The Most Perfect Thing : Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg
by Tim Birkhead

Overview -

Shortlisted for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016.

Renowned ornithologist Tim Birkhead opens this gripping story as a female guillemot chick hatches, already carrying her full quota of tiny eggs within her undeveloped ovary.  Read more...

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More About The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead

Shortlisted for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016.

Renowned ornithologist Tim Birkhead opens this gripping story as a female guillemot chick hatches, already carrying her full quota of tiny eggs within her undeveloped ovary. As she grows into adulthood, only a few of her eggs mature, are released into the oviduct, and are fertilized by sperm stored from copulation that took place days or weeks earlier. Within a matter of hours, the fragile yolk is surrounded by albumen and the whole is gradually encased within a turquoise jewel of a shell. Soon afterward the fully formed egg is expelled onto a bare rocky ledge, where it will be incubated for four weeks before a chick emerges and the life cycle begins again.

THE MOST PERFECT THING is about how eggs in general are made, fertilized, developed, and hatched. The eggs of most birds spend just 24 hours in the oviduct; however, that journey takes 48 hours in cuckoos, which surreptitiously lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. From the earliest times, the study of birds' ovaries and ova (eggs) played a vital role in the quest to understand fertilization and embryo development in humans. Birkhead uses birds' eggs as wondrous portals into natural history, enlivened by the stories of naturalists and scientists, including Birkhead and his students, whose discoveries have advanced current scientific knowledge of reproduction.

  • ISBN-13: 9781632863690
  • ISBN-10: 1632863693
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publish Date: April 2016
  • Page Count: 304
  • Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Nature > Animals - Birds
Books > Science > Life Sciences - Zoology - Ornithology

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2016-01-18
  • Reviewer: Staff

British ornithologist Birkhead (Bird Sense: The Wisdom of Birds) uses an inaccurate TV segment that he saw on the eggs of guillemots (the name for several species of seabird) as a reason to reinvestigate the hows and whys of guillemot eggs while explaining their popularity with enthusiasts. The eggs are “seductively beautiful—large, brightly and infinitely variable in color and pattern, and... very oddly shaped.” Collections of eggs are often considered incomplete without them. Birkhead also seizes the opportunity to examine birds’ eggs in general. He works step-by-step “from the outside of the egg towards its genetic center,” with chapters covering egg’s shape, the composition of the shell, and the coloring. Spotting and shading, for instance, help camouflage in the wild, protecting them from would-be predators. Birkhead then moves onto (or into) the albumen, or egg white—“absolutely remarkable, mysterious stuff role in the developing egg is vital”—and the yolk, before concluding with sections on laying, incubating, and hatching. This measured approach makes the overall discussion accessible. Adhering to this framework, Birkhead manages to contain what could have become an unwieldy topic, and readers with little familiarity in guillemot eggs specifically will still find the material fascinating. Agent: Felicity Bryan, Felicity Bryan Associates (U.K.). (Apr.)

BookPage Reviews

Take your reading to new heights

Spring has arrived, and along with it comes a flock of books about our feathered friends. Here are three new titles that bird watchers will find especially intriguing.

Jennifer Ackerman, longtime nature writer and contributor to Scientific American, thinks it’s time to ditch the term “bird brain.” In The Genius of Birds, she offers compelling evidence that birds are far smarter than we previously thought. In fact, she writes, new research has found “bird species capable of mental feats comparable to those [of] primates.” Birds can recognize human faces, use geometry to navigate, learn new skills from one another (like how to open milk bottles) and even work puzzles. The author travels from the South Pacific—home of the world’s smartest bird, the New -Caledonian crow—to rural China as she explores the surprising cognitive abilities of birds. Ackerman is a pro at parsing scientific concepts in an accessible style, and her lyrical writing underscores her appreciation for the beauty and adaptability of birds.

While bird brains are the focus of many new studies, there’s nothing more beautiful or delicate than a brightly colored bird’s egg. In The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg, ornithologist Tim Birkhead deconstructs every part of the egg to reveal how these small survival pods are “perfect in so many different ways.” From the shell (composed of upright crystals “packed against each other like a stack of fence posts”) to the albumen (the “absolutely remarkable, mysterious stuff” that most of us call the white part), the elements are described here in exquisite detail. Like a bird watcher who spots a rare specimen, the author shows palpable (and charming) excitement for his subject throughout, never losing his sense of wonder and admiration for nature’s “ingenious construction” of the egg.

A contributing editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, Julie Zickefoose has a particular fascination with baby birds and enjoys painting these scrawny, screeching creatures from the moment they hatch to the day they leave the nest as fledglings. Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest offers a rare and meticulously chronicled portrait of baby birds’ day-to-day development, with the author’s lovely watercolor paintings adding a vivid visual dimension. In her introduction, Zickefoose describes Baby Birds as “an odd sort of book, like a Victorian-era curiosity.” Fans of the rediscovered 1970s bestseller The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady will happily agree.


This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BAM Customer Reviews