Tim Birkhead

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Tim Birkhead

Timothy Robert Birkhead

(1950-02-28) 28 February 1950 (age 73) [1]
Leeds, England
Alma mater
Scientific career
Institutions University of Sheffield
Thesis Breeding biology and survival of guillemots (Uria aalge)  (1976)
Doctoral advisor E.K. Dunn
Chris Perrins [3]
Website www.shef.ac.uk/aps/staff-and-students/acadstaff/birkhead

Timothy Robert Birkhead FRS [4] (born 1950) is a British ornithologist. He has been Professor of Behaviour and Evolution at the University of Sheffield [5] [6] since 1976. [7]



Birkhead was awarded a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Newcastle University in 1972, followed by a Doctor of Philosophy degree from University of Oxford in 1976 for research on the breeding biology and survival of guillemots Uria aalge supervised by E.K. Dunn and Chris Perrins. [3] He was subsequently awarded a Doctor of Science from Newcastle in 1989. [1]

Research and career

Birkhead's research on promiscuity in birds redefined the mating systems of birds.[ citation needed ] Focusing initially on the adaptive significance of male promiscuity and female promiscuity, he later switched to the study of mechanisms and resolved the mechanisms of sperm competition in birds. He provided some of the first evidence of: cryptic female choice in birds; strategic sperm allocation, and he also provided the first estimates of the quantitative genetics of sperm traits in birds.[ citation needed ]

Birkhead's research also resolved the issue of polyspermy in birds and provided the first evidence for morphological sperm selection in the female reproductive tract. [8] His long term study of the population biology of common guillemots on the island of Skomer off Wales has run since 1972, and is currently in need of support. [9] [10]

His recent research is on the adaptive significance of egg shape in birds, including the common guillemot whose pyriform egg has long been thought to allow it to either spin-like- a-top or roll-in-an-arc to prevent it rolling off the cliff ledge. However, there is no evidence for either of these ideas. [11] [12] Instead, Birkhead and colleagues have identified the main advantage of a pyriform shape: stability. The pyriform shape makes the egg inherently more stable, especially on the sloping surfaces on which guillemots commonly breed. [13]


  • Nettleship, D. N. & Birkhead, T. R. (eds) (1985) The Atlantic Alcidae. Academic Press. pp 574. ISBN   9780125156714
  • Birkhead, T. R. & Møller, A. P. (1992). Sperm Competition in Birds: Evolutionary Causes and Consequences. Academic Press. pp. 280. ISBN   9780121005405
  • Birkhead, T. R. & Møller A. P. (eds) (1998) Sperm Competition and Sexual Selection. Academic Press. pp 826. ISBN   0121005437
  • Birkhead, T. R., Hosken, D. & Pitnick, S. (eds) (2009). Sperm Biology: An Evolutionary Perspective. London: Academic Press. pp 642. ISBN   9780123725684
  • Birkhead, T. R. (ed) (2016). Virtuoso by Nature: the Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Brill. pp 439. ISBN   9789004285316
  • Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition [14]
  • Promiscuity (Faber & Faber 2000), ISBN   9780571193608 which makes the concept of post-copulatory sexual selection accessible to the non-specialist.
  • Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin (Princeton 2014) (with J. Wimpenny and R. Montgomerie), [15] ISBN   978-0-691-15197-7, won the USA Prose Award. PROSE Award (American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence) for the best book in 2014 in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology category; CHOICE (magazine of the American Library Association) list of Outstanding Academic Titles, 2014 in Zoology; Runner-up for BB/BTO Best Bird Book of 2014.
  • The red canary: the story of the first genetically engineered animal, Phoenix, 2004, ISBN   978-0-7538-1772-8, describes the power of selective breeding and how the interaction between professional scientist and an amateur bird-keeper created the red canary. The book won the Consul Cremer Prize (2003).
  • The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology. Bloomsbury. 2008. ISBN   978-0-7475-9256-3.; Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011, ISBN   978-0-7475-9822-0, The book describes how we know what we know about the biology of birds, focussing on evolutionary explanations. The Wisdom of Birds won the Best Bird book of the Year Award (2009) from the British Trust for Ornithology and British Birds.[ citation needed ]
  • The Magpies: The Ecology and Behaviour of Black-Billed and Yellow-Billed Magpies. A&C Black. 2010. ISBN   978-1-4081-3777-2.
  • Great Auk Islands; a Field Biologist in the Arctic. A & C Black, 2011. 30 October 2010. ISBN   978-1-4081-3786-4.
  • Bird Sense: What it Is Like to Be a Bird, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2012, ISBN   978-1-4088-2013-1 was rated best natural history book of 2012 by the Independent and Guardian Newspapers, and was awarded a Best Bird Book of 2012 prize by British Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology, and was short-listed for the Royal Society Winton Book Prize in 2013. [16]
  • The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird's Egg, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016, [17] [18] ISBN   978-1-4088-5126-5 short-listed for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize (2016), [19] and winner of the Zoological Society of London's 2017 prize for communicating zoology.[ citation needed ] David Attenborough described it as ‘Magnificent: science without any high falutin’ technology’.[ citation needed ]
  • The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018, ISBN   978-1-4088-7850-7
  • Birds and Us: A 12,000-Year History from Cave Art to Conservation, Princeton University Press, 2022. [20] ISBN   978-0-691-23992-7 [21]


