Friday 17 February 2012

Book Review - Bird Sense

I am branching out – this post is a book review. Almost unbelievably a publisher got in touch and asked me if I would like to review a new book. Ooooh, free stuff, I thought! A book as it turns out, who would have thought? Why not? I am always seeking to ensure that this blog isn’t one-dimensional, and frankly the huge amount of bird content of late has been a bit embarrassing. I commented only recently that I was in desperate need of filler material, but more often than not those posts turn out to be rants. So this is just perfect. It’s a book about birds, so fits with the general theme of me being a birder, but isn’t just me talking boringly about what mega-birds I’ve seen on the patch that are common as muck just about everywhere else. Perhaps you’ve switched off already, perhaps you haven’t? I admit that reading an actual book made of paper is pretty radical these days - I found that people stared at me on the tube - but if you can handle the unwanted attention, this is well worth picking up. But guess what? It's available as an e-book, so you can download it to read and thus avoid all the shame and humiliation.

Anyway, to the book. Bird Sense - what it's like to be a bird. What a load of rubbish, how could we possibly hope to have an idea - that was my initial my thought. Is he going to try and describe the wind rushing through the feathers of a Swift as it zooms about? The author, Tim Birkhead, to his credit addresses this key question immediately, and in doing so persuades you to read on. And it turns out the book isn't anthropomorphic at all, it literally is about avian senses, and we can and do have an idea. Lots of ideas. The preface - possibly the longest preface in the world - is therefore largely to do with the scientific process that underpins what we know. Only academics, which Tim Birkhead is, could possibly find this interesting, but you soon get through it and onto the real book, and probably a lot of what’s in it needed to be stated at some point, so why not get it over with at the start? Indeed, throughout the book he references various studies and experiments, so you might as well know a bit about it.
In short I found it totally captivating. I am not remotely scientific, the last time I was in anything approaching a laboratory was when I was 16 and doing badly in my GCSEs. I just like looking at birds, and so as a total dunce beyond that (and possibly even including that....), this book was indulgently fascinating. In the same way that I watch Brian Cox with a child-like wonder that belies my nearly 40 years on this planet, so I read this book. I mentally said “really?” about a million times as I progressed through it. I reckon I learnt something about every three sentences. For while you may think you know a fair bit about various aspects of bird behaviour and what dictates that behaviour, in reality you know very little. When I next find a Guillemot on the patch I’ll look at it totally differently.

The book starts with Shrikes, which is always promising, and essentially the author goes through the senses one by one, starting with sight, detailing what we know, how we developed and refined that knowledge, and what's next to research and discover. I could not put it down, and devoured it over the course of only a few commutes. It could be that I am particularly ignorant, but I never knew how complex birds are. Did you know that some Owls have assymetric ears, ie one near the top of its head, the other nearer the bottom, in order to better triangulate invisible prey? I didn't. Did you know that birds can literally see the earth's magnetic field? I didn't, I thought they felt it. Sensed it. Used the Force. But no, if you cover one of a bird's eyes, and surround it by a massive electromagnet, it's stuffed and doesn't know which way to go. Change eyes and it's fine again. Who knew? Well it turns out that scientists are a pretty resourceful bunch, and a lot of the book is devoted to various pioneers in avian behaviour, from Darwin and earlier through to the present day. Apparently people devote their entire lives to finding out about one tiny aspect of a bird's life. Many you will never have heard of - most, in fact - but it's incredibly impressive and dedicated. Some of them turned out to be wrong of course, which is a shame after 40 years work, but that's the way it happens - the search for the truth is constantly evolving.

A minor niggle, and I’m perhaps being picky, is that the book as a whole contains about three times as many commas as strictly necessary, so I found reading it fluently a little tough, but the content more than makes up for any extravagances of punctuation. But hey, what do I know? Tim Birkhead has several books under his belt, which is several more than me. Overall a big thumbs up.

Anyway, here’s a video of the author talking about it. This isn’t as interesting as the actual book, but adds a nice multi-media touch - ie read the book, don't just watch the video and think you're done. So, thanks very much to Helen from Bloomsbury for sending me the book. I’m available for high-quality optics reviews also – certain post-review conditions apply – please get in touch if interested.....

1 comment:

  1. I wrote my dissertation on whether birds are able to smell, so was able to read quite a lot about this kind of research- all very interesting.