The little auk is a small seabird that would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. At only about 150 grams, this featherweight bird eats 20% of its body weight in prey each day. And this takes some underwater hunting skills. Diving up to depths of 27 meters, the bird spots and slurps its prey, much as fishes do. Read more about the world’s only slurping seabird here in my first piece for Hakai magazine.
Animals struggle during winters. No surprise there. But it isn’t a shortage of food alone that bothers them. This January was pretty harsh with temperatures lingering below zero for days on end and that meant ice was everywhere. Even the city lakes were covered in ice. When it comes to birds, you may think “that’s no problem, they can fly.” But icy conditions made it really hard for some. From the antics that played out on the ice, it seemed highly sensible of these swans to break their way through the ice than to walk over it or take off on the slippery runway:
Written by an ornithologist, Bird Sense is a fascinating account of the senses that enable birds to carry out their day-to-day activities like feeding or avoiding predators. Author Tim Birkhead, who has studied zebra finches and common guillemots for most of his scientific career, has successfully hinted at what it’s like to be a bird. Every chapter in the book deals with one sense—seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense and emotions—in birds as varied as owls and hummingbirds, making the science that goes into the discovery and understanding of the senses accessible to lay persons.
The book familiarises its readers with the amazing diversity of behavioural and anatomical adaptations that can be found in birds. A case in point is asymmetrical ears in some owl species that help owls locate the source of sound and find prey in the dark.
Bird Sense also informs its audience about the scientific process, suggesting how science builds on previous work. It talks about the debates and controversies some senses, such as those of smell and taste in birds, have sparked in the community of ornithologists. In author’s words, ‘For some inexplicable reason ornithologists have found it hard to accept that birds might have a sense of smell.’ Whether birds could have a sense of taste was debated for long, too. And even now, the idea of consciousness in birds remains controversial.