Birkhead has combined his enthusiasm for research with a passion for undergraduate teaching. He has taught courses on ecology, evolution, statistics, birds, behavioural ecology, animal behaviour and the history and philosophy of science. His teaching has been recognised by four awards, including a National Teaching Fellowship in 2017. [2]

Biology of Spermatozoa

Starting in 1992 and continuing until 2015 (when he handed over to a steering group) Birkhead organised (with Professor Harry Moore) a small (~60) biennial meeting on reproductive biology in the Peak District National Park known as Biology of Spermatozoa (BoS). Delegates are from a diverse range of backgrounds and include clinicians, reproductive physiologists, andrologists, theoreticians and evolutionary biologists. The format and interdisciplinary nature of the meeting was successful in terms of exchanging ideas, techniques and establishing collaborations. [22]

Media and Outreach

Between 2002 and 2010 Birkhead had a monthly column in Times Higher Education . [23] His articles were concerned with various aspects of higher education: undergraduate teaching, administration and, occasionally, research.

He has written for The Guardian ,[ citation needed ] The Independent ,[ citation needed ] the BBC, The Biologist, Natural History and Evolve.[ citation needed ]

He has featured on numerous BBC Radio 4 programmes, including Start the Week — with Jeremy Paxman;[ when? ] The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili; [24] The Infinite Monkey Cage in 2018.[ citation needed ] His book ‘The Most Perfect Thing’ provided the basis for the TV documentary ‘Attenborough’s Eggs’ introduced by David Attenborough (2018).[ citation needed ] Birkhead has been honorary curator of the Alfred Denny Museum in the University of Sheffield between 1980-2018. [25] [26]

He has given numerous public lectures, including at Café Scientique, the Cheltenham Science Festival and numerous literary festivals including Ways with Words (Sheffield) and Hay on Wye. His a TED (conference) lecture on the history of ornithology has been viewed over 100,000 times. [27]

Awards and honours

Over the course of his career, Birkhead has received a number of awards:

  • McColvin Medal for best reference book: Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology in 1991
  • President, International Society for Behavioural Ecology (1996-1998)
  • Brockington Visitorship, Queens University, Canada in 2003[ citation needed ]
  • Consul Cremer Prize for The Red Canary in 2003
  • Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2004 [1]
  • ISIHighlyCited.com - Designated Highly Cited Researcher Plant & Animal Science, 2004[ citation needed ]
  • Senate Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching, University of Sheffield, 2007.
  • Animal & Plant Sciences ‘Teacher of the Year’, 2009.[ citation needed ]
  • Winner: Bird Book of the Year Award, for The Wisdom of Birds, from the British Trust for Ornithology and British Birds, 2009.
  • Elected Honorary Member of the American Ornithologists Union, 2010.[ citation needed ]
  • Elected Honorary Member of the Linnaean Society of New York, 2011
  • Elliot Coues Medal, American Ornithologists Union in 2011[ citation needed ] [28]
  • ASAB (Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour) Medal in 2012[ citation needed ]
  • President of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour 2013-16
  • Vice-president of the British Trust for Ornithology in 2012[ citation needed ]
  • Winner of the Society for Biology, Bioscience Teacher of the Year, 2013. [29]
  • Zoological Society of London, Silver Medal, 2014.
  • Spallazani Medal, Biology of Spermatozoa community, 2015.
  • Eisenmann Medal, the Linnaean Society of New York, 2016.[ citation needed ]
  • Godman-Salvin Medal from the British Ornithologists' Union, 2016.
  • Founders’ Medal of the Society for the Study of the History of Natural History (SHNH), 2016.
  • Winner of the Zoological Society of London’s Award for Communicating Zoology to a general audience for The Most Perfect Thing, 2017.
  • Stephen Jay Gould Prize for increasing public understanding of evolutionary biology, Evolution Society, 2017.[ citation needed ]
  • Awarded a National Teaching Fellowship by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) in 2017. [2]
  • Elected Honorary Member of the (Deutschen Ornitholgen-Gesellschaft [DO-G] German Ornithological Society), 2017[ citation needed ]

