Feather­ing our nests at great

Di­nosaurs and birds have an im­por­tant shared char­ac­ter­is­tic: the threat of ex­tinc­tion, writes Tim Flan­nery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.