October 2020

Vol. 48, No. 5

About Books: Channeling Your Inner Kinglet

Mark Lynch

What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why.

David Allen Sibley. 2020. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

"Birds are making decisions all the time." (Preface)

Many decades ago I was an underclassman at Clark University. The professor there who had the greatest effect on me was Nicholas Thompson. He taught classes on ethology, primate social behavior, and evolution. He once offered a class during which, once a week, we went to his farm in rural New Braintree and, over four months, described the changes that occurred on his property during spring. He was passionate about birds and wrote, under a pseudonym, a wonderfully Victorian book about the birds found on his farm. How is the book Victorian? Since he may very well still be alive, I will refrain from giving the title of that book.

My first class with him was about instinct, and the very first paper in the textbook we were required to read was by the German scientist Jakob Johann von Uexküll (1864–1944). I can't believe I still recall his name. Uexküll studied muscular physiology, animal behavior, and what was called the cybernetics of life. I have never read another paper by Uexküll, and I certainly can't remember all the details of this one. I do remember an illustration of how the forest looks to an owl versus how it looks to a human. I fully admit that I may be misremembering some details, but the essence of that paper has stayed with me. It was about Umwelt, Uexküll's original concept for which he is best remembered.

Umwelt, the plural of which is "Umwelten," is a German word for the environment and surroundings. It was Uexküll's theory that all living creatures perceive their environment differently and subjectively. Uexküll believed that if you looked carefully at a creature's unique senses and physiology, you could understand how that creature perceived and behaved in its environment. The owl and the woodsman may be physically in the same space, but to each, their world, or Umwelt, is different. Different animals and invertebrates, whether an owl or a tick, sense a world that is very different from the one humans perceive.

All these long ago academic memories of Uexküll and his Umwelten popped into my mind as I dipped into David Allen Sibley's fine new book, What It's Like to Be a Bird.

Consider how a tanager sees the world as it moves through a lattice of slender twigs suspended above ground. The bird gives no thought to hopping from twig to twig eighty feet up in the air, then jumping into the open air to catch a passing insect, or flying across a fifty-foot gap to the next twig. Can birds be afraid of heights? (p. 145, What It's Like to Be a Bird)

What It's Like to Be a Bird is a compendium of short pieces on many aspects of ornithological ethology. It is organized by species or groups of species in current taxonomic order. Each species or group is given two facing pages: a large color portrait on the left, and smaller paintings and text on the right. Sometimes, as with shorebirds or wood warblers, several pairs of pages are devoted to those birds. But that isn't all. This large format book is visually stunning, containing large examples of Sibley's artwork. Many of the bird portraits of larger species are almost life size, while some smaller species are shown larger than life size. The birds look like they could hop onto your lap. Most of David Sibley's previous field guides were painted in gouache. The birds in What It's Like to Be a Bird are painted in acrylic, producing more colorful, richer images. These large portraits are augmented by numerous smaller paintings of birds in action. Sometimes this includes additional two-page spreads of annotated illustrations of the breeding cycle of a species. These lively paintings are not the staid diagrammatic illustrations of a field guide, but birds shown going about their lives. In addition, there are also smaller colored illustrations included for every species. A few of these are more like sketches with a minimal use of color. By seeing Sibley's work this large and varied, you can appreciate his more skillful use of looser strokes. Some paintings even veer into an Impressionistic treatment. These include the end papers of crows flocking to trees and "blackbirds flying over a field of bird food" (p. 175). This is the most exciting collection of David Sibley's artwork published to date.

Though it is easy to lose yourself in the wealth of the colorful and lively art, the written part of What It's Like to Be a Bird is no less interesting. It is Sibley's goal to show the reader that birds are not just organic automatons.

One of the themes that impressed me throughout my work on this book is that a bird's experience is far richer, more complex and more "thoughtful" than I'd imagined. And if that was news to me after a lifetime of watching birds, it must be surprising to other people as well. (Preface)

Back when I was taking classes with Professor Thompson, animal behavior was seen through the lens of behaviorism. Animals were considered mere organic machines, ruled by instinct that was passed on via the DNA. All animals' repertoire of behaviors were dictated by their instincts and rarely varied from those narrowly defined parameters. The animal had no "choice." One of the first words we learned was "anthropocentric," and we were taught to avoid tainting our field observations with this all too human tendency. Looking at an animal's behavior and attributing humanlike emotions or aspects of consciousness was just bad science and would not be tolerated by the scientific community. But even back then, observations by primatologists like Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey began to push the envelope of how we look at animal behavior. Today there has been a sea change in how we look at the animal mind. Scientists like primatologist Frans de Waal and others have begun to use words like "empathy" to describe primate behavior. Other scientists have begun describing species other than primates as likely having at least a kind of consciousness. The concept of instinct has evolved to become more complex and subtle.

