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Life As A Bird

What it’s like to be a bird.  We’ll get inside the minds and senses of the creatures that fly.

The Green Violetear  (Mdf/Wikipedia)

The Green Violetear (Mdf/Wikipedia)

You know what it’s like to be you.  What’s it like to be a bird?  To fly.  To soar through the sky.  To live with the senses of a bird?  A robin, that can hear the moving bristles of a worm underground?  An eagle on the wing?  A great owl swooping toward its prey?  Philosophers debate what we can know of another person, let alone birds.

Ornithologist Tim Birkhead says we can know a lot.  About how birds see, hear, touch, taste, smell.  Maybe even how they feel.  We’d like to know, how they feel in full flight.  To fly like a bird.

This hour, On Point:  We’re stretching our wings and asking what it’s like to be a bird.

-Tom Ashbrook


Tim Birkhead, professor of behavior and evolution at the University of Sheffield. His new book is Bird Sense: What It’s Like To Be A Bird.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “The extremes of animal behavior can be a source of endless astonishment. Books have been written about insect sex. The antics of dogs and cats are sometimes hard to believe. And birds, those amazing birds: They build elaborate nests, learn lyrical songs, migrate impossibly long distances. But “Gifts of the Crow,” by John N. Marzluff and Tony Angell, includes a description of one behavior that even Aesop never imagined.”

The Guardian “The sight of two diminutive parrots sitting side by side and nibbling each other’s necks is enough of a cliche that we barely give it a second thought. Lovebirds, natives of Africa and Madagascar, are so named because their proximity and mutual preening resemble human affection. But what do lovebirds feel when they behave in that way? Indeed, do they feel anything at all?”

Canberra Times “With this book Tim Birkhead has confirmed himself as one of the best English language writers on the science of ornithology in the world today – at least, he’s my favourite. As professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University he is clearly qualified to write about his topic, but equally importantly he has an exquisite gift for telling stories of science that laypeople can be enthralled by. His previous book, The Wisdom of Birds, was a history of the study of birds from Aristotle to the present day, and was a remarkable achievement.”

Video: The Wisdom of Birds

Check out this book “trailer” from Tim Birkhead.


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  • Stillin

    The Mayans believed the birds brought the seasons in, and not the other way around.

  • Jasoturner

    This is a topic that would never have occurred to me for a show, but it’s a fantastic subject that should be really interesting.  Thanks On Point!  Keep up the great work, and keep thinking outside the mainstream.

  • http://riversong.wordpress.com/ Robert Riversong

    “If You Want to Be a Bird” by Antonia Duren, sung by The Holy Modal Rounders, from Easy Rider

    There’s no denying
    It gets you high
    Why be shackled to your feet
    When you’ve got wings
    You haven’t used yet
    Don’t wait for heaven
    Get out and fly

    Just glide there
    Through the clear air
    Making figure eights
    Through the pearly gates
    Where the soul and the universe meet

    If you want to be a bird
    It won’t take much
    To get you up there
    But when you come down
    Land on your feet

  • Irv West

    What an incredible subject. We humans are simply too pompous, thinking of ourselves as superior to all other species. I hope today’s program provides a sense of wonder, enough to humble us. I guess I am a dreamer, but I look to the day when, instead of our controling nauture, we will be comfortable fitting in.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Doesn’t it depend on the subject under consideration? There are many areas in which we are objectively superior to other species.

  • AC

    i love birds….

  • Yar

    I had a hummingbird feeder five years ago, before I had bees.  The interesting thing is, that every year a few hummingbirds will return to the exact spot where the feeder hung.  Geographic memory is a fascinating concept for a brain smaller than a finger tip.

    • Guest

      I have bees and hummingbirds feeding off the same plant. What’s wrong with yours?

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Man has been fascinated by birds, since before recorded time.  Man has wanted the freedom of birds, since before Icarus and Daedalus.  Man can fly faster and higher than birds, but still envies the birds their other advantages.
       Ladies have been referred to as birds, of some type, for hundreds of years? 
       Birds are neat!

  • Stillin

    One of my favorite seasonal things is to wake up to birds in the spring. It is a long winter up here, as soon as it’s warm enough to leave my window open a crack, at night, I do…so I can hear them returning with spring. Also, one more thing! My daughter and I were in Trinidad, big birding place along with Tobago, and she woke up the first morning saying a bird was outside her window and it was saying “come on come on, get up”. Literally. Birds are so cool I love them.

  • Guest

    My 3 feeders are used everyday by about 12 to 15 hummingbirds. They bring so much joy and I can stand directly beside them. The babies that fledged a few weeks ago, use one feeder and sometimes there are 6 hummers sitting at one time. Lovely.

  • AC

    sheesh. looking at the new disqus ‘community’ section and realizing I talk too much!!

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Not at all. Keep up the good work. I enjoy your comments.

