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Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird

Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird

5.0 1
by Tim Birkhead, Bill Swainson

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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


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

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With clear gusto for his subject, animal behavior expert Birkhead (The Wisdom of Birds) breaks down what it might be like to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell as a bird. Tracing the insights, clever experiments, and surprise contributions that have helped debunk myths about birds’ senses, he takes us to Caripe, Venezuela, where a Harvard undergrad discovered that the cave-dwelling guácharo can navigate in total darkness via echolocation, and introduces us to Betsy Bang, the amateur ornithologist who persuaded the scientific community in the 1960s that birds can smell. After walking us through the five familiar senses that birds share with humans, he also shows how they may be able to orient themselves by the earth’s magnetic field using magnetite crystals within their beaks or even by seeing the field, the way we might a cloud or a tree. And he considers less tangible feelings, too. Although little is known about birds’ emotions, Birkhead makes reasonable behavior-based guesses about what a bird might feel when glimpsing a predator, losing a skirmish with a rival, or reuniting with a mate. The well-organized book takes pains to explain any avian jargon, making for an uncomplicated, entertaining read perfect for birdwatchers and animal enthusiasts. Agent: Felicity Bryan, Felicity Bryan Associates (U.K.). (May)
Library Journal
This book helps readers understand what it's like to be something else—in this case, a bird. Ornithologist Birkhead (animal behavior & history of science, Univ. of Sheffield, UK; The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology) writes about avian senses, with chapters on seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense, and emotions. He illustrates the history of scientific thought regarding birds' senses. Birkhead argues that it is difficult for humans to imagine themselves as birds because birds see a different ultraviolet spectrum, hear at higher frequencies, and somehow sense the earth's magnetic field. Moving among field locations (e.g., New Zealand, Florida, Atlantic islands), he illustrates the abilities of birds and their survival techniques, and, in the postscript, describes how all their senses function together. VERDICT Birkhead provides fascinating information for birders and naturalists, but his story often lacks smooth transitions between topics. His jargon may be unfamiliar to nonbirders, and because the author is British some terminology is different from American usage. Still, birders, naturalists, animal scientists, and students will be interested.—Sally Bickley, Del Mar Coll. Lib., Corpus Christi, TX
Kirkus Reviews
Birkhead (Animal Behavior and the History of Science/Univ. of Sheffield; The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology, 2008, etc.) looks at the adaptive significance of bird behavior. A lifetime spent in ornithological research and old-fashioned bird-watching has convinced the author that "we have consistently underestimated what goes on in a bird's head." He describes how using the latest available tools, neurobiologists have uncovered new aspects of bird perception--e.g., the fact that female birds that see in the ultraviolet range chose mates on the basis of characteristics we can't directly perceive such as plumage markings. Even more fascinating, Birkhead explains that some birds "tend to use their right eye for close-up activities like feeding and the left eye for more distant activities such as scanning for predators." Another unexpected discovery which he hopes may prove relevant to the treatment of neuro-degenerative brain disease in humans is the plasticity of the brains of birds that live in temperate regions. As the days shorten with the approach of winter, the birds' brains shrink; conversely, increasing daylight triggers a hormone release resulting in an increase in brain size. This is correlated to the great mental activity required as new songs are acquired, mating occurs and nests are protected from predators. Another exciting discovery is the evidence of sensitive areas on their tongues and beaks, which enable them to preen in a manner similar to chimpanzee grooming. While Birkhead recognizes the problem of anthropomorphic interpretations of animal behavior, he describes a colleague's observation of birds engaging in an intense 17-minute greeting ceremony after being separated, behavior that suggested a human reunion. He admits to finding it tempting to infer that "birds experience similar pleasurable emotions." An entertaining book guaranteed to bring pleasure to bird-watchers that will also fascinate students contemplating a career in ecology.

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Walker & Company
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What It's Like to Be a Bird
By Tim Birkhead

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2012 Tim Birkhead
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-7966-3

Chapter One


The falcon's sensory world is as different from ours as is that of a bat or a bumble-bee. Their high-speed sensory and nervous systems give them extremely fast reactions. Their world moves about ten times faster than ours.

Helen Macdonald, 2006, Falcon, Reaktion Books

As a child I once had a conversation with my mum about what our dog could or could not see. On the basis of something I had heard or read, I told her that dogs could see only in black and white. Mum was not impressed. 'How could they possibly know that?' she said: 'We cannot look through a dog's eyes, so how could anyone know?'

In fact there are several ways we can know what a dog, a bird or, indeed, any other organism can see, for example either by looking at the structure of the eye and comparing it with other species, or by behavioural tests. In the past, falconers unwittingly performed just such a test – not with falcons, but with shrikes.

