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Unabashedly Enchanted

A review by Julia Zarankin

Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird, by Tim Birkhead

Walker and Company, 2012

265 pages, $25.00hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13858

In his famous essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?,” the philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that the nature of consciousness makes it impossible to fully know how another creature experiences the world. And yet, as any birder knows, we constantly find ourselves asking how birds perceive their surroundings: What do they see exactly? How did they acquire their acute navigational sense? How can owls hear rodents moving under snow? Do birds feel anything during copulation-trysts lasting mere seconds?

Tim Birkhead, a renowned ornithologist, writer, and professor at the University of Sheffield, poses questions like these in his brilliant and exuberant Bird Sense. Birkhead accepts Nagel’s argument in absolute terms: It is, indeed, impossible to know exactly what being a bird entails. The best we can do is imagine, and imagining is hardly the same as knowing. Nevertheless, as a behavioral biologist, Birkhead goes on to show his readers how new technologies and imaginative tests and experiments have been remarkably helpful in showing us “what it is like to be something else”—in this case, a bird.

Each of the seven chapters in Bird Sense is dedicated to a different aspect of the sensory biology of birds. Birkhead discusses the five usual suspects plus that singularly avian magnetic sense, then rounds off his volume with an exploration of bird emotion. What emerges is a riveting account of how birds navigate their world—and captivating portraits of the natural historians, scientists, researchers, and field biologists who have expanded our understanding of avian perception. Birkhead writes with humor and obvious delight about creatures that grow ever more compelling the more he learns about them.

Birkhead

The slender dimensions of the volume belie the wealth of information inside. In Bird Sense, Birkhead confidently dons two different hats: one belongs to the behavioral ecologist and the other to the historian of science. Sometimes those two voices compete for attention, but more often they complement each other to present a fuller, more nuanced portrait of the continuously evolving nature of ornithology and of scientific knowledge in general.

Each chapter’s account of a single sense builds on those before, a progression that ushers the reader from the most studied senses, vision and hearing, to the most debated, emotion.

BINbuttonThe visual acuity of birds has always been an object of fascination, from Aristotle’s accounts of birds that see in the dark to the discovery in the 1970s that kestrels can detect insects two millimeters long at a distance of 18 meters. The avian eye is much more keenly developed than the human one. Many birds, including raptors, hummingbirds, swallows, and kingfishers, have two foveae—humans only have one—which provide both close-up vision and a “telephoto lens” that magnifies the image at high resolution.

Birds also see ultraviolet light, which helps in locating both food and partners. A European kestrel tracks its prey by the UV light reflecting off a rodent’s urine trail, and a female blue grosbeak judges a potential partner based on the UV light reflected by a male’s plumage. Some species, such as the Andean cock-of-the-rock, choose sunny display sites deliberately to highlight the brilliance of plumage that appears drab in the shade. Just as amazingly, birds can employ both eyes for different tasks simultaneously; domestic chickens, for example, can use the left eye to scan for aerial predators and the right for close-up vision.

The hearing of some birds is every bit as phenomenal. The asymmetrical ear openings of the great gray owl allow it to detect prey even under snow; oilbirds and cave swiftlets echolocate, bat-like, in dark caves. We’ve long known that many birds’ internal organs undergo seasonal changes, but it comes as a surprise to learn that hearing also varies over the year. Since male birds of temperate regions use song and song recognition to establish and defend territories and to attract females, birds’ hearing ability appears to be enhanced during the breeding season. The rest of the year, their brains save energy by minimizing the portions dedicated to hearing and recognizing song.

Reproduction in birds—a subject Birkhead writes about with great relish—is downright peculiar. The duration of avian sex has long been a topic of interest, and tends toward the lightning quick. Dunnock copulation has been timed with high-speed photography at one tenth of a second. At the other end of the spectrum is the vasa parrot of Madagascar, pairs of which perch side by side in a copulatory tie for up to a record-breaking hour and a half. Curiously, not even the vasa parrot exhibits any outward signs of pleasure during sex.

Things are different for the male red-billed buffalo weaver of Africa, which boasts a “false penis” two centimeters long and which is at present the only bird known to experience sexual ecstasy. The circumstances of this discovery, made by one of  Birkhead’s students, are unexpectedly racy, leading Birkhead to conclude that “the sense of touch in birds is better developed than we might imagine.”

Birkhead also introduces readers to the five species of distasteful birds in Papua New Guinea—all of them stunning, colorful creatures with toxic feathers, likely serving to deter predators. We learn about surprising touch receptors in bird beaks and that “one square millimeter of a mallard’s bill has hundreds of receptors.” We marvel at Bernice Wenzel’s inspired experiments in the 1960s proving the kiwi’s ability to navigate the world by smell. We stand in awe of the internal compass that lets bar-tailed godwits fly non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand. And we are perplexed and mesmerized by the ability of a murre to identify its partner in flight at a distance of hundreds of meters.

Bird Sense is a book that is meant to be savored. In addition to the birds, Tim Birkhead introduces his readers to countless natural historians—among them Aristotle, the Comte de Buffon, Georges Cuvier, Ulisse Aldrovandi, John Ray and Francis Willughby, Charles Perrault, and the infelicitous Gustav Retzius, who first illustrated the avian inner ear and never made it to Stockholm in spite of his twelve Nobel nominations. The accounts of their discoveries whet our appetite to explore their work further (luckily for us, Birkhead is also the author of an exquisite history of ornithology, The Wisdom of Birds). Apart from the treasure trove of information, the curious anecdotes, and the extraordinary behavioral experiments, the most thrilling part of Bird Sense is the author’s unabashed enchantment with all things avian, and his inspired quest to learn more about what the world looks, feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like to the birds.

Julia Zarankin is on her way to becoming a birder. In her other life, she is a writer, editor, writing coach, and lecturer to later-life learners in Toronto. In her former life, she worked as a professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She is a regular contributor to Ontario Nature, and blogs about her misadventures in bird identification and offers trenchant analysis of avian coiffures at Birds and Words.

Recommended citation:

Zarankin, J. 2014. Unabashedly Enchanted [a review of Bird Sense, by Tim Birkhead]. Birding 46(5):65.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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