Reply to Pruett-Jones Book Review of Tawny Frogmouth.
Article Type: Editorial
Author: Brigham, R. Mark
Pub Date: 12/01/2009
Publication: Name: The Wilson Journal of Ornithology Publisher: Wilson Ornithological Society Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Wilson Ornithological Society ISSN: 1559-4491
Issue: Date: Dec, 2009 Source Volume: 121 Source Issue: 4
Accession Number: 216267569
Full Text: The purpose of book reviews is to be a source of advice about the quality of volumes as a guide to prospective buyers. While it is to be expected that the perception of any one reviewer about a particular volume will vary, I respectfully disagree in the strongest possible terms with the positive opinions of Pruett-Jones (2009) in a recent review of Tawny Frogmouth (Kaplan 2007). My incentive to challenge the review was spurred most strongly by the final recommendation of Pruett-Jones that the book is valuable for "students wanting a clear, well written summary of the biology" of these birds. I argue that students should only be allowed to read this book under supervision as a lesson about how not to write a summary about the biology of a species. I have actually used the book for this purpose during lab meetings with my honors and graduate students. It represents an extreme disservice to students who are encouraged by the review by Pruett-Jones to read Tawny Frogmouth and think that it is an example of a good natural history text.

In support of my contention, I refer readers to already published highly critical reviews (Brigham 2008, Ley 2008), which provide numerous examples of shoddy proofreading, grammatical problems, errors of fact, extensive anthropomorphism, and low quality illustrations. The authors of both reviews independently agree that the publisher, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), did a poor job insuring that Tawny Frogmouth and other volumes in the series are of a consistent high quality. It is noteworthy that half of Pruett-Jones' review focuses on another book in the CSIRO series, Bowerbirds. He is highly critical of this volume making me suspect (without reading it) that it must be atrocious given his positive review of Tawny Frogmouth.

I specifically take issue with some statements by Pruett-Jones as illustrations of the limitations of his review. He suggests that college students, naturalists, and professional ornithologists are the correct audience for Tawny Frogmouth. Members of all these audiences will be highly suspicious when they read that "seabird nostrils filter out salt", "bouts of torpor are used to cope with heat loss", and that "faeces are ejaculated". These are but a small sample of the significant errors of fact.

Pruett-Jones alleges that Tawny Frogmouth is well written. Several contradictory examples include Kaplan's description of egg laying as "consecutive" (is there any other way?), apposable versus opposable digits, and the repeated use of Herz for Hertz. Both Ley (2008) and Brigham (2008) report numerous other examples of repetitive, unclear, and unedited writing. Students should not be encouraged to read a book this poorly written.

Pruett-Jones is highly positive about the level of frogmouth "study" undertaken by Kaplan to gather material for the book, whereas I view this material highly negatively. The "data" presented were ostensibly collected during 10 years of "systematic observation" of captive and wild birds but none of the data appear in the peer-reviewed literature. The number of individual birds, number of observations, whether or not birds were individually marked, and which observations were made of wild versus captive individuals is unclear. I argue that the 'data' are a collection of qualitative anecdotes, whose quality and accuracy are impossible to verify. Furthermore, Kaplan describes innumerable new or novel traits in frogmouths without any citations to literature which scientifically establishes them. The "evidence" for many of these traits comes from Kaplan's photographs. For example, Figure 7.7 is a fuzzy picture of a female purportedly showing mucous dripping from her beak. This coupled with the statement "I noticed mucous dripping, more than once" is the "evidence" supporting the contention that antibodies are transferred from adult to chick via fluids. Figure 8.5 is said to illustrate how a male looks "sexually attractive". The figure caption contends that "such postures and gestures are followed by mating" but there is no indication of the proportion of times this pose (the uniqueness of which I cannot discern) is followed by copulation. I am not convinced by Kaplan's evidence and would not accept it as evidence from students either.

Pruett-Jones argues the book brings the reader into the biology of the bird in part because "for the average bird watcher or field biologist, Tawny Frogmouths are birds one seldom sees, and are elusive when one is lucky enough to see them". This is simply not true and suggests a lack of first hand knowledge. Tawny Frogmouths are one of the most common nocturnal species in Australia and occur across the continent in virtually every habitat. In a North American context, it would be equivalent to saying that Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus) are seldom seen. What is true is that frogmouths are hard to catch, which is reflected in research papers with low sample sizes (e.g., Kortner et al. 2000).

I strongly disagree with Pruett-Jones' positive statements about Tawny Frogmouth and recommend that the only use for it is as a 'how not to' exercise for students. If you really want to learn about these birds, read the excellent book by Holyoak (2001).-- R. MARK BRIGHAM, Department of Biology, University of Regina, Regina, SK $4S 0A2, Canada; e-mail: mark.


BRIGHAM, R. M. 2008. Review of Tawny Frogmouth. Emu 108: 99-100.

KAPLAN, G. 2007. Tawny Frogmouth. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.

KORTNER, G., R. M. BRIGHAM, AND F. GEISER. 2000. Winter torpor in a large bird. Nature 407:318.

LEY, A. 2008. Review of Tawny Frogmouth. Wingspan 18:53.

HOLYOAK, D. T. 2001. Nightjars and their allies: the Caprimulgiformes. Bird families of the world. Volume 7. Oxford University Press, New York, USA.

PRUETT-JONES, S. 2009. Review of Tawny Frogmouth. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 121:451-452.

Robert B. Payne, Review Editor
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.