Bird Sense

In 1974 Thomas Nagel (¬†and¬†published a highly influential philosophy paper entitled ‘What is it like to be a bat?‘ In it, he argues that materialist theories of mind omit the essential component of consciousness, namely that there is something that it feels like to be a particular conscious being. We are not constituted likes bats and can therefore never fully inhabit the ‘felt experience’ of being a bat. That much is irreducible, and our understanding has fixed limits. Undeterred by, or perhaps unaware of, these¬†cautions Tim Birkhead (¬†and¬†has tried his best to get ‘inside’ the sense experience of birds. He asks 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?¬†Also, what is going on inside the head of a nightingale as it sings, and how does its brain improvise? His book Bird Sense (originally published 2 February 2012) 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 specifically about the senses of birds, although obviously there is a flood of material about birds generally. One such to recommend is David Attenborough’s The Life 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 his subject has provided Tim Birkhead with a wealth of observation and an understanding firmly grounded in science. This is a majestic achievement beautifully¬†presented to us now¬†as popular science. Don’t miss it.

288 pages in Bloomsbury paperback edition

ISBN 978-1408830543

Tim Birkhead

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