Professor Tim Birkhead - Page 2

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Current Research Projects

1. Postcopulatory sexual selection

Our main current project (funded by the ERC 2011-2016) looks at the energetics of making sperm and whether sub-populations of sperm exist in ejaculates.

2. Population biology of seabirds

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Together with Ben Hatchwell, I have maintained a study of the population of individually marked guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer Island, Wales since 1972. The aim of this long term study, which was funded by the Countryside Council for Wales until 2013, is to understand the processes responsible for long term changes in the population.

We monitor adult and immature survival, age at first breeding, reproductive success, timing of breeding, and the diet and feeding rate of guillemot chicks. The parameters we measure provide a comprehensive 'health check' for the guillemot population which is far more sensitive than simply counting numbers. Our main findings are that oiling incidents, even as far away as northern Spain, have a negative effect on the population, because guillemots winter over a wide area. We have also shown that climate change affects breeding success and the timing of breeding, and probably survival. See: Votier et al. (2005) Ecology Letters, 8: 1157-1164, and Meade et al. (2012) J. Avian Biology, 43: 1-7. More popular articles on the long term study of Skomer's guillemots can be found in Natur Cymru (2009) 30: 33-37 and (2014) 52: 10-15; Birdwatching Magazine (2012) 30-32; Times Higher Education (2012) 9 August 30-35.

For more info on Tim and Ben's long term study of guillemots on Skomer Island, visit: and if you wish to donate, go to:

Volunteers needed

We are always looking for field assistants for this seabird project. Field Assistants spend from mid-April till mid-July on Skomer Island (off the coast of Wales). Accommodation is provided. If you are interested, please email Tim Birkhead. You must be fit and healthy with perfect vision. Experience of working with birds and living in remote locations would be an advantage.

3. History of Science

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My project, funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust (2012-2015) documented the contribution of Francis Willughby (1635-1672) to the development of biology. This is an international network and will result in the production of a book on Willughby. A previous history of science project, also funded by the Leverhulme Trust was to explore the development of scientific ornithology since Aristotle. The result of that project was `The Wisdom of Birds´ (Bloomsbury, London 2008), and a number of papers (below).

In addition, with various collaborators, I have written a history of behavioural ecology (Birkhead, T. R. & Monaghan, P. 2009. Ingenious ideas: the history of behavioral ecology. In: Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology (Ed. by Westneat, D. F. & C. Fox.)), and a history of sperm studies (Birkhead, T. R. & Montgomerie, R. 2008. Three centuries of sperm studies. In: Sperm Biology, An Evolutionary Perspective (Ed. by Birkhead, T. R., Hosken, D. & Pitnick, S.). London: Academic Press).

Birkhead, T. R., Schulze-Hagen, K. & Kinzelbach, R. 2004. Domestication of the canary Serinus canaria - the change from green to yellow. Archives of Natural History, 31, 50-56.

Birkhead, T. R., Butterworth, E. & van Balen, S. 2006. A recently discovered seventeenth century French encyclopadeia of ornithology. Archives of Natural History, 33, 109-134.

Birkhead, T. R. & van Balen, S. 2008. Bird-keeping and the development of ornithological science. Archives of Natural History, 35, 281-305.

Charmantier, I., Greengrass, M. & Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Jean-Baptiste Faultrier´s Traitté general des Oyseaux (1660): an evaluation. Archives of Natural History, 35, 319-338.

Charmantier, I. & Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Willughby's angel: the pintailed sandgrouse (Pterrocles alchata). Journal for Ornithology, 149, 469-472.

Montgomerie, R. & Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Samuel Pepys' hand-coloured copy of John Ray's The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1678). Journal of Ornithology.

Schulze-Hagen, K., Stokke, B. & Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Reproductive biology of the European cuckoo Cuculus canorus: early insights, persistent errors and the acquisition of knowledge. Journal for Ornithology, 150, 1-16.

Birkhead, T.R. & Gallivan, P.T. 2012. Alfred Newton's contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis 154: 887-905

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Times Higher Education

Between 2002 and 2009 I wrote a monthly column for the Times Higher Education (formerly Times Higher Education Supplement (THES)) directed at encouraging good academic practice, maintaining academic standards and occasionally pointing out academic and management peccadillos.

