Shorebirds. An Illustrated Behavioural Ecology.—Jan van de Kam, Bruno Ens, Theunis Piersma, and Leo Zwarts. 2004. KNNV Publishers, Utrecht, The Netherlands. 368 pp. ISBN 90-5011-192-0. € 49.95 (cloth).
For those with an interest in shorebirds (or waders for much of the world), the release of a book that focuses on the behavioral ecology of these fascinating waterbirds is a rare and welcome event. Further discovering that the book centers on studies by the strong Dutch group of ecologists led by Bruno Ens, Theunis Piersma, and Leo Zwarts with photos by Jan van de Kam, stimulates the interest even further as this group has excelled in publishing results of their innovative, collaborative studies of coastal shorebirds ranging from the Arctic down into western Africa.
Opening the book, the first thing that struck me was its stunning graphic nature. KNNV Publishers should be commended; this is not a dry science book with a few illustrations thrown in to break up space. There are over 290 breathtaking photos liberally distributed throughout the volume, almost all by the senior author Jan van de Kam. The photos alone make this book worth buying due to their high quality and interesting composition; for instance see his photos of shorebirds with young on and around the nest in the chapter “Reproduction”. Additionally, Dick Visser, who has made so many scientific figures for these Dutch writers in the past, deserves special acknowledgment for creating most of the book's figures that are, without exception, visually pleasing and informative. All who create scientific figures for publication would benefit by studying his art.
Scientifically, the book is strong, but reading the first two chapters reveals a discrepancy between the book's title and its contents. When first published in Dutch, the book was called the “Ecologische Atlas van de Nederlandse Wadvogels” which literally translated means “Ecological atlas of the Netherland's mudflat birds”. The first chapter, “Tidal Areas”, describes some of the physical and biological characteristics of tidal flats around the world, but especially those of northwestern Europe. The second chapter, “Portrait Gallery”, attractively presents information on the common waterbirds (most are shorebirds but not all as evidenced by species accounts of birds like the Great Cormorant [Phalacrocorax carbo], the Spoonbill [Platalea leucorodia], and the Common Eider [Somateria mollissima]) of northwestern Europe, including distribution maps and life-history summaries.
Of the six book chapters, not until the third chapter, “Migration”, does the book delve into the behavioral ecology of shorebirds. This chapter describes the flyways and some of the sites that waterbirds use, primarily along the East Atlantic Flyway. There is talk about different migration patterns of shorebirds, details on how shorebirds make decisions about migration, discussion on how they navigate, and fascinating information on the migration physiology of shorebirds. Reading along, it becomes clear that this publication is not really a book designed to synthesize the behavioral ecology of shorebirds. Rather, this book is an illustrated celebration of the results of years of study by this group of eminent ecologists fascinated by factors influencing life history cycles of various coastal waterbirds occurring along the East Atlantic Flyway. Behavioral ecology is one of the key, but not only, connecting themes of the book.
The next chapter, “Food”, goes from presenting research on decisions shorebirds make when foraging (most of this chapter is dedicated to the migrating and wintering periods) to the ecology of certain common prey items of shorebirds such as the ragworm (Hediste diversicolor) and fiddler crabs (Uca spp.). The authors present studies attempting to answer various questions. Do shorebirds forage optimally? Why are certain prey selected and not others? Like the “Migration” and “Food” chapters, the “Reproduction” chapter focuses almost entirely on shorebirds. A variety of topics are covered ranging from a discussion of what is fitness, to sexual selection, to techniques for studying reproduction in birds, including DNA fingerprinting. While awkwardly organized, solid, stimulating science is packed into the chapters and studies are well referenced (although reading through the 1010 literature citations, roughly 98% of them were by European authors despite a significant body of literature on shorebirds from other parts of the world). The final chapter, “Looking into the future”, begins with the question “Is the increasing human pressure on our planet's limited resources threatening the survival of waterbirds?”. Mirroring the whole book, this chapter jumps around in mysterious ways with subheadings ranging from “Counters and twitchers” to “What is carrying capacity” to “The convention circus”. However, the contents are interesting and informative, and the chapter's spatial scale is more global than that of others.
If you are in search of a clear outline of behavioral ecology or a book to organize a graduate level class around, this is not the book I would recommend. Topics bounce around too much, there is an inadequate table of contents (pictures and figures are not even referenced), and coverage of various topics is spotty. Nevertheless, there is an incredible amount of useful information in this book. Those who are interested in shorebirds, other waterbirds, and coastal wetland related issues will be engaged by this quirky and thoroughly enjoyable book. It is a fascinating blend of top-rate science and popular writing, chock-full of great graphics, and well worth reading. Its price, roughly $65.00 (US), while not cheap, is a deal in this day of expensive books.