Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bird Sense: How Birds Perceive the World

It's been a long time since I've posted a book review here, for the simple reason that it's been a long time since I've read a good nature themed book. Finally, that's changed, so here's my Amazon Vine review of Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead.

The second part of my title comes the book's preface as a description of what the book is about. It would have made a more accurate subtitle as well; the actual subtitle "What It's Like to Be a Bird" comes from a similarly titled philosophical essay about bats but the preface explains that the book will take a much more pragmatic approach than that essay did.

This is much more a book of science than philosophy, with anatomical descriptions of eyes, ears, beaks, etc. These descriptions are given as an entry point to explaining how a bird experiences the world--sometimes like humans, sometimes very differently. Results of experiments (some, such as cutting out eyes and severing nerves, brutal enough to be called animal abuse) over the years are also given as further explanations of how birds interact with the world. Observations from the field are also included.

In addition to chapters on the five senses you'd expect, there are also chapters on magnetic sense and emotions. As some examples, the chapter on seeing explains how birds such as raptors have two foveas in their eyes which explains their excellent vision, the hearing chapter discusses the very asymmetrical positioning of owl ears, touch includes discussion of nerves both in beaks and brood patches, taste includes not only taste buds but some birds whose feathers taste terrible, smell includes vultures and seabirds among others, and magnetic sense of course discusses migration.

Due to my own opinions, the chapter on emotions was the one I was most interested in. This chapter explains how some scientists' approaches and beliefs about consciousness and feelings in other species have changed over the years, and gives some examples from nature which may or may not demonstrate emotions in birds. The author acknowledges that this will be very difficult to prove, but does believe that birds experience emotion.

One of the main points of the book is that there are both similarities and differences in how humans and other species perceive the world. All have different abilities, and other species can not be judged based on whether they experience the world in the same way humans do. Science has gradually come to realize this, and with the realization has come more creative approaches and much wider knowledge.

The book includes a large section of notes, bibliography, glossary, and index.

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