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

Tim Birkhead , Katrina van Grouw
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
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Book Description

17 Jan 2013

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

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks (17 Jan 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140883054X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408830543
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 21,612 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tim Birkhead is an award winning author, scientist and university lecturer. He is Professor of Zoology in the Department of Animal & Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, UK. He is known for his research on sperm competition in birds, for his effective undergraduate teaching (voted UK Biosciences Teacher of the Year in 2013) and for his popular science books. His book 'The Red Canary' - the story of the first genetically engineered animal (first published in 2003, re-issued in 2014) won the Consul Cremer Prize. 'The Wisdom of Birds' (2008) won Best Bird Book of 2008, and 'Bird Sense: What it's like to be a Bird' (2012) was voted best natural history book of the year by both the Guardian and Independent. His most recent book is: 'Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin' (with J Wimpenny and R Montgomerie). He was awarded the 2015 Eisenmann Medal by the Linnaean Society of New York for excellence in ornithology and encouragement of the amateur.

Product Description


An absolutely absorbing book, on almost every page there is an astonishing observation or revelation (Peter Parker Daily Telegraph)

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 (Christopher Hart Sunday Times)

A joy to read, simultaneously fascinating and hilarious ... a book that is thoughtful, thoroughly researched and engagingly written throughout (Jamie Condliffe New Scientist)

An 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 (Michael McCarthy Independent)

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 (David Wheatley Guardian)

Superb ... like having the top of your own head lifted off and its contents deliciously stirred: no one after reading this book could think it was possible to know too much, no one could think science removes us from feeling ... his richly engaging book so deepens our understanding of what is familiar that we are returned to the birds we know around us and the wider world with a revivified sense of how life comes and goes (Tim Dee Observer)

Remarkable in its celebration of birds (New York Times)

Book Description

A hugely engaging book about birds, their senses and behaviour that is informed by an attractive blend of personal experience, entertaining stories and cutting-edge science.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yet another brilliant book by Tim Birkhead 1 Mar 2012
By Dave
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
After 'The Wisdom of Birds' I thought that it would be very difficult for anyone to write anything quite so good about birds for a long time. I am pleased to say that I was totally wrong - its been done again, and by the same author! For anyone who has watched birds for any length of time it is not long before they start asking questions such as 'how do they do that?' or 'how can they sense that whereas I can't?'. Tim Birkhead deals with all these questions related to the senses, including magnetic sense and emotions. There is something on almost every page that even the most experienced amateur birdwatcher will not know or about which they will gain a greater understanding. It is so interesting that it is difficult to put down - a great page turner! The great strength of this book is that Tim explains things simply and clearly; he has made scientific knowledge available to all - a great gift! DaveK
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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thoroughly enjoyable read. 10 Feb 2012
By Peter G
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Tim Birkhead's previous book `The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology', I was excited to see he had written a new book and it has finally been delivered by Amazon! A journey through all of the senses birds have, some we humans have also, but others unique to birds, `Bird Sense' offers an amazing view of the life of birds. In describing the senses of birds, Tim Birkhead also provides a fantastic insight into how scientists actually go about their work. He not only discusses what we know, but also many things we are as yet unsure of about birds. Other authors tend to skip over such unknowns, but here the author is happy to discuss them. In telling us about such wonders as Flamingos being able to know it has rained hundreds of miles away without seeing or hearing it, we really get a sense of how much of the world remains unknown to us. All in all, `Bird Sense' is an intriguing and enjoyable read, and with some wonderful illustrations, suitable not just for bird enthusiasts but for anyone with a general interest in wildlife.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beneath the Feathers 1 April 2012
By takingadayoff TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Bird Sense is a crash course in bird biology and behavior. The text is only a little over 200 pages, but avian biologist Tim Birkhead wastes no time or space. The subtitle is What It's Like to Be a Bird and while there's no way for us to experience being birds, we get a lot closer to knowing what's going on underneath all those feathers.

Birkhead approaches the bird from each of the five traditional senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) and adds magnetic sense and emotion for good measure. Magnetic sense is a bird's sense of direction, based on the earth's magnetic field. Birds can determine where they are and where their destination is from it. Humans don't have this sense, so it is especially hard for us to understand exactly how birds experience it.