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  1. 1 2 3 Anon (2005). "BIRKHEAD, Prof. Timothy Robert" . Who's Who (online Oxford University Press  ed.). Oxford: A & C Black. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.10000450.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. 1 2 3 "Professor Tim Birkhead | Advance HE".
  3. 1 2 Birkhead, Timothy Robert (1976). Breeding biology and survival of guillemots (Uria aalge). ora.ox.ac.uk (DPhil thesis). University of Oxford. OCLC   44837387. EThOS   uk.bl.ethos.449886 Lock-green.svg .
  4. Anon (2004). "Professor Tim Birkhead FRS". London: royalsociety.org. Archived from the original on 23 November 2015. One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from the royalsociety.org website where:
    "All text published under the heading 'Biography' on Fellow profile pages is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License." -- "Royal Society Terms, conditions and policies". Archived from the original on 25 September 2015. Retrieved 9 March 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  5. Sheffield, University of (September 2021). "Professor Tim R Birkhead FRS - Academic Staff & Independent Research Fellows - People - Animal and Plant Sciences - The University of Sheffield". www.shef.ac.uk.
  6. Tim Birkhead at TED OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg
  7. Mark Cocker (17 October 2008). "Flights of fancy". The Guardian.
  8. Hemmings, N.; Birkhead, T. R. (7 November 2015). "Polyspermy in birds: sperm numbers and embryo survival". Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 282 (1818): 20151682. doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.1682. ISSN   0962-8452. PMC   4650155 . PMID   26511048.
  9. Birkhead, Tim (23 October 2014). "Stormy outlook for long-term ecology studies". Nature. 514 (7523): 405. Bibcode:2014Natur.514..405B. doi: 10.1038/514405a . PMID   25341754.
  10. Anon. "Read Tim's story". justgiving.com. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  11. Birkhead, Tim R.; Thompson, Jamie E.; Biggins, John D. (1 July 2017). "Egg shape in the Common Guillemot Uria aalge and Brunnich's Guillemot U. lomvia: not a rolling matter?" (PDF). Journal of Ornithology . 158 (3): 679–685. doi:10.1007/s10336-017-1437-8. ISSN   2193-7192. S2CID   9084008.
  12. "Vulgar errors – the point of a Guillemot's egg - British Birds". britishbirds.co.uk. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  13. Birkhead, Tim R.; Thompson, Jamie E.; Montgomerie, Robert (1 October 2018). "The pyriform egg of the Common Murre (Uria aalge) is more stable on sloping surfacesEl huevo piriforme de Uria aalge es más estable en superficies inclinadasCommon Murre egg shape and stability". The Auk. 135 (4): 1020–1032. doi: 10.1642/AUK-18-38.1 . ISSN   0004-8038. S2CID   92507158.
  14. Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition. Harvard University Press. 2002. ISBN   978-0-674-00666-9.
  15. Bodio, Stephen J. (Summer 2014). "Book Review: 'Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie". Living Bird Magazine.
  16. "Royal Society Winton Prize goes to 'rock star' science book", "The Guardian", London, 26 November 2013. Retrieved on 8 May 2019.
  17. Ju, Chenghui; Lahti, David C. (2017). "The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg by Tim Birkhead. 2016. Bloomsbury, New York, NY, USA. xvi + 304 pp., 15 color and 3 black-and-white photographs. $27 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1632863690". The Auk. Oxford University Press (OUP). 134 (4): 922–924. doi: 10.1642/auk-17-112.1 . ISSN   0004-8038.
  18. Preston, Alex (17 April 2016). "Review of The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg by Tim Birkhead". The Guardian.
  19. "Shortlist for The Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2016 unveiled". royalsociety.org. Retrieved 22 September 2016.
  20. Freeman, Frank (17 December 2022). "Review: 'Birds and Us,' by Tim Birkhead". Star Tribune. Minnesota.
  21. "Review of Birds and Us by Tim Birkhead". Kirkus Reviews. 2022.
  22. "BoS | Biology of Spermatozoa meetings". www.bos.group.shef.ac.uk. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  23. "Tim Birkhead". 4 January 2008.
  24. Al-Khalili, Jim (2017). "Tim Birkhead on bird promiscuity". bbc.co.uk. BBC . Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  25. Sheffield, University of. "Alfred Denny Museum - Alfred Denny Museum - The University of Sheffield". www.shef.ac.uk. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  26. The University of Sheffield (10 February 2017), Aisha's Letter , retrieved 8 January 2018
  27. Birkhead, Tim (26 September 2010), The early birdwatchers , retrieved 8 January 2018
  28. "Elliott Coues Award, 2011". The Auk. Oxford University Press (OUP). 129 (1): 187–188. 2012. doi: 10.1525/auk.2012.129.1.187 . ISSN   0004-8038.
  29. Sheffield, University of. "Professor named top of the class - Latest - News - The University of Sheffield". shef.ac.uk. Retrieved 8 January 2018.