Tim Birkhead – Bird Sense; What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2012) Review

Bird sense

When I studied biology in the 2000s as an undergraduate at Leiden University, the first course I ever had was about Behavioral Biology. In it, our professor urged us to think about animals as black boxes, with input of the senses coming in, and behavior coming out. It was not done to attribute emotions or intent to the animals that we studied, because that lead to a swamp of biases and false projections. The only thing that a behavioral biologist should do, we were told, is to classify elements of behavior and try to think about immediate and evolutionary causes for this behavior.

This struck me as extremely limited from the beginning. If we, as human beings, have bodies that were shaped by evolution, then surely our mental and emotional faculties must also be a product of evolution. Emotions have survival functions too. If humans behave a certain way when we feel a certain emotion, and when an animal like a dog or a horse behaves in a similar way, why would it be not done to think that a similar emotion underlies that behavior?

In any case, the winds of opinion have changed in the last decade. Influential biologist Frans de Waal published papers and popular literature about empathy and morality in chimpanzee societies. He led the way in trying to understand the world of other animals on a deeper level than simply scoring behavior. What we previously considered “uniquely human”, has been present in perhaps smaller forms in other animals. We are not that special.

And now, we have here a book about “what it is like to be a bird”. Tim Birkhead (I keep thinking Birdhead, sorry) says in his prologue that he met with many bird biologists who have found it very hard to publish anything about bird senses and how birds might experience the world, because their research wasn’t wanted. The age wasn’t right. But striking conclusions have slowly trickled in, and now we have enough information to get our first clear picture of “what it is like to be a bird”.

While reading about all these wonderful birds, and often googling the names to see what they look like, I get the sense that birds are better at everything, and we humans are pitiful creatures. But that isn’t fair; Birkhead just focuses on birds with striking capabilities, like owls. I keep wondering what it would be like to see “in higher definition”, or to be able to hear a larva gnawing inside a tree. There are so many strange birds with impressive superpowers.

Birkhead has divided the chapters between senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste etc. Another way he could have written this book is to consider what it is like being a bird, while living a bird life. What would it be like to live a day of a bird’s life? What is it like to soar like an eagle, or to see your fledgling break out of the egg you pushed out? But I guess it might be too hard to pick a single bird or a few birds to write such a story about. And I guess we will never know the pleasures and terrors of bird life that way. Although it must feel satisfying to dive towards a human and take a bite from a tuna sandwich.

The chapter on smell is exceptionally detailed. Apparently, there’s a long-standing controversy amongst scientists whether birds have a good sense of smell. Birkhead mentions lots of experiments and anecdotes to show that many birds have indeed a very good sense of smell. The chapter reads like it is aimed towards his scientist peers, but for laypeople it gets longwinded.

Birkhead is a great guide for this educational tour. He knows birds, lots of them, and birds are weird, man. They do the craziest things. He also has a good sense for the stories that are worth telling and a pleasant writing style. This is not too academic, but easy reading, and wonderfully illustrated with drawings by Katrina van Grouw.

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