Friday, 7 November 2014


DO birds have the capacity to experience a) the sense of pain and b) the emotion of fear?

Most people would probably answer yes to both - especially if they have seen a bird fall victim to a cat or any other predator?

While on a field trip to Australia, Prof Tim Birkhead, of Sheffield University, once saw a raptor take a cockatoo. “The former’s plaintive cries left me in no doubt that the bird was both terrified and in pain,” he says.

But in his fascinating book, Bird Sense – What It’s Like to Be a Bird, he goes on to describe witnessing another predation event - an attack by a peregrine on a puffin - which caused him to “modify” his view.

Because the puffin is a feisty bird with a powerful beak and sharp claws, the professor thought that the bird might escape - but it did not.

He writes: “Instead, it lay still looking up at its captor, which avoiding its gaze, stared resolutely out to sea.

”I imagine that the peregrine was waiting for its powerful clenching claws to do the business and for the puffin to die. It did not

”It was a stalemate. Five minutes passed with no obvious resolution in sight.

“The puffin wriggled slightly, its eyes were bright and it still looked full of life.”

Prof Birkhead continues: “Watching through my telescope, it was like a traffic accident, simultaneously appalling and compelling.

”Eventually, after 15 minutes, the falcon started to pluck the breast feathers from the puffin and five minutes later  began to eat  muscle from the puffins breast.

”Only after the peregrine had eaten its fill, a full 30 minutes after capture, did the puffin eventually expire.

”Did it feel pain? I don't know,  for, at no point during this grisly spectacle, did the puffin show any sign of distress.”

Bird Sense is full of insights and controversies, most of which have yet to be fully understood and resolved

Prof Birkhead explores whether  birds feel emotions and the extent to which they have a sense of smell and one of taste.
The mallard, for instance, has 400 taste buds (inside its bill rather than on its tongue) - which compares with 10,000 in humans.

He suggests that American robins use both vision and hearing to find worms, but they may also use smell and even “touch sensors” in their legs and feet

The author concludes: “At the present time, we have a good basic understanding of at least some of he senses of birds, but the best is yet to come.”

Bird Sense - What It’s Like to Be a Bird is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99

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