Books & Literature

Book Review: Why Do Birds Do That? by Gráinne Cleary

NON-FICTION: An entrancing, informative book filled with answers to many of the common questions we ask about birds and their lives.

An entertaining and engaging book on birds, answering burning questions such as, "Why do seagulls steal my chips?"

Feature image credit: Allen & Unwin

Dr Gráinne Cleary is a renowned bird expert in Australia. Her very popular previous book, Your Backyard Birds, looked at the relationships between humans and birds. Now she answers over 50 of the most commonly asked questions about birds. The book consists of five parts each focused on one aspect of birds: characteristics, behaviours, survival skills and food, bird habitats, and life and death. Within each part, a separate chapter of three to four pages covers each question, including “Why do birds lay eggs?”

The crisply written responses of each question are complete with correct scientific terms, which are then further explained. Take the answer to the question above, for instance, which describes the difference in egg yolks of altricial and precocial birds. Eggs of the former have a smaller percentage of yolk than eggs of the latter, which results in an altricial chick being less developed and thus needing greater parental care when it hatches. In-text citations are provided and readers are directed to a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

This scientific information is combined with stories from bird-loving citizen scientists to explain why birds engage in a particular behaviour. The author has also deftly combined these with occasional folk tales about bird behaviour and characteristics. In her Irish culture, for example, the red breast feathers of the European robin are attributed to blood staining them as they tried to pull the thorns from the crown of thorns at the crucifixion.

I think my favourite chapter is Why Do Starlings Form Murmurations? I have always been fascinated by the sight of hundreds, or even thousands, of birds moving almost as one and shape-shifting like a living cloud. The reasons behind this behaviour are not fully understood but there is clearly safety in numbers. It is hypothesised that the presence of a bird of prey may result in this evasive behaviour, as will the need to share information about foraging and food sources.

The book explains how such a large number of birds could behave in this way. Research has shown that the size of the flock is immaterial as each bird’s movements and changes of direction affects only the seven birds closest to it, who influence the seven birds closest to them, and so on, resulting in split-second changes of direction for the entire flock.

This is a delightful book to read in one sitting or to dip into to answer those pressing questions we all have about birds. I now know why flamingos stand on one leg! If you’re interested in birds, then put this book on your Christmas list.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: October 2022
RRP: $32.99

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