The Book

Years ago, stuff while I was doing my PhD research on guillemots on the beautiful island of Skomer off the Welsh coast (right below), price I saw something that made me realise there was more going on in a bird’s head than my scientific training admitted. I had constructed a hide very close to a group of guillemots (left below) so that I could watch their behaviour in detail. One day as I sat in the hide, one of my birds stood up off its egg and started to utter its greeting call. I was surprised because normally this call is given only when partners meet at the nest site, and this bird was on its own. I looked out to sea and in amongst the masses of guillemots, puffins and razorbills flying around, I could see one guillemot a long way off heading towards the cliffs. To my utter amazement it landed a few seconds later beside the bird that was calling, and the two of them then engaged in a frenzied greeting ceremony, calling and clashing their beaks together. My incubating bird must have recognised its partner hundreds of metres away out at sea. I could hardly believe it and it made me realise that the way birds perceive the world must be much more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

Being a professional ornithologist doesn’t mean I spend all my time bird-watching or studying birds. I spend a fair amount of time teaching undergraduates and training research students. I am also engaged in scientific research, which is mainly concerned with the reproductive biology of birds. My main research interest is ‘promiscuity’: why do female birds pair up with one male but then engage in what we call ‘extra-pair copulations’ with other males?

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I refer to myself as a behavioural ecologist, meaning that I study behaviour and ecology from an evolutionary perspective. Behavioural ecology started in the 1970s and its focus was on the adaptive significance or survival value of behaviour. As the field developed over the next few decades however, xanax pills behavioural ecologists realised that to understand adaptations they needed to know more about how animals worked; their physiology, their senses and what is going on in their heads.

The incident with the guillemot all those years ago – and many others since then with a wide range of species – made a deep impression on me such that I was constantly asking myself, ‘How do birds perceive the world?’ The only way to answer this I realised is to understand more about their senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste. The question becomes even more intriguing when you realise that birds possess senses we don’t, like a magnetic sense, and in a handful of species, the ability to echolocate. More amazing still is the fact that birds see more colours than we do; that they see differently out of each eye (wow! That’s hard to imagine); and that some birds have a superb sense of smell and touch.

I learned a lot while researching this book, and what I have tried to do is relate our ever-increasing knowledge of birds’ senses with my own experiences of watching or studying birds. It has been a revelation – for me at least: I have always loved birds but knowing about their senses has taken my appreciation to a new level – they are amazing.

Sculpture by Gail Dooley