I think the word "instinct" to most people, implies a kind of blind obedience. We think of instinct as a set of instructions written in DNA, passed down through generations, controlling bird behavior. The most extreme reading of this is that birds are a bunch of zombie-like automatons….Instinct can't be blind obedience. It has to be subtle, to allow flexibility and choices. (Preface)

The layout of What It's Like to Be a Bird is unique. After an important preface, and a few notes on how to use this book, there is a lengthy introduction (p. ix-xxxii). This is a useful outline of all the topics discussed throughout the book. For instance, under "Bird Senses" (p. xiii), there are various subheadings such as "Sight" (p. xiii), "Hearing" (p. xv), and "Smell" (p. xv). Under each of those subheadings is a list of specific ideas discussed in the main body of the book and their page reference. For example, under "Smell" we find a summary statement: "All birds can smell, in general at least as well as we do, and some species have an extraordinary sense of smell" (p. xv). In this case, there follow three specific references to birds and smell and where that subject matter appears in the main "Portfolio of Birds" (p. 2–176). Here is one example: "It's been known for decades that a few species, like the Turkey Vulture (p. 59 middle) and the American Woodcock (p. 179), hunt largely by smell." (p. xv)

Some of these topics like "Flight" (p. xvi-xvii), which is found under "Movement" (p. xvi-xviii), can have fourteen or more specific text references. This is more difficult to describe than it is to use. This allows the reader to easily check all the sections of the book that refer to one type of behavior. Want to learn more about birds nesting? Under the main heading of "Social behavior" (p. xxiv) you will find "Nesting" (p. xxv-xxviii), and under "Nesting" you will find subheadings on subjects like "Timing of Nesting" (p. xxv), "Incubation" (p. xxvii), "Brood Parasitism" (p. xxviii), and many others. Each of those subheadings has a list of subjects and their specific page reference. This type of outline makes What It's Like to Be a Bird an easy-to-use reference book for the classroom and for any student writing a research paper on bird life. It also encourages all readers to read the book not only species by species, but behavior by behavior.

The colorful "Portfolio of Birds" is the raison d'être for What It's Like to Be a Bird. If you can tear yourself away from enjoying Sibley's artwork, you will find that each species or group has three meaty paragraphs on the right page. Under "Kinglets" (p. 124–5) the top paragraph ends with:

"A bird as small as a Golden-crowned Kinglet has a resting heart rate of over six-hundred beats per minute (ten per second), about ten times faster than the average human, and during activity the heart rate doubles to over twelve hundred beats per minute." (p. 125)

The other two paragraphs under "Kinglets" describe the weight loss that occurs in small birds at night, torpidity during winter nights, and the intriguing "What do salmon have to do with kinglets?" (p. 125). This last paragraph describes a unique set of connections between what seems like species that have nothing to do with each other. No matter what level birder you think you are, you will find something new to learn about in What It's Like to Be a Bird. Sometimes, Sibley will contradict what you thought you knew for most of your birding life. For instance, did you know: "Female cowbirds do not simply lay an egg and leave it; they actually monitor the progress of the egg and the young." (p. 171)

What It's Like to Be a Bird ends with several short sections. "Birds in this book" (p. 177–88) is a review of the species shown in the book, including a small painting of the bird and a paragraph about that species. "What to do if…" (p. 189–90) answers the common questions people have when birds and humans cross paths. It is likely you all have fielded these enquiries. These include "A bird is flying repeatedly against a window" (p. 189), "You find a dead bird" (p. 189), and "You find a baby bird" (p. 190). About that last situation, Sibley cautions fledgling finders, "Only a few situations will benefit from your intervention." (p. 190)

The last short essay is devoted to "Becoming a Birder" (p. 191). This contains some of the best advice Sibley could pass along to any birder, hardcore or "wannabe": "You will learn faster if you can be an active observer: draw sketches, take notes, write poetry, take photos, whatever will make you look a little more carefully and a little longer." (p. 191)

What It's Like to Be a Bird had an interesting evolution.

The creation of this book has followed a meandering path over the last fifteen years. My original idea, in the early 2000s, was to produce a bird guide for kids. Then I started thinking about it as a bird guide for beginners of any age. But having created a comprehensive North American bird guide, the concept of a "simplified" guide never clicked for me. Instead, I wanted to make it a broader introduction to birds. (Preface)

In most field guides we see birds as two-dimensional. In that format birds become a collection of field marks that we can then seek out and tick off. Field guides need to be brief, and they cannot possibly contain much information about how a species lives. With What It's Like to Be a Bird, those field guide birds finally pop off the pages and are shown to be complex creatures with an amazing variety of behaviors as they go about their lives. Once you entertain the notion that birds may have complex lives, and that we can understand some of what they are doing, birding becomes a lot more interesting. Beautiful to look at and fascinating to read, this book belongs in the collections of birders of all levels.

"This book is about what it's like to be a bird, and that can best be explained in terms of how it compares to being human." (Preface).

Listen to a podcast by Mark Lynch with this author:


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