REVIEW: Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird
by Tim Birkhead
Professor Tim Birkhead, a behavioural ornithologist, is both an accomplished scientist and a superb communicator. His new book is an entertaining and informative gallop through centuries of accumulated (and revised) knowledge about the amazing variety of ways that birds see, hear, smell, touch, sense, and even express emotions.
Like many books aimed at scientifically literate but non-specialist readers, Bird Sense catalogues past discoveries and how they were made, and brings the subject up to date, covering everything from early gruesome dissections through to highly technological applications, such as brain imaging, miniaturised cameras and locator beacons, among many too numerous to detail here.
This book is as much homage to the meticulous, innovative, and dedicated work of early ornithologists, naturalists and twitchers – amateurs mostly, with a unifying passion – as it is to the diverse and remarkable faculties of birds. It pulls together specialist knowledge previously inaccessible to all but the most select experts, illustrates every point with fascinating examples and engages the reader with personal anecdotes that bring the rare, exotic and little-known to life, and the common-garden and ordinary into a new focus.
Every page drips with dozens of the sorts of facts that amuse or astound; quiz masters and biological science lecturers alike will revel in the details, finding a new source of material to enliven even the least inquisitive. At times I experienced a slight irritation with the incessant stream of factoids and many anecdotes that seemed rather designed to appeal to small (and not so small!) boys – but the genuine enthusiasm and wonder more than atoned for the slight whiff of machismo!
A forensic, though fairly uncritical, lens is held up to the changing ethics of the use of animals in research. A particularly full description, for example, is given of the discoveries behind understanding echolocation in bats and birds. Early experiments variously involved the wholesale blinding and deafening of animals and testing their abilities to navigate in the dark. No commercial or backyard chook keeper should be ignorant of the pain and permanent debility caused by chicken de-beaking – balanced, as it is, against pecking and cannibalism caused by chronic overcrowding and boredom.The convergent development of instrumentation for measuring frequencies of sounds, and the military uses of technologies like sonar and their use by enterprising biologists illustrate perfectly the interlinking application of new knowledge in very different fields.
Of particular interest to the New Zealand reader, are the many references to the unique (and threatened) New Zealand fauna. Tim’s visit here, and his encounters with kiwi, kakapo, the well-travelled bar-tailed godwit and many others, obviously made a huge impression, though his description of a desolate, silent, bird free country decimated by introduced pests belies the success of many heroic conservation efforts.
Beautiful line drawings by Katrina van Grouw, former bird curator at London’s Natural History Museum, in a style evocative of the golden era of naturalistic scientific illustration, complement the content well. They are a subtle reminder that, despite the quirky title and softcover jacket designed to appeal to the mass market, this is also scholarly work, well evidenced and referenced. I defy anyone, ornithologist or not, to fail to learn much that is new and interesting, but I know, despite an adequate index, I’ll be frustrated that the format of the book will not enable me to put my finger easily on the details behind every particular, half remembered and fascinating nuggets, so densely scattered are they. However, that is a small price to pay for a book that is certain to both appeal to, and sustain the interest of, a wide range of people, whatever their level of expertise.
If ever there was a book suitable for inspiring budding naturalists – an advert for a career in science, where perseverance, dedication and application of knowledge built up over time can take you all over the world and fund your hobby – Bird Sense is it!
Dr Léonie Walker is a former biological scientist from the UK, who is now Principal Researcher at the New Zealand Nurses Organisation. She has always had a keen, though strictly amateur, interest in science history and birdwatching – the former inspired by her geneticist father, the latter by her upbringing in Uganda and her more recent domicile near the Guillemot’s paradise that is the Farne Islands off the NE coast of England.