Saturday, 1 December 2012

A week of books from 2012 - Day #1

Every day during the first week of December, I’m reviewing one of my favourite seven nature books published in 2012.  Each book will be presented alongside a ‘perfect partner’, a book that might appeal in case you have a nature-loving friend who’s eager for two books in their stocking this Christmas.  The books are reviewed in no particular order (I’m starting with one of my top choices, although I am saving my overall favourite right till the end too, just to keep you guessing).
The books draw together a wide selection of subjects including zoology, geography, mythology, poetry, history, art, philosophy, storytelling and drama (something for everyone, I hope), each with a strong nature theme.
Please use the comments box to say what you’ve been reading this year, and what books you might recommend on the subjects of wildlife, nature, or plants and animals in general.  Or if you’ve got any comments on my selections, join in that debate too! 

Direct links are given to online bookstores, but please don't forget to support your local, independent bookshop - they need you this Christmas!

Day 1 - book of the day:

Tim Birkhead
Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2012

Available from Amazon and Waterstones.

How would it feel to be a bird? Never mind just feeling, what would the world look like? How would it smell? How would it sound and taste? If you wanted to navigate your way around the world as part of a mass migration, how would you go about it? What would be your impulse?

These are all difficult questions to answer and ask us consider the classic problems such as whether or not birds have consciousness and whether they experience true emotions.  In the hands Tim Birkhead (author of the brilliant and hugely successful The Wisdom of Birds, a tough act to follow!), whose career as a Professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield has been spent being engrossed in researching such matters, these questions unravel in a book of strong, authoritative but clear sense (and Birkhead reminds us that there are many questions which remain unanswered in these difficult areas). 
The book is divided into seven chapters, corresponding to the seven senses that are up for discussion.  The first five senses are those we humans recognise as our own: 1) Seeing; 2) Hearing; 3) Touch; 4) Taste; and 5) Smell.  In addition to this, there is a chapter on magnetic sense, and another on emotions.
There are lots of surprising and fascinating things I learned from this. He tells us that nightingales in the noisy, urban environment of Berlin sing 14dB louder than their rural counterparts, and sing more loudly on weekday mornings during the rush-hour.  By contrast, Great tits do not adjust the volume of their song, but change the frequency and pitch of their song to ensure that they are heard in an urban setting.  Singing is of course a bird’s way of claiming its territory for the breeding season, and its silence at other times of year isn’t just behavioural but biological.  For male birds, the part of their brain responsible for singing shrinks at the end of the breeding season, growing again in time for spring (incidentally, the same is true of their gonads). Migrating birds that rely on the earth’s magnetic field as their GPS will completely lose their sense of magnetic direction if fitted with an eye patch over their right eye, but remain unaffected if the patch is placed over their left eye.
Not only is it a fascinating read, but it’s also very amusing.  Along the way, we not only learn about the extraordinary capabilities of many birds, but were introduced to a large number of human characters: mad scientists and amateur mavericks who have carried out all manner of crazy experiments on birds over the centuries in an attempt to untangle the unfathomable wonders of various species.
There is great humour and clarity throughout, all performed without irreverence for the subject and him without patronising the reader.  Birkhead has a great affection for his subject which never descends into revere, but remains firmly in the realm of the fascinated scientist who has lost none of his curiosity from years of research, and who’s able to communicate his infectious fascination in this highly readable book.

Perfect Partner

Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal
Bats Sing, Mice Giggle: the Surprising Science of Animals’ Inner Lives

Published by:Icon Books, 2009

Available from Amazon and Waterstones

Unlike Bird Sense, this book provides gems of insight to many species of animal which are cherry-picked for interest from across the world.  Despite this general appeal, both authors write with great experience as academics in their field; Shanor is neuroscientist having worked at Nasa’s Life Sciences department, including many other positions; Kanwal is professor a Physiology and Biophysics.  The book is in three parts: Sensing, Surviving and Socialising, with an Epilogue on ‘Human Nature’ Reconsidered.  The authors do seem very keen to make this an ‘easy read’, and so the tone of the book is rather on the simplistic side, although the great array of facts put forward will certainly be of interest to most general readers.
In the course of the chapters, we encounter accounts of coyotes with regional accents (including those in the mountains which, having learnt by ear, incorporate the mountainous echo into the calls), polar bears who can smell a meal up to 20 miles away, and charming stories such as the rooster that learnt to deceive by pecking at bare ground in order to find himself surrounded by large numbers of hens (they’d previously ignored his mating call, poor boy).  Even when the writing is at its most lightweight, there are some fascinating facts that will make your eyes water.  Cockroaches, we are told, can have up to two million ‘babies’ a year (I’m not sure what a young cockroach is called either, but I can’t help thinking they’re rather too small to have babies); they can live for up to two weeks after being decapitated (the authors remind us kindly that this means they’ve had their head chopped off); and they can withstand about 100,000 times the level of radiation as humans (‘It has long been said that if humans are ever stupid enough to destroy our planet, it would be the cockroaches that would survive and start a whole new zoological cycle.’).

Much as it is a lightweight, easy read, it’s an entertaining read, and certainly a book that would make a good present for young readers as well as adults.  It is certainly one of the most quotable books for grabbing people’s attention in an instant...if you’ve already tried pecking at the floor, that is.

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