Top positive review
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Good job on bird sense
on November 29, 2012
This is a fine book, and I wish it were longer. Birkhead covers senses very well, with a great deal of recent research that would otherwise be totally outside the radar of most birdwatchers. (I try to keep up on the journals--a bit--but most of the new research here was new to me.)
There are some areas slurred over. The worst is the final chapter, on emotions. Birkhead poses the problems without saying much about solutions. Starting with "consciousness": The question of whether birds have "consciousness" is meaningless, because philosophers and cognitive scientists use the word in several ways and never tell you which they are using--sometimes they use the word in two different senses in the same sentence. If consciousness means what it means to normal people--the opposite of being knocked out or deeply asleep--of course birds have consciousness. If it means being socially conscious (in the sense of fighting for the Good and the Right) of course birds don't seem to have it. In between is what some animal behaviorists mean: the ability to sit back and think about what you are feeling or thinking. This isn't a normal meaning of consciousness, but it's used. We can't test birds for it and probably never will. I could think of several more meanings given to "consciousness" in the literature. As to "emotion": Somewhat the same deal. Obviously, even fish and frogs, let alone birds, feel fear, rage, mating desire, attraction to food, etc. At the other end of the scale, probably only humans can appreciate the incredible subtleties that Proust felt when nibbling the famous madeleine. Birds are somewhere in between, but where? How do they feel when mobbing an owl at risk of their lives? At some level they must realize that they may be giving their lives to save their families. How do they feel when singing--a much more complex act than we used to think? They must have fairly rich and complex emotions, or feelings, but Birkhead merely asks the question about what they might feel, without saying much about what could be a reasonable answer. Maybe caution is best, but I'd have liked more philosophic discussion.