Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

An Eagle Eye on the Avian Mind

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

An Eagle Eye on the Avian Mind

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Adkins-Regan dips her beak into the inner life of our mysterious feathered friends.

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

By Tim Birkhead

Bloomsbury, 288pp, Pounds 16.99

ISBN 9781408820131

Published 2 February 2012

Birds are dinosaurs. Some people find them frightening. Those creepy reptilian feet! Those expressionless faces! Many others find them charming and beautiful, and become intensely curious about what is going on inside their little heads. What are they perceiving? Feeling? Because their evolutionary ancestry diverged from ours so long ago, we can't assume they are like us. Yet many birds behave in ways that seem familiar. We share their daytime habits and tendencies to socialise by vocalising, forming pair relationships and raising babies together. We seem more like birds than mice, the darlings of biomedical research.

Yet we do not know, and may never know, whether birds are conscious in the sense that we are. Nonetheless, access to their inner worlds can begin by asking what they detect from their environment, just as the science of human psychology began with the study of sensation and perception. What senses do birds have? (We have more than the traditional five, and so do they.) How do they work? How are they used to navigate thousands of miles through featureless terrain, and to form and maintain the lifelong pair bonds of swans and zebra finches? What does the world look like when each eye has two foveas (zones of the retina of greatest acuity used for "looking at" something) instead of one, as in our eyes?

Research on the sensory systems of birds has produced dozens of amazing discoveries that are clearly and entertainingly presented in this delightful book, which should interest a wide audience and not just bird lovers. Some birds can see ultraviolet wavelengths of light and use them to judge the attractiveness of potential mating partners. Owls with markedly offset ears use hearing to catch mice in complete darkness. Birds can detect the Earth's magnetic field and use it to navigate. The hunt is on to find their magnetic field detectors.

The chapter on touch provides Tim Birkhead with a golden opportunity to launch into one of his favourite scientific topics: bizarre copulatory organs. Only a small percentage of bird species, such as buffalo weavers, have such unusual equipment. Do the males derive pleasure from using it? Birkhead provides a tentative "yes" via a hilarious report of a student who massaged a male buffalo weaver to orgasm. …

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