affects a subset of birds: those that migrate. George Cox deftly synthesizes and translates the preeminent scientific studies on bird migration and climate change. In his effort to probe as deeply as possible, Cox attempts to include all major species groups, ecosystem types, and migratory patterns.

Cox explores this topic through the eyes of an academic, the passion of a birder, and the patience of an experienced educator. He summarizes thoughtfully what is known from the scientific literature, and instead of in-text citations, he provides a list of key references at the end of each chapter. This approach will likely frustrate more academic readers who will find it difficult to match up the facts and data Cox presents and his sources in the literature. At times, the writing and organization are rather formulaic, with each new section or chapter presenting yet another necessarily data-driven summary. But interspersed throughout the book are brief personal observations and anecdotes, making this book seem both more intimate and compelling.

In parts I and II, Cox provides simple background information on the ecological, taxonomic, and geographic patterns associated with bird migration and how these patterns interact with climate change. Parts III and IV address the ecological and evolutionary responses of migratory birds to climate change. In the book's final section (part V), Cox discusses the capacity of migratory birds to adjust to climate change and key strategies for bird conservation.

One critical insight from Cox's book is that the effects of climate change are highly complex. Cox makes it clear that not all taxonomic groups, geographic locations, and ecological types are or will be affected equally. Even though migrating birds comprise only a tiny subset of global species, climate change affects each in sometimes dramatically different ways—an important lesson with broad implications. This book would be an excellent text for ornithology or migration courses that also focus on climate change.

Fraser's Penguins: a Journey to the Future in Antarctica is an unusual book with a bit of an identity problem—part memoir, part summary of scientific research, part history lesson, and part social commentary. Fen Montaigne is a journalist and travel writer, and the framework for his book is the 5 months he spent working as a field assistant with Bill Fraser's research team at Palmer Station in the Antarctic Peninsula in 2005–2006. Bill Fraser began conducting research in Antarctica in 1974, and his long-term research has focused on multiple aspects of biological diversity, including Adelie Penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae).

Fraser is a fascinating person. However, in this book, he is mostly absent and seems rather a bit player. That Fraser's name is in the title is somewhat perplexing. Montaigne's descriptions of his own experiences are far broader than either Fraser or penguins and include breathtaking depictions of many animal species. And as an added bonus, Montaigne limns the physical Antarctic environment with writing of crystal clarity and stained-glass beauty.

But this is not just a travelogue. Montaigne uses his experience to artfully describe how climate change is affecting the Antarctic and Adelie Penguins in particular. Montaigne successfully tackles some of the most complex and vexing scientific issues of our time in a manner accessible to most anyone.

However, his is not the first book on the effect of climate change on Adelie Penguins. David Ainley published a book on these penguins and climate change in 2002 (Ainley 2002). Nor is this the first book on “Bill Fraser’s” Adelie Penguins and climate change at Palmer Station in Antarctica. Meredith Hooper penned a book on this topic in 2008 (Hooper 2008). So was another book on Adelie Penguins and climate change really needed? For most, the combination of exceptionally well-crafted writing and the topic of penguins and climate change alone will justify Montaigne's book.

These three books are primarily descriptive and focus on how climate change affects birds. Climate change effects are not restricted to birds, and the insights and lessons gleaned from bird studies may often be applicable to other species and systems. Unfortunately, none of these books provide much insight into how best to address the effects of climate change even for birds. Consequently, we need even more books that are for the birds.