• Donald Attwood

What It’s Like to Be a Bird


Bird facts and information abound in this book and it’s a visual treat for birders and non-birders alike, providing a deeper understanding of what common, mostly backyard, birds are doing – and why.

What is the fastest animal in the world? (Peregrine Falcon.) How fast are a hummingbird’s wingbeats? (More than 70 beats per second in some species.)

Birds routinely exhibit remarkable abilities and behaviours. Some are superb navigators, and that includes the humble pigeon, which can navigate by sun and stars over unknown terrain. With an ability to sense the earth’s magnetic field, plus the combined use of other senses, pigeons can also navigate on cloudy days.

These accomplishments, and many others by North American birds, are described in What It’s Like to Be a Bird, a lavishly illustrated large-format book by David Allen Sibley. This book will stimulate your interest in the beauty of birds and their extraordinary capabilities. Sibley is a self-taught artist who dropped out of college to study birds in the field. His first book for the general public, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds, was published in 2000 and became a hit with birdwatchers. Other much-valued Sibley guides have since appeared.

This latest book is not a field guide but an enthusiastic introduction to the many things that make birds special, with roughly life-size illustrations of 96 species often seen in North America. “This book is a guide to the science of birds,” Sibley writes, but he’s not afraid of philosophic questions as well. “Maybe the feeling an oriole has when looking at its finished nest is similar to the feeling human parents get when we look at a newly painted and decorated nursery.”

You can explore this book by species, discovering how they look and how they live. Or you can explore by topics, such as how feathers evolved, how feathers and other features enable birds to fly, how birds sense the world around them, how they think and move, how they interact with humans.

Whatever way you explore this book, you’ll learn wondrous things. In the pages on geese, swans, and ducks, you can learn how newly hatched goslings imprint on their parents, how geese migrate in V-formations to conserve energy, how feathers insulate waterfowl from cold and wet conditions. A double-page spread shows the nesting cycle of Mallards, from courtship to helping their ducklings find food and stay warm. There are similar spreads for the nesting cycles of Red-tailed hawks and robins. A curious child could learn much by asking why there are differences among these cycles. (Hint: what do these birds eat?)

  • Common Loons are embossed on our dollar coins, so they’re almost our national bird. They dive from the surface of the water to catch fish. Most dives are short, but loons can stay immersed for up to 15 minutes and dive to a depth of more than 60 metres.

  • Killdeers nest in open fields. If a fox approaches, the Killdeer hobbles away, dragging a broken wing. This distraction display lures predators from the nest.

  • Hovering demands extra energy, so hummingbirds must eat constantly. How do they survive, then, while resting at night? They become torpid: their temperature drops, their breathing slows, and their heart rate can drop from 500 to less than 50 beats per minute.

  • Phoebes nest in the eaves of houses and barns. Like other flycatchers, they dart from perches to catch insects in midair. Their visual processing works more than twice as fast as ours, enabling them to see tiny prey while maneuvering at high speed.

  • Parrots and corvids (crows, ravens, jays) are the most intelligent birds tested. Crows recognize people’s faces, remember who is friendly and who is not, and pass this information to other crows, including new generations. Crows and ravens are great problem solvers.

  • California scrub-jays remember where they’ve stored thousands of seeds and bugs for winter. They conceal their stashes and move hidden items if they suspect that another jay saw where they were placed. (This suggests that jays, like chimps and humans, employ a ‘theory of mind’ – an ability to understand what others perceive and intend.)

  • Common redpolls live year-round in the boreal forest, feeding on the seeds of birch trees, which produce large crops every second year. When seeds run short, Redpolls migrate in winter to the sunny south (that is, here), where they appear at our feeders.

This beautiful book will enhance anyone’s interest in the natural world. It belongs in every library, including school libraries, and in every household with children. Kids will start by looking at the pictures, then identify birds they’ve seen, then learn how science helps us understand what birds do.

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