Heavy (bird) science warning!
John Burchard asked me recently about the current evolutionary status of New World Vultures, and I realized my answer “reviewed” a book I had been meaning to. So consider the following to be my semi- official review of the amazing book The Inner Bird by Gary Kaiser.
The very latest– this year’s?– dope takes them [ N W Vultures] away from storks & such, where they were allocated by Sibley and Alquist’s pioneering , more- right- than – wrong, but limited- by- lack- of- data studies about 20 (?) years ago. They apparently have some morphological affinities with storks, but these may be due to parallel evolution. Now some people want to hook them up with the birds of prey again, but actually they’re just floating loose.
Bird evolution is really just getting sorted. Paleognaths (ratites, tinamous), a single group including both Galliformes and Anseriformes (!) and two other groups (Metaves and Coronaves) all apparently existed before the K-T event. The last two groups are incredibly confusing because each contains birds that are morphologically virtually identical but evolutionarily and genetically distinct, which have traditionally been grouped into families by appearance and habit. As an easy for instance, loons are not remotely related to grebes, but there are worse and weirder ones! I’d be happy to sort this out more for you when I am less exhausted. But as a teaser — Metaves (the older of the two as their name implies) MAY consist of the only the Hoatzin, frogmouths, nightjars, owlet nightjars, swifts, hummingbirds, pigeons, sand grouse, mesites, flamingos, sun bitterns, grebes, and the kagu. Coronaves would then consist of everything else that is not so to speak a chicken, a duck, or an ostrich!
And they were all Dino contemporaries– well, maybe not Passerines, late Coronaves– but they all may have emerged after the asteroid strike from a refugium in Gondwanaland where all the fossils are now buried beneath the Antarctic ice, far from Xixclub’s impact… (you know there may be a few post K-T Dino fossils in NZ?!)
The book to get, already three years out of date but better than anything else on Bird Science existing, is The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution, by Gary Kaiser. (Good to also have old S & Al as a reference, but it has no anatomy or illos as Kaiser does abundantly, just shitloads of cladograms). It not only covers all we know (surprisingly little) and all we don’t about avian anatomy and then evolution; at the end it gives amazing examples from Kaiser’s own lifelong field studies of the pelagic birds of the Pacific Northwest, some of whom nest miles inland high in rain forest trees, fly out to sea at night at about 90 mph, dive deep into the ocean to feed, and return by dawn! By the time you get to this part, he will have shown you what an improbable feat of engineering this all is.
I also have a ten page friendly online critique of it by Darren Naish, with just as friendly a response & update from Kaiser. The damn paperback costs over $30, which still beats the impossible $85 for the hardback that made me wait to read it until this year. The thing is, it is really not for graduate students– it is written in recognizable and vivid* if occasionally recondite English– OR for normal, un- bird- obsessed casual readers. It’s for thee and me and Darren and Jonathan Kingdon and my blogger friend LabRat, demanding of a certain amount of knowledge. I can’t imagine who exactly they thought would read it, but I am damned glad they took the chance!
I wonder why I care about all this but I do…
[* For instance: he says that the over- muscled, strong boned, airborne- for- two- years swifts, in the hand are made of “lead not feathers”– because they fly so much.]