Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bird Sense: what it's like to be a bird

Last October I was lucky enough to hear Tim Birkhead speak at a conference. He has that deceptively relaxed style which gets you laughing at the same time as you're scribbling down every detail. I came away both smiling and with the feeling I'd just listened to something of real significance.

Birkhead's lecturing prowess is rooted in a command of his subject, combined with the talents of a natural communicator. His new book, Bird Sense: What it's like to be a bird, takes both these qualities into print. It's a mind bending account of the ways in which birds perceive the world; a description of their recently discovered 'super powers' that's had me reeling off examples to friends and family for weeks. More than that, it's findings give rise to thoughts on our own species - suggesting our experience of the world to be a mere simulacrum of how it really is.

I was careful in that last sentence to avoid the word 'view'. For Bird Sense confirms how fuzzy are human optics. Most hawks have a visual clarity we only experience with telescopes; Birkhead explains this is because they have two retinas in each eye. Guillemots, he tells us, can recognise their mating partners from over two kilometers distance - quite how, we are still not sure.

Staying with vision, we know that kestrels detect ultraviolet light, and use it to follow the trails left by mice and voles. That might not sound much, but think on it a moment; the kestrel isn't seeing the electric-purple we use to simulate ultraviolet in films; what it sees is an entirely new a colour! That's something we can never experience - something, literally beyond us.

As too are most of the capabilities Birkhead describes. We learn that kiwis aren't probing randomly with those curved beaks, they're pinpointing worms with an olfactory sense that can smell them six inches below ground. In other chapters, we learn how birds taste; how their beaks (even those of woodpeckers) are acutely sensitive, how they hear (did you know that owls hunt largely by sound?) and use sonics much the same way as bats. In the last chapter, the book explores the research into avian emotions.

With so many revelations it's hard to pick a favourite. But perhaps the standout is the recently discovered ability of some birds to see magnetism. Yes, they actually see it. And Birkhead's description of the techniques used to confirm this are as readable as they are convincing. This is where he excels as a popular science writer - hooking you with a claim so extraordinary that before you know it, you're devouring pages and wanting more.

Much of Birkhead's personal research is based on Skomer and Skokholm - just across the water from my house in Wales. But his canvass here is much broader: the book is a summary of the world's leading research, from Wales to South America to Africa and more. If I had one churlish criticism it would be Birkhead's tendency to include back-story about his fellow academics - I'm sure they're delighted with the limelight, but frankly, the characters are much less interesting than their findings.

Birds Sense, is the most fascinating book of popular science I've read in years. Certainly, I've retained more QI type facts than I usually do. And in a way, that analogy isn't too bad a summary. Except it risks trivialising the broader message - that birds are more extraordinary than we ever imagined. And perhaps by understanding them better we might look again at ourselves, at our own limitations - and give light to the hubris that is our human-centric view of the world.

Bird Sense: What it's like to be a bird is published by Bloomsbury who gave me a copy for review. It is available from all good bookshops and I'd recommend it for anyone interested in birds, nature, weird facts, philosophy and life.


  1. Hello Mark:
    Your own enthusiasm for what is obviously a remarkable, and very individual, book, both in terms of its subject matter as well as for the way it is written, not only matches that of the author but is positively infectious too leaving us with the feeling that 'Bird Sense' must be at the top of our shopping list immediately. An absolutely fascinating and informative post and one whose recommendation we take very much to heart.

  2. So where do I sign up to get free books to review!! How wonderful, and you have me convinced to buy it; I know I will enjoy it by your description of it.

  3. I'd noted this from your first post about it and will be ordering.

  4. I will buy this one.Sounds just what I have been looking for. I have become more and more interested in birds since we came here and this sounds as if it will answer some of my thousands of questions!

  5. That review was enough to send me looking for it. Not available here until mid April but I have one on order. Thanks for letting us know about it.

  6. Another "must read." Thanks for a fascinating post.

  7. Given that much of our understanding of the world is derived from our senses, it makes you wonder just how much us human beings ar completely missing.

  8. Like Fly I'd already noted this one from your previous mention, but your fascinating review makes it a 'must-read'. Now wondering whether my keen bird-watcher mother-in-law would like it for her birthday this month....

  9. Fascinating! Thanks for the heads up. Humans may think they are the most superior beings on the planet but sometimes I question why. Most other creatures are equally fascinating and complicated!