Book Review: Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds

I am currently working on a paper on some quantitative relationships involving birds. As some readers might know, this is part of my foray into some new areas of applied mathematics. In order to get to know the subject a little better, I recently read "Behavioral Ecology of Tropical Birds" by Bridget J.M. Stutchbury and Eugene S. Morton.

The questions asked in this book fall under the umbrella question, "why are tropical birds so different than temperate zone birds?" There are two motivating reasons to ask this question: first, tropic birds are quite different in their behavior compared to temperate zone species. Therefore, it is natural to try and figure out how these more 'typical' group fits into what we know about birds. The second reason is that many 'general' conclusions have been made about birds based on temperate zone studies, and some of these generalizations might give an incorrect view of all birds, because of this temperate zone bias.

This book by Stutchbury and Morton touches upon several topics: breeding seasons, life-history traits, mating systems, territoriality, communication, and biotic interactions. It surveys the literature, and includes much of the authors' own work on the matter.

For example, one topic the book addresses is the food availability hypothesis: that birds should breed when food is abundant. The authors indicate that while this is generally true for temperate zone birds, tropical birds sometimes deviate from this trend because food abundance may be more important at other times, such as when chicks are slightly older. In turn, this type of phenomenon might occur because breeding in the tropics is not so constrained as it is for many migratory temperate zone species.

So, the main theme of this book is one of counterexamples, and contrast between temperate zone species. The authors bring up a wide variety of fascinating behaviors that give researchers a more rounded view of birds if one quickly needs a basic summary of the differences between tropical and temperate birds.

If there is anything lacking in this book from today's perspective, it is that many of the questions that are brought up are not really resolved. Many of the questions also could have been treated with quantitative tools such as those used by Bennett and Owen in their book "Evolutionary Ecology of Birds". On the other hand, the questions left unanswered gave me a feeling of excitement and anticipation of delving further into the literature and possibly working on some of these questions myself. Also, virtually all of the tropical examples used in this book are from Central or South America. Therefore, some bias may exist here because the ecology and behaviours of birds from Africa, northern areas of Australia, and Southeast Asia are not discussed. However, as there are over ten thousand species of birds, one can't expect a comprehensive treatment in this relatively slim volume. Also, as noted by the authors, birds in many tropical areas are just not well-studied, and so very little data is available on them.

Concluding, I found this book fascinating and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the differences between temperate zone and tropical birds.

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