Tim Birkhead

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Tim Birkhead

Timothy Robert Birkhead

(1950-02-28) 28 February 1950 (age 68)[1]
Residence Sheffield[citation needed]
Alma mater
Awards Godman-Salvin Medal (2016)
Scientific career
Institutions University of Sheffield
Thesis Breeding biology and survival of guillemots (Uria aalge) (1976)
Doctoral advisor E.K. Dunn
Chris Perrins[2]
Website www.shef.ac.uk/aps/staff-and-students/acadstaff/birkhead

Timothy Robert Birkhead FRS[3] (born 1950) is a renowned ornithologist. He has been Professor of Behaviour and Evolution at the University of Sheffield[4][5] since 1976.[6]


Birkhead was awarded a Bachelor of biology 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.[2] 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.[7] His long term study of the population biology common guillemots on Skomer Island, Wales has run since 1972, and is currently in need of support.[8][9]

His recent[when?] 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.[10][11] Instead, Birkhead has identified two other potential advantages of a pyriform shape: avoiding dirt of the ledges and the ability to withstand impacts[12] - research is on-going.[when?] His former doctoral students include Elspeth Kenny[13] Clair Bennison,[14] and Ben Hatchwell.[15]


  • Nettleship, D. N. & Birkhead, T. R. (eds) (1985) The Atlantic Alcidae. Academic Press. pp 574.[ISBN missing]
  • Birkhead, T. R. & Møller, A. P. (1992). Sperm Competition in Birds: Evolutionary Causes and Consequences. Academic Press. pp. 280.[ISBN missing]
  • Birkhead, T. R. & Moller A. P. (eds) (1998) Sperm Competition and Sexual Selection. Academic Press. pp 826.[ISBN missing]
  • Birkhead, T. R., Hosken, D. & Pitnick, S. (eds) (2009). Sperm Biology: An Evolutionary Perspective. London: Academic Press. pp 642.[ISBN missing]
  • Birkhead, T. R. (ed) (2016). Virtuoso by Nature: the Scientific Worlds of Francis Willughby FRS (1635-1672). Brill. pp 439.[ISBN missing]
  • Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition[16]
  • Promiscuity (Faber & Faber 2000),[ISBN missing] 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), 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 the 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. ISBN 978-1-4081-3786-4.
  • Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin, Princeton University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-691-15197-7
  • 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[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]
  • The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird's Egg, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4088-5126-5 short-listed for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize (2016)[citation needed] 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


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 National Teaching Fellow (2017).

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.[17]

Media and Outreach

Between 2002 and 2010 Birkhead had a monthly column in Times Higher Education.[18] 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[19]; 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.[20][21]

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.[22]

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]
  • 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.[23]
  • 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]
  • Elected National Teaching Fellow by the Higher Education Authority, 2017.[citation needed]
  • Elected Honorary Member of the (Deutschen Ornitholgen-Gesellschaft [DO-G] German Ornithological Society), 2017[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c Anon (2005). BIRKHEAD, Prof. Timothy Robert. ukwhoswho.com. Who's Who (online Oxford University Press ed.). A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.10000450. closed access publication – behind paywall (subscription required)
  2. ^ a b 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 Free to read.
  3. ^ Anon (2004). "Professor Tim Birkhead FRS". London: royalsociety.org. Archived from the original on 2015-11-23. 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.

  4. ^ Sheffield, University of. "Professor Tim R Birkhead FRS - Academic Staff & Independent Research Fellows - People - Animal and Plant Sciences - The University of Sheffield". www.shef.ac.uk.
  5. ^ Tim Birkhead at TED
  6. ^ Mark Cocker (17 October 2008). "Flights of fancy". The Guardian.
  7. ^ Hemmings, N.; Birkhead, T. R. (2015-11-07). "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. PMID 26511048.
  8. ^ Birkhead, Tim (2014-10-23). "Stormy outlook for long-term ecology studies". Nature. 514 (7523): 405–405. doi:10.1038/514405a.
  9. ^ Anon. "Read Tim's story". justgiving.com. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  10. ^ Birkhead, Tim R.; Thompson, Jamie E.; Biggins, John D. (2017-07-01). "Egg shape in the Common Guillemot Uria aalge and Brunnich's Guillemot U. lomvia: not a rolling matter?". Journal of Ornithology. 158 (3): 679–685. doi:10.1007/s10336-017-1437-8. ISSN 2193-7192.
  11. ^ "Vulgar errors – the point of a Guillemot's egg - British Birds". britishbirds.co.uk. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  12. ^ Birkhead, Tim R.; Thompson, Jamie E.; Jackson, Duncan; Biggins, John D. (2017-04-01). "The point of a Guillemot's egg". Ibis. 159 (2): 255–265. doi:10.1111/ibi.12458. ISSN 1474-919X.
  13. ^ Kenny, Elspeth (2017). The adaptive significance of allopreening. whiterose.ac.uk (PhD thesis). University of Sheffield. EThOS uk.bl.ethos.729533. Free to read
  14. ^ Bennison, Clair (2014). Sperm morphology and fertilisation success in the zebra finch Taeniopygia guttata. whiterose.ac.uk (PhD thesis). University of Sheffield. EThOS uk.bl.ethos.589373. Free to read
  15. ^ Hatchwell, Benedict L. (1988). Population biology and coloniality of common guillemots Uria aalge. copac.jisc.ac.uk (PhD thesis). University of Sheffield. EThOS uk.bl.ethos.241796.
  16. ^ Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition. Harvard University Press. 2002. ISBN 978-0-674-00666-9.
  17. ^ "BoS | Biology of Spermatozoa meetings". www.bos.group.shef.ac.uk. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  18. ^ "Tim Birkhead". 4 January 2008.
  19. ^ Al-Khalili, Jim (2017). "Tim Birkhead on bird promiscuity". bbc.co.uk. BBC. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  20. ^ Sheffield, University of. "Alfred Denny Museum - Alfred Denny Museum - The University of Sheffield". www.shef.ac.uk. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  21. ^ The University of Sheffield (2017-02-10), Aisha's Letter, retrieved 2018-01-08
  22. ^ Birkhead, Tim, The early birdwatchers, retrieved 2018-01-08
  23. ^ Sheffield, University of. "Professor named top of the class - Latest - News - The University of Sheffield". shef.ac.uk. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
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