Book: Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird

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Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird

Author: Tim Birkhead
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

What is it like to be a swift, flying at over one hundred kilometres an hour? Or a kiwi, plodding flightlessly among the humid undergrowth in the pitch dark of a New Zealand night? And what is going on inside the head of a nightingale as it sings, and how does its brain improvise?

Bird Sense addresses questions like these and many more, by describing the senses of birds that enable them to interpret their environment and to interact with each other. Our affinity for birds is often said to be the result of shared senses—vision and hearing—but how exactly do their senses compare with our own? And what about a bird’s sense of taste, or smell, or touch, or the ability to detect the earth’s magnetic field? Or the extraordinary ability of desert birds to detect rain hundreds of kilometres away—how do they do it?

Bird Sense is based on a conviction that we have consistently underestimated what goes on in a bird’s head. Our understanding of bird behaviour is simultaneously informed and constrained by the way we watch and study them. By drawing attention to the way these frameworks both facilitate and inhibit discovery, Birkhead identifies ways we can escape from them to explore new horizons in bird behaviour.

There has never been a popular book about the senses of birds. No one has previously looked at how birds interpret the world or the way the behaviour of birds is shaped by all their senses. A lifetime spent studying birds has provided Tim Birkhead with a wealth of observation and a unique understanding of birds and their behaviour that is firmly grounded in science.


Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2012: How do birds experience being alive? Bird behaviorist and scientific historian Tim Birkhead demystifies the world of experience of birds of all feathers from the inside out, showing how their unique physiology gives them sensory powers beyond our own—including the ability to see UV light, echolocate, and migrate by feeling magnetic forces. With the wit and wonder of David Attenborough, he relates how scientists have discovered what it means to be a bird, over centuries and as new technologies have opened a golden age of sensory knowledge. Undaunted by the breathtaking scope of avian diversity, Birkhead explores their varied realities—from “an emperor penguin diving in the inky blackness of the Antarctic seas” to “a flamingo, sensing invisible rain falling hundreds of kilometers away” to a robin, hearing an earthworm’s “tiny bristles rustling against the sides” of his burrow, and dozens more marvelous avians.

Though his subject will appeal most deeply to bird lovers (and those who’ve wondered what it is like to be an ornithologist), Bird Sense will pique the curiosity of anyone interested in how any creature’s experience of the world is shaped by the body it inhabits. —Mari Malcolm

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