On the other hand, humans experience emotion in abundance and it's difficult for us to imagine that birds don't suffer pain or feel joy as we do. Science has no definitive answer yet. But it underscores what is a problem for scientists - that as human beings, we are unavoidably biased when studying the biology of other animals. It's difficult, if not impossible to exclude our own experience of hearing, etc. when exploring the experiences of others.

Another of the themes of Bird Sense is that the amount we don't yet know about birds is overwhelmingly larger than what we do know. Birkhead refers to the growing and changing accumulation of knowledge as the "truth-for-now" nature of science.

In fact, Bird Sense is as much about the nature and the history of science as it is about birds specifically. We learn what naturalists thought about bird vision, etc. through history and how we've come to think what we do now.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative but timid 30 Sep 2012
By M. D. Holley TOP 1000 REVIEWER
An easy to read, enjoyable, informative book.

I especially enjoyed the explanations of how birds hear and see differently from humans. For example it is mind stretching to contemplate how some birds can perceive some sounds which exists only for a short time span whereas humans can't.

For my taste there was a little too much 'history of science' in some of the chapters, where the author goes into considerable detail about particular experiments, successful or otherwise, from the past. I would have preferred to learn more about bird behaviour instead.

I felt that the final chapter on emotion was rather timid. It reads almost as if some anthropocentric big brother is standing over the author's shoulder, ready to render him unemployable if he strays too far. Still, the author's instincs are surely right, and it is a pity he does not feel more free to explore this aspect.

Recommended, but it could have been even better.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bird Sense Made Sense 1 Sep 2012
Tim Birkenhead managed to find a topic that doesn't appear to have been covered in much detail before now and the idea of finding out what it is like to be a bird is certainly an intriguing one. The author examines each of the senses; seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, as well as magnetic sense and emotions, through a combination of scientific data originating from both anatomical and behavioural studies and personal experience and anecdotes. The latter a result of his research into guillemots and zebra finches.
These anecdotes illustrate the author's obvious personal interest in the subject matter and makes the book much more readable than it otherwise might have been.
However, despite the general readable style I sometimes found myself wavering between wanting to know much more about a particular topic and a feeling that the author was labouring the point a bit and wishing he would move on already!
In summary though this is altogether a very readable book thatI would recommend to anyone interested in birds and their behaviour, but perhaps not to anyone wanting a lot of scientific detail. I did come away from he book feeling as though there were a lot of things that I hadn't previously considered about birds; both their physiology and their behaviour. I will also be looking through the extensive bibliography to find some other books that might provide further information about this interesting topic.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great present for my mum.
Published 1 month ago by J. Butler
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Fascinating insight into birds, written in a way that those with little knowledge of birds can understand and find easy to understand
Published 2 months ago by tigger
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 3 months ago by DJRobinson
4.0 out of 5 stars Bird Sense
Was recommended this book and bought it. Very articulate and well written BUT not for someone looking for a lightweight read
Published 4 months ago by Ray Perry
5.0 out of 5 stars This book came highly recommneded by a trusted friend
I have wanted to read this book for years but have to confess have not read it yet, just glanced through some of the content. Read more
Published 7 months ago by JB
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!
Wonderful insights into bird cognition, the way in which they make sense of the world, how they think and feel.
Published 7 months ago by Maisie
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating, thoroughly engaging book
I've enjoyed birds ever since I was a child, since 1958 in fact when my grandfather's anthropomorphous characterisations of the birds visiting his garden amused and enthralled me. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Mr Anthony Gerard Fagan
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Facts
Amazing facts I'd never have known. Birds are amazing creatures I have one but the data collected from studies in this book is of great value. Read more
Published 7 months ago by J. R. Taylor
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
Great book. Check other reviews also and further books by this author. Look forward to reading them in due course
Published 8 months ago by Sebman
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book. A must for bird nerds.
A un-put-downable read for certain! This is a fascinating insight into how birds go about their lives and I learned a great deal from it. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Bluey
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