Bird Migration


The seasonal mass movements of birds have fascinated humankind at least since the dawn of the written word, and the phenomenon of migration has lost little of its drama and mystery despite the observations of birders and the analyses of ornithologists. This newest addition to Collins’s classic New Naturalist Library series goes a long way to summarising our current knowledge in a readable and comprehensive form.

Erudite and richly referenced, this is a more populist but still detailed alternative to the same author’s The Migration Ecology of Birds, itself a benchmark in the subject. After an introductory overview, we dive into the history of migration studies, from ringing to stable isotope analysis and captive bird research, before the focus centres on Britain. Physiology and weather are covered in detail, and then seasonal cycles and migration timing. The theories of long-distance avian navigation are given a thorough and up-to-date summary, and then hypotheses of vagrancy, so essential to the birder, though often trivial to the ornithologist, are also given a comprehensive run-through.

Most fascinating is the chapter on the evolution of migration, and adaptations, genetic control and the most recent changes in migratory behaviour are succinctly and engrossingly summarised. These are set firmly in their deep time context with a chapter on the effects of glaciation. It could be said that the book loses some of its narrative arc with a series of less connected chapters at the end, but these sections – on irruptions, sex and age differences, African wintering grounds and population limitation – contain plenty of facts and anecdotes to keep you engaged to the end.

I would have liked to see migration placed more in a global context, with seasonal movements in the tropics and the Americas taking up more of the stage. However, this has been covered thoroughly in the more technical migration ecology volume. Anyway, part of the good fortune of living on islands with such varied migrants and migration behaviours is that much of the definitive research into the subject has been performed on ‘our’ birds. 

Adorned with the expected deceptively simple but beautiful Robert Gillmor print, this volume is not only one of the best ‘NNs’ yet, but also adds a huge wedge of scientific observational wisdom to popular birding knowledge.

Tech spec

Bird Migration by Ian Newton (Collins, London, 2010)

•    598 pages, 200 colour photographs, plus tables, diagrams and maps

   ISBN 9780007307319. Hbk, £50

First published in Birdwatch 217:44 (July 2010).