What It’s Like to Be a Bird – Book Review.

Bird SenseBird Sense:  What It’s Like to Be a Bird  by Tim Birkhead
Bloomsbury.  2012.  265 pp.  $16.00 (paperback)
ISBN 978 1 4088 3054 3

This is not a brand-new book – the copy I have is a 2013 paperback – but I write this review with all of the enthusiastic fervour of a new convert.  This book is one of the finest examples of popular science writing that I have ever encountered.  It combines a deep scientific knowledge of birds, born out of more than 30 years of research, with an abiding sense of wonder and an ability to tell a great story.

The title is not misleading.  The author, through an exploration of each of the major senses – seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense and emotions – attempts to improve our understanding of what it’s like to be a bird.  We probably don’t come away from the book with this understanding, simply because bird life is too varied and diverse for that.  However, we do come to appreciate the range of sensory capabilities that exist within this group of animals, and to marvel at the exquisitely developed abilities of many species.

tim birkhead

Tim Birkhead

Tim Birkhead is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science.  These interests are both reflected in the structure and content of the book.  One of the more delightful aspects of the book is the manner in which he uses historical sources to introduce and add narrative structure to the story of each of the senses.  The chapter on vision begins with a description of a traditional method of capturing falcons that involves a live decoy falcon, a wooden decoy falcon , a live pigeon and a tethered great grey shrike.  I won’t try and tell you how this system works – you really should read it – but it moves us from a compelling description of the visual capability of the shrike on to a description of the anatomy of the avian eye which forms the basis for this acuity.

Each of the chapters tends to follow a similar pattern, beginning with a description of our earliest understandings or beliefs about the bird’s sensory capabilities, and then moving on through a description of how successive generations of scientists have improved our understanding.  The descriptions of how these gains have been achieved give the reader insight into how science works through the generation and testing of hypotheses.  The footnotes guide the reader to the relevant sources and the bibliography is extensive.  A brief glossary of scientific terms, useful to the lay reader, is also included.

This book should be of interest to anyone with even a passing curiosity about birds.  There are likely few among us who haven’t stopped at least once to wonder and marvel at these winged, feathered creatures who live such different lives from plodding bipedal mammals.  This book will answer many of your questions about what it’s like to be a bird.

Article by Doug Campbell

Steve Jurvetson

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

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