One of the most satisfying aspects of writing Bird Sense has been the large number people (both scientists and non-scientists) that I have had to engage with. Without exception they answered my questions cheerfully, willingly and constructively. Several of those who study New Zealand birds deserve special mention.
Because New Zealand’s birds evolved without terrestrial predators many of them are flightless. As a result, their senses are very different from most other birds, and rather than relying primarily on sight, their sense of smell and touch in particular are extremely well developed. Visiting New Zealand was a vital aspect of this book, and I have three people to thank for encouraging me to go: Isabel Castro, Ron Moorhouse and Patricia Brekke.
Isabel Castro (right) invited me to join her and her students at their kiwi study site on a privately owned island off North Island. Being able to watch kiwis at close range and to handle them (to replace their radio transmitters) was an extraordinary privilege. The timing was perfect because shortly before my visit Isabel and her student Susie Cunningham (left) discovered a new sense organ in the tip of the kiwi’s bill.
Ron Moorehouse, a scientist on the National Kakapo Team, generously arranged for me to visit Codfish Island off the south coast of South Island to see this most endangered and spectacular bird. Ron was unable to get to Codfish while I was there, so there’s no picture of him here; instead we were looked after in exemplary style by Operations Ranger, Jo Ledington (below left). The kakapo were wonderful and truly extraordinary.
Patricia Brekke (below left) has studied the critically endangered hihi (right) for the past seven years on the island of Tiritiri Matangi. Hihi is its Maori name (it means ‘little ray of sunshine’ – which it is – the male has a brilliant patch of yellow plumage on each ’shoulder’): its English name is ‘stitchbird’ – and it isn’t flightless. By a curious coincide, Isabel Castro studied hihi earlier in her career, and I’d seen them with her on my first visit to New Zealand in the early 1990s. After that John Ewen started the hihi population on Tiri using translocated birds. Patricia arranged for me to visit Tiri to see her birds. As well as being beautiful the hihi has an extraordinary mating system and is unique in being the only bird to copulate face to face.
On 13 December 2011 I gave a Christmas ‘lecture’ – more a performance really – entitled ‘Birds are Amazing’ to around 1000 ten-year old school children. The event, organised by my colleague Fiona Hunter, took place in the Octagon at the University of Sheffield and was our largest outreach event. The talk included lots of information on the senses of birds, based on material in Bird Sense, and my guess is that if ten-year olds are excited by some of this, adults will be too. The star turn was the male golden eagle shown here with me, owned by David Fox. Judging from the enthusiasm with which the children participated in the quizzes and other aspects of the event, they enjoyed it. This was nicely confirmed when I was told afterwards that a child leaving the Octagon was overheard saying that it had been ‘the best day of his life’!
Another colleague that helped while I was writing Bird Sense was Herman Berkhoudt, a retired sensory biologist in the Netherlands, whose pioneering work on ‘touch’ and ‘taste’ in birds in the 1970s were an inspiration to me. Herman generously commented on parts of the book and sent me much useful information that I might otherwise not have found. Graham Martin, an expert on avian vision also commented on one chapter and provided unstinting support, for which I’m grateful. My long-term friends Bob Montgomerie, a biologist and ornithologist at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, and Jeremy Mynott (author of ‘Birdscapes’ published by Princeton University Press, 2009), read the entire manuscript of Bird Sense for me, and made many useful comments, for which I am most grateful.