Bird Sense is an exceptional book.
First, its well written, and wide ranging. Tim Birkhead is not at Stephen Jay Gould’s writing level, but he is close.
Second, its a very good example of how science works, of how science is always “the truth as we know it now”. Science can, and does, change, getting ever more refined. This book is an excellent exploration of that fact. Examples include Audobon’s exploration of scent in vultures (which he got wrong through flawed experiments). A better example is Hugh Cott’s work.
Minor observations in science can lead to major work. One lovely example here is a couple of pages devoted to Hugh Cott, who did some work exploring bright plumage and a link to bad taste. (Note: I wonder how macaws taste?)
He was on a week’s leave and was skinning some birds he had shot and preparing them as museum specimens. As did so, he noticed something unusual. Beneath the table at which he worked lay the carcasses of a palm dove and a pied kingfisher. Hornets were feasting on the palm dove, but ignored the pied kingfisher lying alongside it. The dove was cryptically coloured, the kingfisher a striking black and white. This set Cott thinking.(pg 261.9 Kindle)
And, further down
Cott’s study, however, is full of holes. Part of the problem, it would be fair to say, is that the nature of scientific investigation has changed enormously since the 1940s, and Cott’s methods, which at best seem merely quaint, are by today’s standards simply inappropriate. In scoring the plumage brightness of birds, for example, Cott used only females, ignoring the (inconvenient?) fact that males and females are often strikingly different. He assumed (but never checked) that males and females tasted the same. Cott also tasted only the flesh, and cooked flesh at that, unlike Dumbacher, who (albeit accidentally) tasted the pitohui’s feathers – which, after all, is what predators would encounter first. As we have seen, human senses do not necessarily provide a good measure of avian senses, so what tastes bad to us may not taste bad to a raptor or a snake. We also know that some of Cott’s informants were unreliable – to say the least.
Another thing that is stressed in the book, is that bird sense can be very different from human senses. A quick example – dogs, which see in black and white, have two cone types in their eyes. Humans have three. Birds have four (one is for Ultraviolet) and one of the other three differs slightly. Thus we can’t take it for granted that what something looks like to a bird is the same as what we see.
All in all, the book is utterly fascinating, from several angles. It will obviously appeal to bird lovers, but it will also appeal to anyone who loves scientific history.