Avian Survivors: the History and Biogeography of Palearctic Birds


British birders often graduate from listing for their own country to the Western Palearctic, but the entire Palearctic is the biogeographical region used by biologists to describe the floral and faunal groupings of Eurasia north of the Himalayas, along with North Africa and the temperate Middle East.

This welcome new volume describes the evolution, history and range of the Palearctic’s birds within one set of covers, from the beginning of the Tertiary epoch 65 million years ago to the present day; this is essentially the period of time when both mammals and birds underwent a rapid and wide-ranging radiation of forms and species after many ecological niches were freed up by the extinction of the dinosaurs and the overall cooling of the climate.

The book begins with a readable but in-depth overview of the geological time periods, changing ecologies and bird forms involved, before the chapters which make up the bulk of the book. These last bravely follow the latest genetic analyses, particularly that of Hackett et al 2008 (see Birdwatch 199: 39-42), and then summarise our knowledge of the evolution of each of the major Palearctic representatives of these groups. Each chapter’s group is further broken down into family, genus and species in the text, and its habits and adaptations summarised under the headings of climate, habitat, migratory behaviour and fossil history.

The body of the book is copiously illustrated with histograms and tables and there is a series of plates featuring the author’s own colour photographs to illustrate species from the major groups. A closing chapter on the possible divergences of the Palearctic avifauna in the present and future is followed by a list of all the species mentioned in the book and their climatic and ecological preferences.

This book was inspired by the author’s own excavations at a now-inland cave site on Gibraltar, where he found the bones of Crag Martins associated with the 40,000-year-old skeletons of Neanderthals, as the present-day Crag Martins flew and nested overhead; the cave was once on the shoreline. The presence of such temporal and physical changes is palpable throughout the book, and even though there is the occasional dry patch in the text for the lay reader, Finlayson’s fascination, knowledge and enthusiasm will keep you keen to learn more.

This is an authoritative and essential guide to the avian history of our biogeographical region, revealing much-engrossing detail formerly only found in textbooks and obscure papers, and it will become a primary source for all those interested in ‘our’ birds’ place in the grand biological scheme of things.

Avian Survivors: the History and Biogeography of Palearctic Birds by Clive Finlayson (T & A D Poyser, 2011).

304 pages, three line drawings, 63 figures, 29 colour photos, 45 tables and seven maps.

ISBN 9780713688658. Hbk, £50.

Available from Birdwatch bookshop