This elegant little bird is used, not to attract the hawk as might be supposed, but to give notice of its approach. Its power of vision is perfectly marvellous, for it will detect and announce the presence of a hawk in the air long before the latter is discernible by human eye.

The 'elegant little bird' is the great grey shrike and the trapping method an elaborate one, involving a turf hut in which the falconer is concealed, a live decoy falcon, a wooden decoy falcon, a live pigeon and – crucially – a great grey shrike (known also as a butcher bird) tethered outside its own miniature turf hut.

James E. Harting, falconer and ornithologist, saw this method in action during October 1877 near Valkenswaard, in the Netherlands, a traditional location for trapping migrating falcons. Here's how he described it:

We take our seats on the chairs in the hut, and fill our pipes ... Suddenly our attention is attracted by one of the shrikes. He chatters and appears uneasy. He crouches and points ... He jumps off the roof of his hut, and prepares to take shelter within it. The falconer says there is a hawk in the air.

They watch and wait, but it turns out to be a buzzard and the falconer isn't interested. But later:

Look! The butcher-bird is pointing again. There is something in the air. He chatters and quits his perch ... We look in the direction indicated, and strain our eyes, but see nothing. 'You will see him presently', says the falconer; 'the butcher-bird can see much farther than we can.' And so he can. Two or three minutes afterwards on the far distant horizon of that great plain [of Valkenswaard] a speck comes into view, no bigger than a skylark. It is a falcon.

As the raptor approaches, the nature of the shrike's agitation informs the falconer of the species. Even more remarkably, the shrike's behaviour also tells the falconer how the raptor is approaching: swiftly or slowly; high in the sky or low over the ground. The shrike – an invaluable asset – is kept safe from the raptor's clutches by the provision of that little turf hut.

Other trapping methods employed shrikes as decoys, relying on the extraordinary visual acuity of the raptors to see them as potential prey. Expressions such as 'eagle-eyed' or 'hawk-eyed' attest to the fact that for a very long time we have known about the extraordinary vision of falcons and other birds of prey.

One reason falcons see so well is because they have two visual hot spots at the back of each eye – two foveas – rather than the one that humans have. The fovea is simply a tiny pit or depression on the retina at the back of the eye where blood vessels are absent (since they would interfere with the clarity of the image) and the density of photoreceptors – cells for detecting light – is greatest. As a result, the fovea is the point in our retina where the image is sharpest. The falcon's two foveae contribute to its excellent vision.

Around half of all bird species examined so far have a single fovea, like us, and the question is whether shrikes have one or two. When I asked my academic colleagues who specialise in avian vision, no one knew. But one told me where to look: 'Check Casey Wood's Fundus Oculi,' he said. Remarkably, I knew of this obscurely titled book, published in 1917, although I had never perused it. Wood's Fundus Oculi is a study of the retinas of birds, as viewed through an optician's ophthalmoscope. Its title – which guaranteed that it would never be a bestseller – refers simply to the back of the eye.

Casey Albert Wood (1856–1942) was already one of my heroes. Professor of ophthalmology at the University of Illinois between 1904 and 1925, and probably the most eminent eye specialist of his age, Wood was also fascinated by birds, bird books and the history of ornithology. Recognising, for example, the immense significance of Frederick II's thirteenth-century manuscript on falconry (and ornithology), Wood went to the Vatican Library, translated it and published it, making this extremely rare manuscript much more widely available. He also discovered, and purchased for his personal library, a unique hand-coloured copy of Willughby and Ray's Ornithology (1678) that John Ray had presented to Samuel Pepys when Pepys was president of Britain's Royal Society in the 1680s. Another major achievement was Casey Wood's Introduction to the Literature on Vertebrate Biology, a remarkable reference book that I own and use regularly, that lists all known zoology books (including those on birds) published before 1931.

Wood's The Fundus Oculi of Birds (to give it its full title) grew out of his belief that a better understanding of the exceptional eyesight of birds would throw light on the biology and pathology of human vision. It was a stroke of genius and, employing the same equipment he used to examine the human retina, Wood described and catalogued the eyes of a wide range of living bird species. Such was his knowledge that it was said he could identify a bird simply from an image of its retina!

My first opportunity to look at Wood's Fundus Oculi occurred during a visit to the ornithological Blacker-Wood Library at McGill University, Montreal, which I visited while searching for material for my book The Wisdom of Birds (2009). Casey Wood had donated his huge personal library to the university in honour of his wife. I went with my colleague Bob Montgomerie, specifically to look at the Pepys' Ornithology, and while I was there Eleanor MacLean, the librarian, asked if I'd also like to look at the Fundus Oculi. Stupidly, I declined, befuddled by its title and distracted by too many other more interesting old books.

