Flight Paths: How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration. Rebecca Heisman. 2023. HarperCollins, New York, New York, USA. 288 pages. ISBN 9780063161146. Hardcover ($30.00)
If there is a perfect if unintended target demographic for Flight Paths, the debut book by science writer Rebecca Heisman, it may be the members and associates of the Association of Field Ornithologists. Subtitled “How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration,” Heisman’s book chronicles the emergence of the increasingly sophisticated techniques ornithologists use today–from banding and telemetry to radar, geolocation, genomics and others–and the envelope-pushing men and women who developed them, often against steep odds.
And if no one has really quite “solved” all the mysteries of bird migration, the author nevertheless weaves a cracking good yarn in explaining how migration science has reached this exciting phase of discovery. Written for a general audience to whom much of its contents will be new, Flight Paths paints what will be to field ornithologists a much more familiar picture, given that most are going to know a fair bit about (and may well employ) many of the research approaches Heisman discusses. For folks working in the field, then, the real meat of the book, and its enthusiastic heart, are the stories of the people behind the advances–and an eclectic lot they are.
Her nine main chapters each chronicle the development of a different slice of migration-science technology, such as audio detection, stable isotope analysis or volunteer-based projects like the Breeding Bird Survey, Christmas Bird Count and eBird. Her stories often begin with some fluke observation a century or more ago that sets off the chain of events, like Princeton ornithologist William Earl Dodge Scott looking at the full moon in 1880 through the university’s telescope and realizing, to his shock, he could see passing migrants well enough to identify many of them by family.
This launched what became the great moon-watching experiments of the early 1950s led by Louisiana State University’s George Lowery and Bob Newman, and led in later years to Sid Gauthreaux (one of Lowery’s students) pioneering the use of weather radar to study nocturnal migration, and today’s Big-Data-crunching offshoots like BirdCast.
Heisman seeks out legends and leaders in the field. Bill Evans recounts his early, almost quixotic attempts to decode the “language” of nocturnal flight calls, sitting through long dark nights as a jury-rigged VCR recorded the calls raining down from above. Stu Mackenzie at Birds Canada, for whom Heisman once worked as a banding volunteer, walks her through the genesis of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Kristen Ruegg recalls trying to balance caring for a young daughter while developing the genetic techniques that led to the Bird Genoscape Project she now co-directs.
If Flight Paths has a hero, though, it is the late Bill Cochran. An electrical engineer by training who was part of the team that, unaware of its purpose, built one of the first U.S. spy satellites in the late 1950s, Cochran over his more-than-half-century career had a hand in a number of the most important strides in migration research, especially telemetry. He came to bird work almost by accident, however. As a twenty-something student working at a radio station in Illinois, Cochran encountered Richard Graber and Graber’s wife one morning, combing the ground beneath the station’s broadcast towers looking for migrants killed in overnight collisions. His curiosity piqued, Cochran collaborated with Graber, making the first recordings of nocturnal flight calls in 1957, then turned his talents toward making increasingly small transmitters for birds and other animals, and making his designs freely available rather than patenting them.
Nor did he restrict himself to bench work; Cochran and his research chums kitted out vehicles like a station wagon with a movable antenna that protruded through a hole in the roof, operated from inside like a periscope, chasing tagged thrushes or falcons across the landscape. Pulled over in 1973 by a suspicious cop in Minnesota near the end of a multi-day chase from Illinois to Manitoba, Cochran abandoned by colleague to a night in jail rather than lose the signal of the Swainson’s thrush; another time, he followed a tagged peregrine from Wisconsin to Mexico, where the pursuit ended only when he ran out of money.
Cochran shows up again and again in Flight Paths; for example, he had a light-bulb moment in 1962, realizing that a satellite could probably pick up a transmitter signal down on Earth (he and a colleague pitched the idea to NASA, but the agency was too busy with the Apollo missions, and satellite telemetry had to wait more than 15 years to finally emerge). Asked by Heisman why he gave up his promising early career in defense research, Cochran told her he was more interested in birds than “designing weapons that’ll kill people.”
One reason Heisman does such a good job bringing the reader into the world of migration research is her own background. A zoology undergrad in college who did seasonal bird field tech work in Canada and Australia, she later spent five years, from 2015-2020, working for the American Ornithological Society–first as a contractor synthesizing important articles in AOS journals for wider dissemination, and later as the organization’s first fulltime communications staffer. Heisman makes no bones about being an expert, but she’s had enough hands-on experience with mist-netting and other aspects of field ornithology that the kinds of mistakes and mischaracterizations one so often reads from an outsider-looking-in author are largely absent here. That said, there are a few minor missteps, like referring to scoters as “seabirds” instead of ducks, but they are blessedly few.
Finally, by way of disclosure, long before AFO approached me about writing this review I read the book in galley at the invitation of the author, whom I did not know. Having read it, I contributed a sincerely enthusiastic quote that appears on the back jacket. (I flagged this potential conflict with AFO/JFO editors and staff when I was asked to review the book here, and proceeded with their blessing.)
The book also includes a short “Further Reading and Resources” list of a dozen or so websites for eBird, BirdCast, Motus and other projects text highlighted, and a notes section but not a comprehensive bibliography–again, a reflection of the primary audience of general readers. I suspect, however, that anyone with an interest in bird research, whether professional or avocational, will find a lot to enjoy in Flight Paths.
Author and researcher
Header photo: Elegant Terns (Thalasseus elegans), Ian Shive/USFWS
Weidensaul, S. 2023. Review of the book Flight Paths: How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration by Rebecca Heisman. Association of Field Ornithologists Book Review. https://afonet.org/2023/03/flight-paths.
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