There are just a few books about birds, seeking to answer many different questions. How do you identify birds? How do birds live? Fly? How and why do birds sing? But all of these questions have something in common: they deal with how we experience birds and what we can observe them doing. But instead, what if we turn that around and ask how birds experience the world? What do birds see, hear, and smell? In other words, what is it like to be a bird?
That is the question that Tim Birkhead seeks to answer in Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird. To do so, he examines each of a bird’s six (yes, six) senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and magnetic. Birds seem relatively similar to ourselves, in that they have recognizable eyes, ears (underneath their head feathers), and nostrils. But it would be a mistake to assume that this means their senses are like ours. This is made abundantly clear as Birkhead walks the reader through the latest research on this subject.
For instance, bird eyes are structurally different than ours, allowing some an amazing degree of visual acuity, and others the ability to see ultraviolet light. Even more amazing is the discovery that birds use their right and left eyes for different tasks. Domestic fowl, for example, use their right eyes for up-close activities, while the left engages in distant activities like scanning for predators. And if there are such surprises related to birds’ sight, the sense we’re most aware of, imagine what revelations await you in this book in regard to their senses of taste and touch. Honestly, before reading this, I wasn’t sure that birds even had a sense of taste. At least I wasn’t alone; apparently there have been many earlier ornithologists who believed that birds were incapable of tasting. It took some technological advances and detailed investigation to prove that they do, indeed, have a sense of taste.
But Birkhead concludes his survey with a topic that proves even harder to pin down than the sense of taste – emotions. At first, this may seem like an odd topic to cover here. But emotions, and the associated issues of consciousness, are integral to how birds experience the world (just as they are with us humans). The author isn’t shy about giving his opinion that birds do experience emotions. But by following the same format as the rest of the book – presenting the latest research along with anecdotal illustrations – Birkhead leaves it up to the reader to make up their own mind. Still, he acknowledges that “we can probably never know if birds experience emotions in the same way that we do”. Even so, this look at what we do know about the subject is fascinating.
Although Bird Sense tackles some very technical topics, Birkhead is able to explain these ideas and the research behind them in a way that amateur readers can not only understand, but really enjoy. However, I have to say that I did not find this book as compelling a read as the author’s previous book, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, despite a greater initial interest in this topic. But I don’t think that’s due to any deficiency in Bird Sense as much as Wisdom just being really, really good.
If you’re like me and have ever wondered what it’s like to be a bird, then you need to read Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird. It’s an eminently readable introduction to one of the most interesting fields of study in ornithology.
Reviewed by Grant McCreary on September 6th, 2012.
Disclosure: The item used to produce this review was a complementary review copy provided by the publisher.