Science Book a Day Interviews Tim Birkhead

tim-birkheadSpecial thanks to Tim Birkhead for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird

I have been a bird watcher since I was very young and I have been lucky enough to be a professional ornithologist throughout my career. As a professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield, in the Department of Animal & Plant Sciences, I teach animal behaviour to first year students and the history and philosophy of science to third year students. My research on birds spans several decades and has resulted in over 200 scientific papers and a number of books. I am committed to the public understanding of what academic scientists do. I have written for New Scientist, Natural History (USA), BBC Wildlife, The Independent (science page), Biological Sciences Review, the Times Education Supplement (TES), and for seven years since 2004 have had a monthly column in the Times Higher Education (THE). – Adapted from Book’s Homepage

Book’s Homepage:

#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

I have loved watching birds since I was small and I have studied birds throughout my career. Since the mid 1970s I’ve called myself a behavioural ecologist when this area of biology began. Behavioural ecology revolutionised the study of behavior and I feel lucky to have been part of that change.  During my PhD however – which was on the social behavior of guillemots Uria aalge  – I discovered that there were certain behaviors that didn’t sit comfortably within the new paradigm. Some of these  – like a bird’s ability to recognise its partner at several hundred meters – challenged my perception of what it was like to be a guillemot. I stored these observations in the back of my brain until about four years ago when started to realised that while I knew quite a lot about birds, I knew almost nothing about their senses. Asking around among my colleagues, I realized that didn’t either. That was when I decided to write Bird Sense.

#2 – The idea of birds being ‘bird-brained’ and relatively uninteresting, compared to the great apes or other primates has been with us for some time. Where do you think has this idea came from? And do you think it is being overturned?

Behavioural ecologists tend to assume that virtually all behaviours are adaptive – and most are. However, if you put a bird in a man-made environment they can appear to do stupid things – like flying into widows. Taken out of context, a birds behaviour can make them look bird brained – but they are most definitely not. Judging from the comments made by reviewers, I’d like to think that Bird Sense has made a difference. Indeed, this was one of my goals: if we recognise how amazing birds are, we might respect and protect them better.

#3 – You chose to consistently compare your findings about birds to humans. What was the motivation about writing the book in this way? 

This is a dilemma, as I point out in the book. On the one hand, comparing ourselves with birds is the only way we have of understanding what it might be like to be a bird, yet on the other, by doing so we risk anthropomorphizing; imposing our own senses and values on birds. I have tried hard to steer a middle course, indicating where a comparison with ourselves might be appropriate, but also emphasising where it might not be. The most remarkable sense that birds possess and the most elusive for us, is a magnetic sense and the ability to navigate

#4 – How do you see your science writing in the context of your work as a scientist?

I was brought up thinking that being a university scientist included writing books. When I became an academic I was rapidly disabused of this idea: if one had ‘spare time’ one used it to write grant proposals not books. The only way to write was to make sure I had sufficient grants (sufficient for me; one can never have enough grants for one’s masters). Even so I wrote in secret and hardly mentioned it to colleagues (and they never mentioned it to me). Recently there has been a change, and ‘outreach’ is essential! Writing popular science has made me a more effective undergraduate teacher: it is an extension of teaching. Writing about the senses of birds has generated new research questions too.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book that you can tell us about?

I have recently completed a book called Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin (published by Princeton University Press in February 2014) with Jo Wimpenny (an assistant during the writing of the book), and Bob Montgomerie, a behavioural ecologist as Queens University, Canada. As its title suggests, the book looks at the remarkable way that ornithology as a science has developed in the last 150 years, identifying the main scientific developments and telling the story of the extraordinary – sometimes eccentric – ornithologists who made them. The book’s web site is:

[Image Credit:×300.jpg ]


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