Feathering our nests at great
Dinosaurs and birds have an important shared characteristic: the threat of extinction, writes Tim Flannery
No wild animal lives so freely and in such variety and numbers among humans as do dinosaurs. So Jim Robbins opens his book, except that he uses the word birds in place of dinosaurs. Yet birds are “the dinosaurs that made it”, he tells us.
Paleontological studies reveal birds are far more closely related to the raptors of Jurassic Park fame than to other dinosaurs such as triceratops or stegosaurus. In fact, some scientists think raptors and certain other carnivorous dinosaurs descended from flying ancestors that gave up the ability, much as did the ancestors of the emu.
The Wonder of Birds begins with an investigation of the origin of flight. In 1871, anti-evolutionist St George Jackson Mivart asked: “What good is half a wing?” It’s a question paleontologists have grappled with by examining fossils such as the famous Archaeopteryx.
It turns out they were looking in the wrong place, the answer finally coming from studies of living birds. Chicks of species that hatch from the egg in an advanced state, as do young brush turkeys, reveal that their rudimentary wings act like spoilers on racing cars and are essential in helping them climb vertical slopes and walk upside down on rock overhangs. In answer to Mivart’s question, these are useful traits indeed for escaping predators and finding food.
Studying bird form and flights has been profitable. The upturned winglets seen on most passenger jets were inspired by the highly efficient wings of buzzards — and save more than 170,000 litres of fuel per plane annually. And Japan’s bullet trains owe their pointed front ends to the beaks of kingfishers. When first adopted, they reduced electricity use by 15 per cent and increased train speed by 10 per cent.
But it’s not just bird flight that is instructive. Surprisingly, birds can teach us a lot about governance — not in the sense of Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules but through their murmurations, or synchronised flocking. The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World and a Better Future By Jim Robbins Black Inc, 331pp, $34.99 An Uncertain Future: Australian Birdlife in Danger By Geoffrey Maslin Hardie Grant, 294pp, $37.99
Anyone watching starlings flocking over Rome or a great mass of shorebirds take off and form a great shape-changing cloud is sure to wonder how they do it. The world’s leading swarm theorist, Iain Couzin, believes the ability results from metacognition: the idea that “the group can sense the world and solve problems the way individual components cannot”.
It’s an idea goes back to Francis Galton, who in 1906 asked 800 people to guess the weight of an ox at a country fair. No one came anywhere near the correct answer, but the mean of all answers — 1197 pounds (540kg) — was just a pound off the actual weight. The entire internet, one researcher thinks, can be thought of as a giant flock of humans contributing to a murmuration-like whole.
Swarm theory, incidentally, may have a lot to teach us about how to forge a better democracy. If there really is a wisdom in crowds and our collective thinking, new models of democracy — based, for example, on convening citizen juries to deliberate on everything from budgets to taxation, rather than calling elections — may have a lot going for them.
The Wonder of Birds includes chapters on feathers, eggs, chickens, guano, vultures, bird intelligence, bird families, extreme birds, and birds and humans. It is lucid and highly entertaining but contains rather more than the usual number of infelicities that result from a journalist writing about science (for example, emu eggs are not black, and kakapo lungs are not the size of footballs).
Moreover, being composed of short, punchy chapters, it lacks the coherency of a book written, as Charles Darwin said of his On the Origin of Species, as “one long argument”.
Just how shabbily Australians are treating their birdlife is the subject of Geoffrey Maslen’s An Uncertain Future: Australian Birdlife in Danger. Of the continent’s 898 recorded species, 22 are recorded as having become extinct since 1788, “although the true figure is certainly much greater”, Maslen opines. Of the survivors, about one-sixth are classified as “critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable to extinction”.
The threats are many and varied, but climate change is increasingly a major factor, as is illustrated by the plight of the fernwren of the
The habitat of Carnaby’s black cockatoos is threatened by development