AS the young Tim Birkhead counted the thousands of starlings which once roosted in Newcastle city centre, the thought of what it actually felt like to be a bird must have crossed his mind.
Now, 40 years on, that intriguing concept has turned into Tim’s latest book – Bird Sense: What It’s Like to be a Bird.
Published by Bloomsbury at £16.99, it explores the evidence for how birds see, hear, taste, smell and also their ability to “see” and navigate by the earth’s magnetic field.
Then there is the speculation over whether birds experience emotions.
Behavioural ecologist Tim, now a Professor of Zoology, studied at Newcastle University between 1969-72 and returns to the city on Wednesday to give a talk at 6pm at the Life Science Centre in Times Square on what it is indeed like to be a bird.
He says: “We share senses with birds but how do their senses compare with ours?” His verdict: “We grossly underestimate what goes on inside a bird’s head.
“My conclusion after writing the book is don’t underestimate birds. People might think that birds are just wings guided by eyes but there is a lot more going on than birds are given credit for.”
Tim, now based at Sheffield University, has fond memories of his time in Newcastle.
He says: “It was fabulous. It was a classic zoology course and we worked right through the animal kingdom.
“It was exhilarating. I loved it at Newcastle.
“My friends and I went bird watching and I got to know Northumberland quite well. My favourite spot was Druridge Bay.
“We counted the numbers of starlings roosting in Newcastle in the winter. It was remarkable – there were vast numbers, hundreds of thousands.
“We walked the streets of Newcastle inspecting the buildings and roosts, with people wondering what we were doing.
“The city did everything in its power to dissuade the starlings from roosting, with netting and fire crackers.
“There has been a big decline in birds like starlings and house sparrows, and we don’t really know why,” says Tim, who has been a bird watcher since boyhood.
“My father was a bird watcher and he encouraged me. But he said you’ll never make a living from this,” says Tim.
But not only has he carved out an academic career and undertaken research which has taken him all over the world, Tim is also the author of a string of books, including The Wisdom of Birds in 2009, voted best bird book of the year by the British Trust for Ornithology.
Tim has taken his PhD students to Northumberland locations such as the Farne Islands and Holy Island.
He took guillemots as the subject for his own PhD and has continued to study the seabirds for the last 40 years.
Tim says: “I have studied guillemots intensively. The male and female pair spend their winter apart, they find each other in the spring and their greeting is both protracted and emotional.
“I watched a guillemot stand up and call its mate. She had recognised him over 500m away and, among the swathe of hundreds of birds that all looked the same, he flew directly back.
“This single incident changed my view of birds and was the spark that made me write Bird Sense.
“Guillemots have given me tremendous insight into what it’s like to be a bird. I think it is because they are so similar to humans.
“They are extremely social, forming friendships with their neighbours and occasionally helping them with child care.
“They are monogamous, albeit with the occasional fling, male and female pair members work together to rear offspring, and pairs sometimes remain together for as long as 20 years.”
Each species has developed specific physical differences to help it find its prey and suit its habitat.
“The great grey owl is a daytime predator and relies on hearing to locate prey under the snow,” says Tim.
“This species has a huge facial disc which concentrates the sounds to its asymmetrically positioned ears.
“The kiwi has virtually given up on vision and finds its prey through smell and touch. Its sense of smell is so strong he can locate an earthworm 15cm underground, and its protracted probing bill is not probing at random. It has already located the prey through smell.”