Tim Burkhead's Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be A Birdwas selected as one of our Best Books of the Month for April. Bird Sense "will pique the curiosity of anyone interested in how any creature's experience of the world is shaped by the body it inhabits," Amazon Books editor Mari Malcolm said in her review. Bird Sense went on sale this week, and Tim kindly offered this guest post - from the field.
I'm in a Zambian woodland with shimmering light and an incessant screech of cicadas. Perfectly camouflaged, the bird remains motionless, allowing me to inspect it a close range. Huge half-shut eyes, a curious tiny beak with raised nostrils, but its most remarkable feature is a row of eight enormous, rigid whiskers along the top edge of its enormous mouth.
Why whiskers? Nightjars are nocturnal, roosting during the day and hunting at night. Their large eyes allow them too see in the dark - essential for avoiding trees and catching moths. So why whiskers? No-one knows. I'm amazed: five centuries of bird study and there are still things we know nothing about! There are several ideas. One is that the whiskers prevent the dust-like debris from the moth's wings going into the bird's eyes "“ but the whiskers are too far apart from that. Another idea is that when the nightjar opens its huge mouth the whiskers form a net-like extension that help to capture flying insects. A third possibility was revealed after we set up an infra-red camera at our bird's nest.
In total darkness, a parent bird arrives with food to feed its chicks. Unable to see each other it looks as though the adult's whiskers feel the chick's head and help to bring the two together allowing the parent to pump food into the chick's throat.
This is plausible, for the nightjar's whiskers are extremely sensitive. We know this "“ or at least assume it - because at the base of each whisker is a cluster of touch 'receptors', identical to those that in our own fingertips allows us to enjoy caressing our lover, or in blind people to learn Braille. Touch is the most extraordinary sense: we take it for granted, but a sense of touch in birds? Until now, we've barely given it a second thought. In fact, we've hardly given any of a bird's senses much attention. What IS it like to be a bird?
>To learn more about his research, watch this video of Tim
>Learn more about Bird Sense: What It's Like to Be A Bird