THE front cover

Articles include:

  • 5 November 2009 – VIP: Very irregular podium
  • 10 December 2009 – More contact: When?
  • 25 February 2010 - I feel like a marked man.
  • 15 April 2010 - Different type of problem.
  • 20 May 2010 - Live a year in my shoes. Times Higher Education.
  • 1 July 2010 - Morale heads for the pan.

Information for prospective students or post-docs

I am always interested to hear from well qualified, highly motivated students. So, if you are interested in working in my lab as a MSc, PhD or Post-doc, please e-mail your CV and the names and addresses of three referees. Note that if you are from outside the UK you must have your own funding. UK students are eligible for NERC studentships and a list of those available (to start September October) is usually posted on the University web pages eight to ten months previously.

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Books by T R Birkhead

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Cover of Professor Birkhead's book, The Most Perfect Thing

The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Birds' Egg. Bloomsbury 2016. Click here for further information

Book cover for Professor Birkhead's book, Virtuoso by Nature

Virtuoso by Nature: the Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Brill, Leiden 2016.

Francis Willughby was the first scientific ornithologist and naturalist. Part of the scientific revolution, Willughby was later eclipsed by his friend John Ray, who lived longer and published more. This book re-evaluates Willughby's contribution to ornithology and natural history in general ... and much more. An extraordinary man!

Ten Thousand Birds book cover

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Click here for further information

This book, by myself, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie, and which will be published by Princeton University Press in 2014, explores the major developments in scientific ornithology over the last century. We focus on the twentieth century.

Bird Sense: What its Like to be a Bird. Click here for further information

This book, published by Bloomsbury in 2012, considers the senses of birds: vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch and so on to glean an idea of how birds perceive the world. My motivation for writing this non-technical book is that I have always felt we have underestimated what's going on in a bird's head. Also, as behavioural ecology continues to reach out to embrace 'mechanisms' we need to know much more than we do about how birds perceive the world.

'The Wisdom of Birds' (2008) - Click here for further information

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Our relationship with birds goes back a long way. Humans have had to understand birds and to know something of their behaviour and ecology to hunt them successfully; knowing where and when birds might be at certain times of year; when they reproduce; how they reproduce; whether they nest on the ground or in trees; whether they lay a single egg or many. Inspired by the unexpected, people have also imbued birds with a spiritual or symbolic significance, as with the timely appearance of vast numbers of exhausted migrant quail that saved the Israelites from starvation.

The sheer abundance, visibility and diversity of birds means that they have been a source of practical or symbolic fascination ever since men began to paint and write. Images of birds decorate the walls of European caves; in Africa men chipped out the forms of birds on slabs of hot, red sandstone; and in Arctic burial chambers the skulls of great auks accompanied the dead to the next world. The Greeks were inspired and mystified by birds; they wrote poems about them; they employed their body-parts and droppings as medicines and magic, and used their presence or behaviour to fortell the future.

Today, we know more about the lives of birds than any other type of animal. But how do we know what we know?

My aim in /The Wisdom of Birds/ is to trace observations like these from their earliest beginnings, through to their incorporation into our present knowledge of birds.

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4. 'Sperm Biology, an Evolutionary Approach' (2008) Elsevier, edited by Tim Birkhead, David Hosken and Scott Pitnick.

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The evolution of spermatozoa is one of most rapidly developing topics in biology. The aim of this book is to synthesize our current knowledge of the evolution of sperm form and function and to suggest further avenues for research.

