Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Alice’s Analysis: Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead

Over the coming months, Nature’s Head of Press, Alice Henchley, will be reading and reviewing the books shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, at a rate of one every week.  The winner will be announced at a public event at the Royal Society on the 25th November 2013 during which shortlisted authors will discuss their books with host Dara O Briain.  Prior to the announcement,  we’re running a competition on Of Schemes and Memes to win a set of the shortlisted books – all you have to do is predict the winning book and enter our prize draw.

Who has not, at some point, imagined what it’s like to be a bird, flying high above the cacophony of a teaming forest and swooping down to alight on the unsuspecting critters below? Well, perhaps I had not previously imagined diving on a scuttling vole or using a beak to probe about for invertebrates, but after reading Bird Sense, I certainly have.

Bird Sense UK jacketBirkhead opens with comical description of New Zealanders’ bird fauna and a quirky tale of catching the charmingly bizarre kiwi, before listing some of the most extraordinary experiences that different bird species may encounter in the course of their lives.  These range from diving to depths of up to 400m in the Antarctic seas to copulating for a tenth of a second, over one hundred times a day.  The mind boggles and, over the course of the book, many other examples are explored and explained, inspiring further mental gasps of surprise and astonishment.  Birkhead splits the content up into seven distinct chapters, Seeing, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Magnetic Sense and Emotions; each sets your imagination soaring.


The study of birds has a long and colourful history and Birkhead has done a masterful job of identifying and bringing to life the great characters that have carried out extraordinary experiments over the centuries.  The studies of Harvard’s Don Griffin, in which the use of echolocation by bats and birds is explored, specially appealed to me.  The tale of an experiment in which he plugged the ears of the oilbirds of Caripe with cotton wool, sealed with glue, to see if the birds could orientate themselves without their sense of hearing particularly entertained (the birds couldn’t, they immediately flew into the walls of the laundry room where Griffin held his experiments).  Almost all of the observations of bird life in the book verge on the extraordinary and some of them, like the tales of a French airman flying during the First World War realising that he was surrounded by sleeping birds at an altitude of 10,00ft, or the goose that stood tragically vigil over the body of its dead partner for over a week, seem hardly believable.  But Birkhead does help us to make sense of them, gently introducing the science in such a subtle way that you barely realise it’s there.

There is nothing but joy to be found Bird Sense.  It is an enchanting, entertaining and accessible book with the ability to delight in every chapter.  I challenge you not to come away from reading it with a lighter step, happier heart and more profound appreciation for our extraordinary avian neighbours.

You can read Gabrielle Walkers’s Nature Books and Arts review of Bird Sense here. 


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