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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.
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BIRKHEAD, Tim. Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird. Walker. 2012. 266 + xxii p, illus., bibliog., index. $25.

MARZLUFF, John, and ANGELL, Tony. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. Free Press. 2012. 289 + xiv p., illus., bibliog., index. $25.

HERZOG, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. HarperCollins. 2010. 226 + viii p. $25.99.

Good science writing is hard to beat. It's crisp, provides you with new insights into the physical world, and if the writer is good, opens up new worlds to you.

Two of these three books -by Birkhead and Marzluff and Angell-- satisfy me on this level. The third -by Herzog-- does not.
The two books on birds were part of a larger packet of books I bought from Amazon to satisfy my curiosity about these animals I can't ignore but know little about. I had read one book by Berndt Heinrich, a brilliant animal ethologist, on ravens so I bought three more (one on ravens, one -a classic--on bumblebees, and one autobiographical), which I have yet to read. These two books got caught up in the web of that buying spree.

I[m just as interested in our attitudes toward animals -why are some okay to eat and others not? why do some repulse us and others not at all?--so I was looking for books on that topic too, and Herzog's popped up, along with a book by one of my favorite quirky historians, R. W. Bulliett, Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers (2005).

This digression is simply to establish that I have a serious, though not scholarly, interest in the topics of animal capabilities and personalities and on how we perceive and relate to different kinds of animals.

Birhkead's book on bird senses, and Marzluff's and Angell's on the capabilities and behavior of crows both satisfy me. The information is provides succinctly, the writing is crisp, both Birkhead and Marzluff (Angell is the illustrator) convey their passion about their subjects, and what they write about is fascinating. Both include a good deal of hard scientific information, not surprising given how much their field of studies has been enriched by the use of modern brain mapping techniques, but the hard stuff doesn't overwhelm the lay read (me). Rather, it gives what they write elsewhere credibility. The illustrations in both books are superb, and highly informative, a model of animal science illustrating. Birkhead especially is generous in detailing the contributions of past and other present day scientists in advancing knowledge in his field. Neither author claims too much for what is currently known. And if I haven't said it before, the prose in both of these books is admirably crisp.

I bought the book by Hal Herzog because (1) I found the topic fascinating and (2) both Stephen Pinker and Irene Pepperberg, scientists whose books I have enjoyed, praised it. I'll be blunt. I didn't like the book. It's fuzzy where it should be hard, and it ends its stories just about the point I want to follow up on them. In short, although the book contains a great deal of interesting though I am not sure conclusive information on its subject, it's too anecdotal and much too cutesy for my taste. I'm sure a good book could be written on the subject of human tastes for animals but when it's written, it needs to be crisp in style, skeptical in analyzing, and much more compact than this rambling and sporadically entertaining account is.
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on August 13, 2012
The subtitle is misleading: the emphasis is on sensory capabilities, with one short, careful chapter on emotions. Still, Birkhead sets out to write an interesting, informative book, and he mostly succeeds. I enjoyed the later chapters more than the earlier ones, and I think that is because those chapters cover senses for which the research is more recent. Unsurprisingly, given Birkhead's academic interest in the history of science, there is quite a bit of history in this book, and the more recent research is more interesting to me: it is cleverer, and when errors are made, they are more subtle. This reflects the improvement in scientific method, as well as in the tools available. Another emphasis in "Bird Sense" is behavioral ecology, the adaptive significance of behavior, the why rather than just the what. There is some material on anatomy, but not enough that it should keep anyone from reading the book.

I was most surprised to learn that pigeons use smell (p.160) as an aid to navigation. One of the many fascinating factoids is that some birds have physiological adaptations to protect them from the sound of their own voices (p.38). I do question the explanation given for why you speak louder when wearing iPod headphones (p.59): from my experience you speak louder because the headphones interfere with the auditory feedback on how loud you sound.
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on January 16, 2013
"Bird Sense" by Tim Birkhead (Walker & Co. 2012)

This is truly a volume that every avid birder should read. Birkhead is a distinguished ornithologist and professor from the UK. His scientific acumen, ability as an instructor and talent as a writer are all amply evident.
Each of the senses is treated in its' own chapter and each chapter is designed to provide "snapshots" of important events in the research of the topic sense and a display of the most current knowledge and theory concerning the topic sense. Though a lot of science, Birkhead's style (and sense of humor) make his book a very enlightening and entertaining experience. In a nutshell... it's very good!
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on August 2, 2017
ok
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Very poorly edited! Full of rudimentary errors...what WERE they thinking to take this thing to press (or to Kindle) without hiring some graduate student to proofread the thing? Maybe they did: maybe they should have hired a real editor. ;-)

Writing left something to be desired, too. There's an art to targeting scholarly work to a trade-book audience; this author has yet to master it.
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on December 9, 2013
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. Does not talk down but does make for easy, very informative and at times witty reading. A mine of information that could be enjoyed by anyone interested in natural history and particularly in ornithology. It even enlightened me about some of my own human senses!
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on September 8, 2012
Very good book on bird senses. Also included is interesting history on how much of the knowledge of bird senses was originally figured out, then refined. There are also good comparisons to human senses. However, there are a couple of places in chapter two where the author misstates the range of human hearing, giving the lower frequency limit as 2-3 Khz. Not even close. The lower range of human hearing is 20-30 Hz, so I'm not sure how this got transposed, and the error occurs more than once in chapter 2. The upper limit of human hearing, 20 Khz, is correctly given.
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on December 28, 2013
As stated in the first part of this book, you will not come away from reading this work seeing life as a bird. What you will understand is the biology of birds and enough information about avian life to, perhaps, create your own concept of life on the wing. Equally interesting you will explore the working life of ornithologists who admittedly butchered a lot of birds to find out what made them tick. It's a study of birds with a lot of feathers removed.
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on August 8, 2016
I really enjoyed reading this book. It gave me a totally new perspective on birds from the viewpoint of their senses. I think it would be improved if it included images of the birds that are referred to in the text.
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