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Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird [Hardcover]

by Tim Birkhead
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 24, 2012 0802779662 978-0802779663 0
Most people would love to be able to fly like a bird, but few of us are aware of the other sensations that make being a bird a gloriously unique experience. What is going on inside the head of a nightingale as it sings, and how does its brain improvise? How do desert birds detect rain hundreds of kilometers away? How do birds navigate by using an innate magnetic compass?

Tracing the history of how our knowledge about birds has grown, particularly through advances in technology over the past fifty years, Bird Sense tells captivating stories about how birds interact with one another and their environment. More advanced testing methods have debunked previously held beliefs, such as female starlings selecting mates based on how symmetrical the male’s plumage markings are. (Whereas females can discern the difference between symmetrical and asymmetrical markings, they are not very good at detecting small differences among symmetrically marked males!)

Never before has there been a popular book about how intricately bird behavior is shaped by birds’ senses. A lifetime spent studying birds has provided Tim Birkhead with a wealth of fieldwork experiences, insights, and a unique understanding of birds, all firmly grounded in science. No one who reads Bird Sense can fail to be dazzled by it.

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2012: How do birds experience being alive? Bird behaviorist and scientific historian Tim Birkhead demystifies the world of experience of birds of all feathers from the inside out, showing how their unique physiology gives them sensory powers beyond our own—including the ability to see UV light, echolocate, and migrate by feeling magnetic forces. With the wit and wonder of David Attenborough, he relates how scientists have discovered what it means to be a bird, over centuries and as new technologies have opened a golden age of sensory knowledge. Undaunted by the breathtaking scope of avian diversity, Birkhead explores their varied realities—from “an emperor penguin diving in the inky blackness of the Antarctic seas” to “a flamingo, sensing invisible rain falling hundreds of kilometers away” to a robin, hearing an earthworm’s “tiny bristles rustling against the sides” of his burrow, and dozens more marvelous avians.

Though his subject will appeal most deeply to bird lovers (and those who’ve wondered what it is like to be an ornithologist), Bird Sense will pique the curiosity of anyone interested in how any creature's experience of the world is shaped by the body it inhabits. –Mari Malcolm


Touching The Sunday Times Books of the Year An absolutely absorbing book. On almost every page there is an astonishing observation or revelation. ***** Daily Telegraph Combining a wealth of bird facts with a winning modesty in the face of these creatures' essential mysteriousness, Bird Sense is a richly persuasive volume. 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 Guardian, Books of the Year We'll never know what it's really like to be a bird but Tim Birkhead's readable book takes us as far as science can take us, through an examination of how birds see, hear, smell and taste their world Peter Marren, Independent Books of the Year 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 Sunday Times Chirpy and fascinating study about the mysteries of bird behaviour Sunday Times 'Must Reads' If you have ever wondered what it is like to be a bird then Tim Birkhead's wonderful book Bird Sense looks at the sensory apparatus of birds and how they interpret the world Choice 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 Independent Combining a wealth of bird facts with a winning modesty in the face of these creatures' essential mysteriousness, Bird Sense is a richly persuasive volume ... 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 Guardian The effect of his brisk but sparklingly lucid pages is to refocus the point of view on to us and force a rethink as to what it's like to be a human sharing the earth with such wonderfully different and yet recognisably similar animals Tim Dee, Observer A collective portrait of birds that is deeply stirring and inspires awe at our own species and its capacity for such intense curiosity Wall Street Journal Like astronomy, ornithology is a science to which amateurs have made authentic contributions. Today, however, the divide between amateurs and professionals in ornithology appears to be deepening, as the professionals revolutionize our understanding of the ornithological family tree and of bird behaviour by employing cellular biology and the chemistry of DNA. Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioral ecology at the University of Sheffield, in Britain, has a remarkable capacity to bridge the gap ... His skill lies in the way he poses his questions Robert O. Paxton, New York Review of Books No book has made me want to quote incredible facts about the feathered creatures that inhabit our planet quite like Tim Birkhead's masterpiece Bird Sense. Be prepared to be amazed Sunday Express --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company (April 24, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802779662
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802779663
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #278,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bird Sense: How Birds Perceive the World February 26, 2012
By jd103
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The second part of my title comes the book's preface as a description of what the book is about. It would have made a more accurate subtitle as well; the actual subtitle "What It's Like to Be a Bird" comes from a similarly titled philosophical essay about bats but the preface explains that the book will take a much more pragmatic approach than that essay did.