1. History of Sperm Studies in Evolutionary Biology Tim Birkhead & Robert Montgomerie
2. The evolutionary origin and maintenance of sperm: selection for a small, motile gamete mating type Kate Lessells, Rhonda Snook & David Hosken
3. Sperm Diversity Scott Pitnick, David Hosken and Tim Birkhead
4. Evolution of Spermatogenesis Helen White-Cooper, Karen Doggett & Ron Ellis
5. Sperm Motility and Energetics Jim Cummins
6. Sperm Competition and Sperm Phenotype Tom Pizzari & Geoff Parker
7. Sperm-Female Interactions Scott Pitnick, Mariana Wolfner & Susan Suarez
8. Sperm-Egg Interactions Rhonda Snook & Tim Karr
9. Sperm and Speciation Daniel Howard, Stephen Palumbi, Leanna Birge & Mollie Manier
10. Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics of Sperm Leigh Simmons & Allen Moore
11. Sperm Proteomics and Genomics Timothy Karr & Steven Dorus
12. Drive and Sperm Daven Presgraves
13. Unusual Gametic and Genetic Systems Benjamin Normark
14. Sperm and Conservation Eduardo Roldan and Montse Gomendio
15. Sperm, Human Fertility and Society Allan Pacey

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5. The Red Canary (2002). Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London

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The story of the first genetically engineered animal. Long before Dolly the Sheep or transgenic mice or bioengineered corn, there was the Red Canary-the first organism to be manipulated by genetic technology, back in the 1920s. The effort to produce a red canary invoked all of the deep issues that troubled genetic engineering decades later: the nature of genes and how they work, the specter of eugenics, and the relative roles of nature and nurture in determining what an organism is. I describe how a rather plain but sweet-voiced green bird discovered by Spanish explorers in the 1300s became a craze in Renaissance Europe, how breeders gradually turned its green plumage to yellow, and how a pair of German bird enthusiasts combined genetic science with bird-breeding lore in the 1920s to produce an almost-red canary. But it wasn't until the 1960s that British fanciers were able to successfully breed a red canary, but not by genes alone. The Red Canary is the compelling tale of an important episode in the history of genetics, of the fascinating hidden world of bird-breeding, of contentious ideas in 1920s Germany, and of two amateur scientists who unwittingly managed to be decades ahead of their time.

Praise for The Red Canary

"Propelled by his considerable scientific authority, Tim Birkhead has woven an astonishing, sometimes shocking story of men who brought all the desperate desire of the human enterprise to bear in trying to create a genetically perfected bird at a time when others were obsessed with the idea of the genetically perfect man. The result is an enlightening-and cautionary-tale of scientific insights and blind ambitions." - Carl Safina, author of Eye of the Albatross

"Rich in historical detail, studded with curious characters-some of them human-and brimming with scientific insights, The Red Canary reads like a fine novel." - Matt Ridley, author of Nature via Nurture and Genome

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6. Promiscuity (2000). Faber, London.

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PROMISCUITY (2000) is about reproduction and explores the ways in which the two components of Darwin's concept of sexual selection - competition between males and choice by females - operate after insemination has taken place. Post-copulatory sexual selection, as it is called, consists of competition between males to fertilise females' eggs (sperm competition) and choice of different males' sperm by females (cryptic female choice). These are, by definition, processes which can occur only if females are inseminated by more than one male during a single reproductive cycle. Generations of reproductive biologists assumed females to be sexually monogamous but it is now apparent that this is wrong. The recent recognition that females often copulate with several different males, together with the realisation that in an evolutionary sense all organisms are basically selfish, has revolutionised our view of reproduction.

"A marvellous and lucid survey, from bedbugs to humans. If you want to know why sex is so complicated, read this book and give your brain a treat" Nick Davies - Cambridge

"An engaging, popular account of the ultimate battle between the sexes. The excellent book will leave you in no doubt that Kipling was right when he declared that the female of the species is more deadly than the male" Roger Short - Monash, Australia

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Other Books

1998. Sperm Competition and Sexual Selection. Academic Press, London (Edited with A. P. Møller).

1993. Great Auk Islands. Poyser, London.

1992. Sperm Competition in Birds. Academic Press, London. (With A. P. Møller).

1991. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (Edited with M. De I. Brooke). Winner of the McColvin Medal for best reference book of 1991.

1991. The Magpies. Poyser, London.

1989. The Survival Factor. Boxtree, London. (With M.E. Birkhead).

1985. The Atlantic Alcidae. Academic Press, London. (Edited with D. N. Nettleship).

1983. Avian Ecology. Blackie, Tertiary Level Biology Series, Glasgow & London. (With C. M. Perrins).

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Please follow the links below to purchase the listed publications