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Bird Sense: What it's Like to be a Bird

Popular Science

By: Tim Birkhead (Author), Katrina van Grouw (Illustrator)

265 pages, b/w illustrations

Bloomsbury Publishing

Paperback | Jan 2013 | #202576 | ISBN-13: 9781408830543
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £8.99 $11/€10 approx
Hardback | Feb 2012 | #195401 | ISBN-13: 9781408820131
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £16.99 $21/€19 approx

About this book

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 birds' 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, it identifies ways we can escape from them to seek 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 their senses. A lifetime spent studying birds has provided Tim Birkhead with a wealth of observation and an understanding of birds and their behaviour that is firmly grounded in science.

Customer Reviews:

Another great book by Tim Birkhead
by Natalino Fenech in Malta (03/04/2012)

Those who have never read a book by Prof. Tim Birkhead are missing out in life! Bird Sense is a book that anyone interested in birds should read. But Bird Sense is not a book only for bird lovers. Written in Tim's inimitable style, the book flows, yet it is packed with scientific information written in laymen's terms. This is what really makes Prof. Birkhead's books unique. I also strongly recommend The wisdom of Birds from the same author. After reading Bird Sense one begins to wonder whether the human race is as special as we think it is! I really look forward to other books by this great author.


Other reviews:

"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."
- Grant McCreary (06-09-2012), read the full review at The Birder's Library

"An absolutely absorbing book, on almost every page there is an astonishing observation or revelation"
- Peter Parker, Daily Telegraph

"An eye-opening guide to all matters ornithological [...] His tour of the frontiers of our understanding of birds is stuffed with mind-boggling facts and insights. Thoroughly engaging, it also gives us a thrilling sense of the vast, unmapped territories that lie beyond, waiting to be discovered"
- Christopher Hart, Sunday Times

"A joy to read, simultaneously fascinating and hilarious [...] a book that is thoughtful, thoroughly researched and engagingly written throughout"
- Jamie Condliffe, New Scientist

"An inspired bringing together of all the latest scientific research on avian sight, sound, touch and taste as well as smell, along with some senses which are beyond human capabilities altogether [...] if you pick up Bird Sense, however wise you think you are, you'll learn something new"
- Michael McCarthy, Independent

"This fascinating book has much to teach us, not just about what it means to be a bird, but about the rewards and responsibilities of our coexistence with these wonderful creatures"
- David Wheatley, Guardian

"Superb [...] like having the top of your own head lifted off and its contents deliciously stirred: no one after reading this book could think it was possible to know too much, no one could think science removes us from feeling [...] his richly engaging book so deepens our understanding of what is familiar that we are returned to the birds we know around us and the wider world with a revivified sense of how life comes and goes"
- Tim Dee, Observer

"Remarkable in its celebration of birds"
- New York Times


"Any bird book that opens with the word ‘Buggered’ deserves more than a cursory glance. And when it’s written by Tim Birkhead, you sit up and take note.

Written in Birkhead’s deceptively easy style, this delightful little book is a wander through the avian senses, with chapters on seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetics and (perhaps a little unexpectedly) emotion. He draws together a mass of information – historical, anecdotal, anatomical, observational and experimental, interwoven with entertaining little personal reminiscences – and uses this to analyse and describe how the avian brain interacts with the outside world. This is effectively a book on avian behavioural physiology – a new branch of science? If that sounds dull, then it is my literary weakness, for this is a fascinating read. There is some stuff that ‘everyone’ knows, but lots more that is new and beautifully described.

I found the chapter on magnetic sense both illuminating and frustrating. He presents a succinct review of the history of experimental bird migration showing how (at least some) birds must use the earth’s magnetic field to orientate and navigate. Yet, a few years ago, hardly anyone believed that birds could sense this at all. Frustratingly, many links in the story remain to be discovered: maybe that’s why this chapter is the shortest! How exactly do birds like bar-tailed godwits Limosa lapponica find their way non-stop across the Pacific from Alaska to New Zealand, or manx shearwaters Puffinus puffinus navigate from Skomer and Skokholm to Argentina? Are they really using magnetism? How important is magnetite in this physiology? How does magnetic sensitivity interact with vision? If this chapter doesn’t fire up undergraduate ornithologists to study bird migration, then I despair!

On the subject of emotion, Birkhead spends a good deal of space describing the neurobiology and endocrinology of emotion in mammals generally and humans in particular. Since birds have essentially the same hormones, maybe they can also feel affection, fear, hope, despair? He doesn’t climb down off the fence here – we just don’t know. That’s what makes this book so engaging: there is so much that we don’t know and, unlike many authors, he doesn’t pretend that it is otherwise.

Oh yes, and ‘Buggered’ is the word he uses to describe the bird fauna of New Zealand. Not sure it has a lot to do with avian senses, but it’s spot on. My own first visit to that country began with a drive north from Auckland Airport: it was two hours before I saw a non-European bird – and that was a myna (Sturnidae). This is an excellent book: how I wish I could write like that!"

- David Parkin,, 13-08-2012

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Tim Birkhead is a professor at the University of Sheffield where he teaches animal behaviour and the history of science. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and his research has taken him all over the world in the quest to understand the lives of birds. He has written for The Independent, New Scientist, BBC Wildlife. Among his other books are Promiscuity, Great Auk Islands, The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Ornithology which won the McColvin medal, The Red Canary which won the Consul Cremer Prize and The Wisdom of Birds. He is married, has three children and lives in Sheffield.

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