Even if I had looked at it, there was no way I would have remembered whether Casey Wood had included shrikes in his survey, and when I later needed it I discovered that the book was scarce in British libraries. I eventually found one, and there, under 'California Shrike Lanius ludovicianus gambeli', now known as the loggerhead shrike, Wood writes: 'There are two macular regions in the fundus of this bird.' In other words, yes, there are two foveas (macular regions) on the back of the eye (the fundus) of the loggerhead shrike. Excellent! Just as I hoped, and as Wood says: 'Birds with double foveae have exceptionally good eyesight.'

The human eye has long fascinated lovers, artists and physicians. The ancient Greeks dissected eyes, but struggled to understand how they worked, unclear as to whether they received or emanated light. The anatomical descriptions of the eye made by Galen – physician to the Roman gladiators during the second century AD – remained the standard until the Renaissance, when there was renewed interest in the natural world, and in the wonder of vision, inspired by translations of Islamic manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The German polymath Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) was among the first to create a theory of vision, later elaborated by Isaac Newton, René Descartes and many others. In 1684 Antonie von Leeuwenhoek, pioneer microscopist, got the first glimpse of what we now know to be light-sensitive cells – the so-called rods and cones – in the retina. Two hundred years later, using a much better microscope and a very clever way of staining different types of cell-different colours, Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934) provided a wonderfully detailed – and exquisitely illustrated – description of the way the cells of the retina connect to the brain, in a variety of animals, including birds.

In the Origin of Species Darwin refers to vertebrate eyes as 'organs of extreme perfection and complication'. In a sense, the eye was a test case for natural selection because the Christian philosopher William Paley had used the eye in his Natural Theology (1802) as an example of the Creator's wisdom. Only God, Paley asserted, could produce an organ so perfectly adapted for its purpose. Paley called it a 'cure for atheism'. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Darwin had enjoyed Paley's book, when, believe it or not, he was training for the Church. But as Darwin said later, Paley's ideas about the natural world (which were essentially about adaptation) all seemed quite plausible – before his discovery of natural selection. The recognition that natural selection provided a much more convincing explanation than God or natural theology for the perfection of the natural world was one of the fundamental shifts in our understanding of nature.

Paley was a creationist and an advocate of 'intelligent design', and the crux of his argument was that half an eye was of no use, and that therefore natural selection could not possibly create an eye. For Paley and the creationists the eye had to be fully developed to be of any use, and the only way that could happen was if God made it.

The flaw in this way of thinking has been exposed many times, but most tellingly in an ingenious reconstruction of the evolution of the eye by two Swedish scientists, Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, in 1994. Starting from a simple sheet of light-sensitive cells, they showed that a 1 per cent improvement in vision each generation could generate a sophisticated eye similar to that of a human or a bird in less than half a million years – a relatively short period in the history of life on earth. This evolutionary model not only showed that half an eye (or less) was better than no eye at all; it also revealed that the evolution of vision was nowhere near as complicated (or impossible) as Paley and his followers believed.

As I read more about the eyesight of birds, one particular phrase kept cropping up: a wing guided by an eye, meaning that a bird is no more than a flying machine with excellent vision. After a while I began to feel a twinge of irritation every time I read it, because it implies that vision is the only sense birds have: but, as we will see, nothing could be further from the truth. The expression comes from a book on vertebrate vision published in 1943 by a French ophthalmologist, André Rochon-Duvigneaud (1863–1952), for whom the aphorism captured the essence of being a bird.

Of course, long before Rochon-Duvigneaud, almost everyone who has written about birds has commented on their excellent eyesight. The great French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, for example, discussing the senses of birds in the 1790s, said: 'We find that of sight to be more extended, more acute, more accurate and more distinct in the birds in general, than in the quadrupeds' and 'A bird ... that shoots swiftly through the air, must undoubtedly see better than one which slowly describes a waving tract' – meaning a bird with a slower, more meandering flight. Then, in the early nineteenth century, the ornithologist James Rennie wrote: 'We have ourselves more than once seen the osprey dash down from a height of two or three hundred feet upon a fish of no considerable size, and which a man could with difficulty have perceived at the same distance' and 'The bottle tit [long-tailed tit] flits with great quickness among the branches of trees, and finds on the very smooth bark its particular food, where nothing is perceptible to the naked eye, though insects can be detected there by the microscope.' In a similar vein, there is an oft-repeated observation that an American kestrel can detect a two-millimetre-long insect at a distance of 18 metres. Unsure about what that meant in terms of human vision, I checked and, yes, at a distance of 18 m a two-millimetre-long insect is completely invisible, and in fact did not become visible until I had approached to within four metres – striking evidence of the kestrel's superior visual resolution.