  • David

    Missed the first minute and a half or so, but a bird researcher at the University of Connecticut, Dr. Margaret Rubega, spoke at Williams College this spring. Her topic was, “Feeding mechanics in birds: we know less
    than you think.” According to Professor Rubega who has spent a good chunk of her life studying birds, there is still TONS that we do not know or understand about birds. It’s only just recently that we learned how hummingbirds eat (they don’t suck in nectar as through a straw – hardly the case at all). She said regarding bird feeding research, that we ” find over and over again that the truth is more surprising and interesting than our best guess was.”

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Why would covering an eye change the bird’s perception of magnetic fields? What can block out a field like that?

    • chris

      It appears the eyes have different functions.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        This research seems to imply a perception of light produced by the magnetic field interacting with–possibly–metallic rock or the like.

        • Chris

          Interesting. But what he suggested from the experiments is that only one eye operates in this manner. The other doesn’t.

  • j

    Stop interrupting Birkhead. He is just getting to his point and you interrupt him. Just let him answer.

  • wote

    Why are birds the only animal to get out of the way of cars?

  • AlanThinks

    Walking in the Arnold Arboretum last week, I saw a red-tailed hawk hanging upside down clinging to a tree branch flapping its wings furiously as two Baltimore Orioles dive-bombed it. I’ve seen this hawk raiding other birds nest recently so it appeared that it was trying to raid the Orioles nest. What was most interesting was that other birds – red-wing blackbirds, starlings, sparrows – were joining in on the attack. Do small birds band together to help each other? The hawk gave up, but not before destroying the Orioles nest.

  • remig

    Why do mockingbirds mock?

  • burroak

    I have always had an afinity for trees, and, about ten years ago my interest for birds began to soar. What a great species that people can appreciate, enjoy, and learn from. Why is it that bird sounds for the most part are not offensive? Many questions to ask about birds, this book seems a starting point for ones understanding of our fine-feather-friends.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    How about the similarity of bird brains and reptile brains?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

    The magnetic field flip may not have much of an impact, birds use more than just the direction of the magnetic field to navigate. When the field flips the lines of magnetism remain more or less the same, it’s just the pole charge that flips. Considering the number of times it has happened in the past, it seems likely that little would really happen to the birds in the event of a magnetic reversal.

    • Chris

      My understanding is that it takes up to thousands of years for the flip to happen. During that time there can be a lot of craziness going on with the fields.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HUHWX4TIAZRFNFYCWUE43OZDUQ 7LeagueBoots

        That does seem to be the case, however I think that may just highlight how little of a deal it may be for migratory birds that use more cues than merely the magnetic field.

        If it was a big deal you’d expect to see DNA evidence of a genetic bottleneck in global bird populations.  I have never seen or heard any evidence pointing to that, although it may never have been looked into.  If there was evidence for that it would be a big enough deal that news would spread pretty widely.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    I heard one – two-ee-and – three in the whip-poor-will’s song. Is there an advantage from playing the drums?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    And then there’s the blue-footed booby that comes in for a crash landing.

  • Chris

    I was just going to ask the question regarding magnetic field.

    I don’t think that birds who would not survive by luck going the wrong way and then pass along their erroneous method to their offspring be what happens.

    They would have to learn what the flip means and pass that knowledge onto their offspring.

    Before the poles flip there can be thousands of years of weirdness with the fields.


    • Chris

      Meant to say the birds who would survive.

  • bluzader

    The shift of the Earth’s magnetic field will not happen “overnight” – it will change over thousands of years. Also, it will probably not happen as a “clean shift” of North to South or even a “zero” field at some point during the shift. So some birds would adapt (or evolve) and some wouldn’t.

  • Robert C Freeman

    Birds do respond to music. Remember the Hartz Mountain canaries that sang along with human music on the radio?

  • earthlight

    Can you tell us what you know of crows?

  • Jane

    For a link to Beatrice Harrison, playing her cello accompanied by nightingales, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IU1Z7QtyJVs

    • mary elizabeth

      Thank you. Lovely.

  • Mark

    I’ve always talk to friends how cool it would be a bird. No surprise, most get excited thinking about this. Apparently, it’s something people think about a lot. Of course, most guys imagine being a powerful, majestic bird of prey [think: eagle]. I would like to think that myself, but reality is that I’m more like those grey jays who hang out on the mountain tops, all year round, checking out the hikers for “goodies”.

  • james

    What writer or composer captures birds for Mr. Birkhead? I think of Proust’s reaction to Franck’s Sonata for violin and piano:
    At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. [...]
    Was it a bird, was it the soul, as yet not fully formed, of the little phrase, was it a fairy—that being invisibly lamenting, whose plaint the piano heard and tenderly repeated? Its cries were so sudden that the violinist must snatch up his bow and race to catch them as they came. Marvellous Bird!

