It has been years since I have read a book devoted to science. Tim Birkhead's new book "Bird Science: What It's Like to Be a Bird" appealed to me as something outside the scope of my usual readings. Also, I have a 17-some year old pet cockatiel to whom I am devoted, but I tend to avoid such things in my reading and reviews.
The book is unusual and, forgive me, a true rara avis. Tim Birkhead is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a professor at the University of Sheffield. He has travelled throughout the world studying birds, which is both his work and his passion, and written extensively. Part of the appeal of this book was learning about Birkhead. He was fascinated by birds from the age of five when he kept a pair of zebra finches as pets. I found it intruiging that an early childhood interest should develop throughout a lifetime. Birkhead has studied the zebra finch throughout his career.
The subject of the book is "bird sense" or how birds use their senses to get along, how they may be like human senses and how they may differ. The subtitle of the book derives from an essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel: "What is it Like to be a Bat"; but Birkhead, unlike Nagel is optimistic that science can provide at least a partial answer to the question. In his Preface, Birkhead explains the goal of his book:
"Bird Sense is about how birds perceive the world. It is based lifetime of ornithological research and a conviction that we have consistently underestimated what goes on in a bird's head. We already know quite a lot, and we are poised to make more discoveries. This is the story of how we got to where we are, and what the future holds."
The subjet matter might suggest to some a sort of speculative, odd-ball approach, but nothing could be further from the truth. Birkhead points out that people simply like birds and identify with them closer than with any other animals with the exception of dogs and chimpanzees. He also notes that the question about bird "sense" is too broadly drawn as there are thousands of species of birds and each has its own characteristics.
The book shows a mastery of biology and ornithology and their histories. Birkhead draws freely on studies of birds beginning in ancient times through the renaissance, the 18 and 19th century, and contemporary science. The learning is awesome. He also discusses the research on birds and their sensory behavior that takes place among scholars all over the world. It was good to be reminded of and to see strong evidence of a community of scholars engaged in interesting research.
Birkhead has a gift for taking scientific research and, in some respects, technical anatomical and physiological information and presenting it lucidly in a manner that the lay reader can understand. His joy in the subject is apparent everywhere and adds much to the book. What could be a summary of difficult scholarly articles in obscure scientific journals comes to life. I found the book informative and entertaining.
In a series of chapters, Birkhead offers a bird's eye view (sorry) of what scientists have learned and what they don't understand about seeing, hearing, touch taste, and smell in various types of birds. He considers anatomy, in particular, as well as bird behavior. He offers an extended treatment of sexuality in birds, which appears to be a particular interest. After considering the five senses birds share with people, Birkhead offers a chapter considering the "magnetic sense" which some birds apparently possess to guide them in their long migrations over land and the ocean. A final chapter considers difficult questions of emotions and consciousness. As Birkhead points out, it is notoriously difficult to define these concepts when applied to people; Birkhead considers whether birds can be said to have "emotion" or "consciousness" and suggests cautiously that they might do so.
This book was refreshing to read not the least because I have grown away from thinking in the way that a scientist thinks. I learned something about birds and even more, in broad terms, about science. But I most enjoyed sharing Birkhead's enthusiasm and joy in his life work.