While conducting my PhD on guillemots on Skomer Island I constructed hides at various colonies to be able to watch their behaviour at close range. One of my favourite hides was on the north side of the island where, after an uncomfortable hands and knees crawl, I could sit within a few metres of a group of guillemots. There were about twenty pairs breeding on this particular cliff edge, some of them facing out to sea as they incubated their single egg. Being so close to the birds, I had the sense of being almost part of the colony and had become familiar with all their displays and calls. On one occasion a guillemot that was incubating suddenly stood up and started to give the greeting call – even though its partner was absent. I was puzzled by this behaviour, which seemed to be occurring completely out of context. I looked out to sea and visible, as little more than a dark blob, was a guillemot flying towards the colony. As I watched, the bird on the cliff continued to call and then, to my utter amazement, with a whirr of stalling wings, the incoming bird alighted beside it. The two birds proceeded to greet each other with evident enthusiasm. I could hardly believe that the incubating bird had apparently seen – and recognised – its partner several hundred metres away out at sea.

How can we establish scientifically how good avian vision is? There are two ways: by comparing the structure of their eyes with that of other vertebrates, and by devising behavioural tests to establish how well birds can see.

From the Renaissance onwards, researchers interested in human vision commonly studied the eyes of birds and other animals, and over time a picture started to emerge. Not surprisingly, it was a picture seriously biased by what was known about human vision.

Compared with mammals, birds have relatively large eyes. In simple terms, a bigger eye means better vision, and excellent vision is essential for avoiding collisions in flight, or for capturing fast-moving or camouflaged prey. Birds' eyes, however, are deceptive – they are bigger than they look. As William Harvey (famous for discovering the circulation of blood) said in the mid-1600s, birds' eyes 'outwardly appear small, because excepting the pupils they are wholly covered with skin and feathers'.

As with many organs, the eyes of larger birds are generally bigger than those of smaller ones – obviously. The smallest eyes are those of hummingbirds, the largest are those of the ostrich. Those who study eyes use the distance between the centre of the cornea and lens to the retina at the back of the eye (the eye's diameter) as a measure of eye size. The ostrich's eye has a diameter of 50 mm, more than twice that of the human eye (24 mm). In fact, relative to their body size, the eyes of birds are almost twice as large as those of most mammals.

Frederick II was an astute observer and in his manuscript on falconry, he commented: 'Some birds have large eyes in comparison with their bodies, some small, some of medium size.' The ostrich may have the largest eye of any bird in absolute terms, but, for its body size, it is actually smaller than we would expect. The largest eyes relative to body size occur in eagles, falcons and owls. The white-tailed sea eagle has an eye of 46-mm diameter – not far off that of the ostrich (which is eighteen times heavier). At the other end of the scale, the kiwi has tiny eyes, both absolutely (an eight-millimetre diameter) and for its body size. To get some impression of just how tiny the kiwi's eyes are, the Australian brown thornbill (which weighs a minuscule six grams) has an eye diameter of six millimetres. If kiwis had eyes proportional to their body weight (which is about two or three kilograms), their eyes would be 38 mm in diameter (similar to a golf ball) – a huge difference. The kiwi's eyes have been described as 'as degenerate as it is possible for an avian eye to be'.

The size of eyes is important precisely because the larger the eye, the larger the image on the retina. Imagine watching a 12-inch television compared with a 36-inch screen. Bigger eyes have more light receptors in the same way that larger TV screens have more pixels, and hence a better image.

Among diurnal birds, those that become active soon after dawn have larger eyes than those that become active later after sunrise. Shorebirds that forage at night have relatively large eyes, as do owls and other nocturnal species. The kiwi, however, is an exception among nocturnal birds, and, like those fish and amphibia that live in the perpetual darkness of caves, seems to have virtually given up vision in favour of its other senses.

The Australian wedge-tailed eagle has enormous eyes, both in absolute terms and compared with most other birds, and as a result has the greatest visual acuity of any known animal. Other birds might benefit from the eagle's acute vision, but eyes are heavy, fluid-filled structures, and the larger they are the less compatible they are with flight. Flying birds are designed so that their weight is distributed in such a way that it does not interfere too much with flight. A heavy head is incompatible with flight and therefore sets an upper limit on eye size. Flight, and the need for large eyes, may also be responsible for the loss in birds of teeth, which have been replaced by a powerful muscular stomach, the gizzard (which birds use to grind up their food), located near the centre of gravity in the abdomen.


Excerpted from BIRD SENSE by Tim Birkhead Copyright © 2012 by Tim Birkhead. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Meet the Author

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 Birds. which won the McColvin medal, The Red Canary, which won the Consul Cremer Prize, and The Wisdom of Birds. He is married with three children and lives in Sheffield.

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