  • darcy

    I have witnesses 2 hawks, one much larger than the other, who engaged each other in mid air by locking their talons together and then”whirly-birding” down to earth and at the last second, they released and disengaged.

    What was happening? Loving or Fighting?

    • chris

      I think that can be both. The thrill and the sparr.

  • Mark

    …not that I’m a freeloader; just I really can’t imagine myself coming down on a small creature and swooping it up from it’s family…

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.maguire.9465 Laura Maguire

    how do birds not hit branches and twigs when flying into trees?

  • Suzanne

    After seeing the movie”Winged Migration”, I could never eat duck, or goose. Recently I’ve expanded that to chicken. I haven’t eaten beef or pork in years. I’m wondering if Tim has learned to respect the bird family so much that he finds it impossible to eat fowl. I use to believe they were a animal of very low intelligence. That’s no longer the case.

  • David

    Do parent birds carry eggshells and baby bird poop out of the nest if it’s in a birdhouse? We’ve noticed a pair of nesting Carolina Wrens carrying white pieces of something out of the birdhouse where they are rearing their young. We can’t figure out what else they’d be flying out with that’s light colored or white….

    • Megan

      yep. The young’s poop is in a “fecal sac” that contains it enough to allow the parents to carry it away from the nest. some species are definitely cleaner than others, but it keeps the nest tidy, and lowers the chances that a predator might smell their young.

  • remig

    Bird neural processing is more distributed than mammal neural processing. A chicken, for example, can run around for quite a while with its head chopped off because the actual mechanics of running is controlled in lower ganglia. This allows the bird brain to be much smaller than a mammalian brain for the same level of ‘intelligence’ since not all nerves need to connect directly to the brain. A bird, therefore, should have a more indirect experience of life compared to mammals. Flying for a bird might not be unlike flying for a human pilot. If you dream to be reincarnated as a flying creature for the joy of it, then a bat might be a better choice.

    • Chris

      OMG that is so interesting.

      I think flying for birds is like swimming for water creatures.

      It is just all they know.

      But to be a human who becomes a bird would surly be heaven.

  • Paul

    We camp in Wyoming and the humming bird will be at the camper while I am backing into the camp site, hanging around the tail lights.
    Getting the feeders ready is the first thing we do. Our children have even held the feeders until we get things set up and have a place to hang them from. We then have a constant display of color and sound at the feeders until we have to leave.

  • Chris

    Talk about the chicks in the Pacific islands that die from eating plastic.

    Could they possibly evolve to learn the difference between plastic and real food.

  • Maxim

    Thank you for this show. Fascinating!

  • Drew (GA)

    What a great show! Thanks so much On Point, that one was for the birds.


  • Liz

    I feel like I’m learning what it’s like to be a mother duck. A mallard duckling “found us” a few weeks ago and I could not find a wildlife rehabilitator who could take him. This little guy was no bigger than my hand when he arrived and is now 8 or 9 inches long and replacing (or covering) his fluff with adult feathers. From the very beginning, it was clear that he had imprinted on me and would follow me wherever I went – from the nest/cage we made for him through the garden to the wash basin we had set up for him to swim in. I’m so curious now about imprinting; what birds/animals do it, can they control it (choose not to follow their “mama”) and can they grow out of it? I’m hoping for a duck-filled future for this little guy and worry that he will have a hard time returning to the wild.

  • Lin

    Birds are some of my favorite creatures. But at 5 am this morning, I can tell you why they call them a “murder” of crows. I was ready to do just that as a flock screeched in the tree right outside my window. :-)

  • AnnGMorrone
  • Pingback: BIRD SENSES « Towheeblog

  • chickenadvocate

    Why do roosters crow when it’s still dark in the early morning? Chickens evolved in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Perched high in the trees, and sensitive to infrared light, roosters see morning light 45 minutes to an hour before we do. Chickens have full spectrum color vision. They also have very keen ears, a distinct advantage when living amid dense foliage.

    In her book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995), avian scientist Dr. Lesley Rogers writes: “it is now clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals, even primates,” and “With increased knowledge of the behaviour and cognitive abilities of the chicken has come the realization that the chicken is not an inferior species to be treated merely as a food source.”

    I’ve been caring for chickens for 25 years, and I can vouch for their highly developed social capabilities and keen senses. Ground-nesting birds such as chickens, turkeys, quails, peafowl and others used to be denigrated as “unquestionably low on the scale of avian evolution”; fortunately, this false assumption has been discredited. A human “birdbrain” has something to crow about. Thank you for this marvelous show about birds. It was so fascinating. I will buy your guest’s new book.

    Karen Davis, PhD, President, United Poultry Concerns.

  • Billgardner64

    I’ve watched a bittern who made a very loud sound that was like the last of the water gurgling from the bottom of a toilet.

    This happened several times in a couple of days. Am I alone
    in hearing this??

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