Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be a Bird
To the question of what it's like to be a bird, there are direct and indirect answers. For Siberian shamans and Ovid characters, there is the direct route of human-to-avian transformation, impractical at the best of times, and risking a life "without music and without restful sleep, / without womenfolk, without a woman-tryst", in the words of Mad King Sweeney, bewitched hero of the medieval Irish epic Suibhne Geilt.
For the rest of us there is ornithology, an altogether saner and more sober option, one might think, until one encounters the description in Tim Birkhead's Bird Sense of the manipulation to orgasm of a Namibian red-billed buffalo weaver's fake penis (strictly in the name of science, I hasten to add). Abseiling down cliff-faces on Skomer to trap guillemots and exploring echolocation in a South American cave are also described. After seven chapters of this, his best answer to the question of whether birds feel emotion is self-effacing: "I will leave you to decide." 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.
King Sweeney's diagnosis of a life "without womenfolk" was hopelessly inaccurate, by the way: birds' sex lives are frankly filthy, from the cloaca-pecking dunnock, to the mallard's 17in, corkscrew-shaped penis, and the greater vasa parrot, whose copulation lasts an hour and a half. In sparrows, the testes are the size of a pinhead in winter only to swell to the size of a baked bean during the breeding season. As the author of Sperm Competition in Birds, Birkhead is well placed to write about avian sexual kinks. But if the truth about birds is often bizarre, it is scarcely less so than the hearsay and mythology that for so long did duty for the gaps in our knowledge.
The great ornithologists (including John Ray and Francis Willughby) feature prominently in Bird Sense, just as they did in Birkhead's previous book, The Wisdom of Birds, but they are not without their moments of wrong-headedness or outright cruelty. The Italian priest Lazzaro Spallanzani established that bats navigate by hearing rather than sight, but he might have worked this out without having to blind the creatures first; Alexander Hill experimented on smell in turkeys by feeding them potassium cyanide. Buffon believed that migrating swallows spent six months under water (puffins, it was thought, would fly to the moon), and birds' ability to migrate by magnetic compass was not acknowledged until as late as the 1950s. Even today, avian migration remains a subject of much mystery: before the fitting of satellite trackers to five cuckoos last year, showing us where these birds went when they left the UK, there had been only a single previous case of a UK-ringed cuckoo recovered in sub-Saharan Africa, in 1933.
"The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man," wrote Wittgenstein, and in a real sense birds scarcely inhabit the same world that we do. The structure of the avian eye is very different from ours: where humans have one fovea, some birds, notably raptors, have two. A falcon's visual world moves about 10 times faster than ours, and kestrels can detect a two millimetre insect at a distance of 18 metres. A guillemot on a cliff can recognise a returning mate from several hundred metres, and owls see in ultra-violet, allowing them to locate the scent markings of their prey's urine.
Natural selection features heavily in Bird Sense, and those pining for a bird's eye view can draw comfort from the pinky remnant in the corner of our eyes of the extra eyelid birds possess, the "nictitating membrane". Evolution can take a dark turn too, as we find in a harrowing description of the chaos that breaks out on the Isle of May in response to the crashing of the sand eel population: guillemot chicks were "picked up by neighbours and swung around in the air, before being tossed off the cliff".
The last of Birkhead's seven chapters, on emotions, leads us into the most opaque territory of all. Donald Griffin's 1944 book Questions of Animal Awareness was widely derided for its positing of a controlling consciousness behind bird behaviour. Birkhead offers a gripping account of a puffin snatched by a peregrine falcon in a less than clean kill, and taking an excruciating half an hour to die. Did it feel any pain? "At no point during this grisly spectacle did the puffin show any signs of distress," according to Birkhead. In the Canadian far north he sees a brent goose standing by the body of its dead partner, and returning to the spot a week later he finds the bereaved bird still there, as though in mourning.
To Descartes, animals were at best automata, but a parrot taught the word "bon" by the French physiologist Michel Cabanac would use it, unprompted, in response to pleasurable activities such as preening and tickling. Julian Baggini conducted a "thought experiment" with a pig that wanted to be eaten, but the consequences for animal rights of birds voicing their opinions on how we treat them are intriguing and potentially revolutionary. 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's book of poetry A Nest on the Waves is published by the Gallery Press.
Source: The Guardian
by Tim Birkhead