It might not seem so, but “it’s tough to be a bird,” Roger J. Lederer writes in “Beaks, Bones, & Bird Songs: How the Struggle for Survival Has Shaped Birds and Their Behaviors.” Lederer convincingly makes the case in his accessible and detail-rich survey of bird behavior.
His examples are vivid and plentiful: A certain kind of owl regurgitates food it has consumed hastily “with an understandably pained expression,” while others “eject feces onto their eggs when frightened by an approaching predator (or researcher),” or fake a wing injury to lure a credulous predator away from the nest. From foraging for food to huddling together to share body heat, birds have evolved to enable survival in a world full of threats.
Although his prose occasionally veers into the stilted, Lederer, an emeritus professor of biology, has an easy way with zoological concepts and the patient air of a born teacher. He concludes the book with a stern chapter about the dangers of climate change and habitat destruction to bird ecology, although he admits to being “cautiously optimistic” about the ameliorating efforts of education and advocacy carried out by fellow bird-lovers.
What Lederer does for avian survival, Tim Birkhead does for the egg in “The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg” — namely, provide a spirited and illuminating tour of an element of the natural world that most of us barely consider. In Birkhead’s telling, the humble egg is a miracle of evolutionary design, a little self-supporting grenade of life generation with remarkable aesthetic and biological properties.
Birkhead’s eccentric English-bird-lover persona is extremely winning. “Extraordinary!” he interjects, with donnish enthusiasm, at the end of a passage describing the variations in eggshell porousness. Birkhead’s own favorite bird, the guillemot, lays its egg in “a guano quagmire,” which I think we can all agree would be an outstanding name for a punk-rock band.
These gems aside, what distinguishes this book is the insight that Birkhead, a zoologist who teaches at the University of Sheffield, brings to the historiography of science. His experience and sprightly eloquence manifests in marvelous statements such as “spectrum analysis … was a hot scientific topic in the 1860s” and references to “an excellent little book on vipers published in 1589.”
Lederer is earnest and precise, Birkhead often droll and amusing, but Jennifer Ackerman is capable of rising to the poetic. “I’m used to the slow, ruddy burnishing of dusk,” she writes of New Caledonia. “Here at the equator, the day clangs shut in sudden finality, especially in the dim pitch of the rainforest.” Ackerman is a journalist who writes about science, rather than a scientist who writes, and “The Genius of Birds” displays a supple, engaging wit. A mockingbird has “a long tail briskly twerking,” and hours spent watching a live feed of a great heron’s nest qualify the author as a “heron addict.”
Like her counterparts, Ackerman is ruffled by the conventional understanding of birds as dumb, hyperactive little automatons, and “The Genius of Birds” argues that avian intelligence rivals that of dolphins, whales and even primates. “What, if anything, do their little brains have to tell us about our big ones?” she asks, and the answer, not surprisingly, is quite a lot: “Just because the central nervous systems of pigeons or bowerbirds are organized very differently from our own doesn’t mean they’re less capable of exceptional visual perception and fine discriminations.”
What can a non-birder take from these books? For someone used to polemical nonfiction, to arguments about history and politics and art, these books provide a searching evocation of a way of thinking, and seeing, that remains unfamiliar, even alien. A layperson such as myself tends to think of “science” as a massive, invincible, slowly advancing monolith, whereas these books make clear that the march of zoological knowledge is full of false starts, errors of conclusion, mistaken theories, detours and just plain things we don’t know.
All three of the authors are blunt about how startlingly much still remains to be discovered. “All the answers are not in yet,” Lederer writes of migration; “we know surprisingly little about why eggs are the shape they are,” Birkhead states. And Ackerman confesses to finding “it oddly thrilling that the mental maps of birds remain … well … unmapped,” concluding that birds “are wonderful puzzles to keep around on our intellectual bookshelf, to remind us how little we still know.”
Michael Lindgren reviewed these books for The Washington Post.