This is much more a book of science than philosophy, with anatomical descriptions of eyes, ears, beaks, etc. These descriptions are given as an entry point to explaining how a bird experiences the world--sometimes like humans, sometimes very differently. Results of experiments (some, such as cutting out eyes and severing nerves, brutal enough to be called animal abuse) over the years are also given as further explanations of how birds interact with the world. Observations from the field are also included.

In addition to chapters on the five senses you'd expect, there are also chapters on magnetic sense and emotions. As some examples, the chapter on seeing explains how birds such as raptors have two foveas in their eyes which explains their excellent vision, the hearing chapter discusses the very asymmetrical positioning of owl ears, touch includes discussion of nerves both in beaks and brood patches, taste includes not only taste buds but some birds whose feathers taste terrible, smell includes vultures and seabirds among others, and magnetic sense of course discusses migration.

Due to my own opinions, the chapter on emotions was the one I was most interested in. This chapter explains how some scientists' approaches and beliefs about consciousness and feelings in other species have changed over the years, and gives some examples from nature which may or may not demonstrate emotions in birds.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What is it Like to Be a Bird? March 23, 2012
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very well done but not a book for everyone September 15, 2012
By Shawn
I enjoyed the book and learned quite a few things that will add to my enjoyment and understanding of birds in the future. But obviously this isn't a book for everyone. I am NOT an avid birder so I am probably not the target audience for the book. My love of birds comes from being a life long bird owner (of the parrot variety) who also enjoys watching birds out of the my window at home and learning about birds during my travels.

Dr Birkhead does a wonderful job of explaining the various senses of a bird in an interesting and easy to understand manner. I would categorize it as a very well written and easy to understand academic paper written by a lifetime ornithologists.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on touch, taste, magnetic sense and emotions. The chapters on hearing and seeing were largely anatomy based and I skipped over a lot of those chapters.

I found the book to be quite frustrating at times and this was mainly due to the lack of pictures and/or drawings in the book. While reading this book I continually needed to leave my comfortable reading space to access the internet to get a visual picture of what he was talking about and in the end read most of the book at my computer desk instead of a more desirable location. Since this book is being marketed to the general public there needs to be more pictures to help describe what he is talking about.

My suggestion for the author would be to have a picture or a sketch of the birds being discussed in the the text (with the location and gender marked under the bird). For example, I would have loved to see a picture/sketch of the male south american finfoot (sungrebre) who has a pouch under its wings that allow him to fly with its babies safely tucked under its wings.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Look at How Birds Think
Tim Birkhead has done us all a great service. While the culture still refers to a foolish person as a "bird brain" and many assume birds are just creatures of instinct, he... Read more
Published 11 days ago by Donna L. Halper
4.0 out of 5 stars In depth & vast
Tim's feel for animals, birds & humans is almost beyond belief. His perspective is compelling & well illustrated in words.
Published 17 days ago by Michael A. Strem
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and informative!
I learned something new and amazing about birds every time I picked this book up! A good read for those curious about our feathered friends.
Published 1 month ago by Millie Hathaway
5.0 out of 5 stars Great science book about animal behavior!
This book was a wonderful read about the sensory systems in birds. The writing is meant for a general audience, without being too dumbed down. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Perryn
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoy
Good book. Enjoying it very much. A must for bird lovers. Lots of detail using written and audible together is wonderful
Published 1 month ago by A. Iott
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for birders.
Birkhead reviews all of the ornithological research to give the reader a concise history of what is known about bird's senses. Read more
Published 2 months ago by John Huls
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Intro To Birkhead
As stated in the first part of this book, you will not come away from reading this work seeing life as a bird. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Patrick M. Burke
4.0 out of 5 stars Learn things you never knew about birds!
If you are curious about how birds live, see, feel and smell their surroundings, then this is a great book. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Joan S. Hendricks
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read for anyone claiming to be interested in birds.
Extremely well researched with many (but not dry) historical references and up-to-date results, a good index, extensive bibliography and a helpful glossary of ornithological terms. Read more
Published 4 months ago by MTC123
5.0 out of 5 stars The Sight, Sound, Touch and Smell That Birds Use in a Life Hidden From...
Describing the senses of birds provides an unusually informative insight into what it’s like to be the creature. Read more
Published 5 months ago by D. Wayne Dworsky
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