Review: What it’s Like to be a Bird written by Tim Birkhead, illustrated by Catherine Rayner

Cover illustration by Catherine Rayner, published by Bloomsbury, 19-08-2021

A fantastic example of non-fiction aimed at children, What it’s Like to be a Bird is written by renowned ornithologist and Professor of Zoology, Tim Birkhead and illustrated by CILIP Greenaway Medal-winning artist Catherine Rayner. The combination of real science presented in colourful, eye-catching large format is as engaging as it is educational. The cover gives a clear example of the delightful illustrations, brimming with personality, to be found within, and every detail of this book from its size, hardcover and beautiful endpapers painted with speckled bird’s eggs speaks to its quality.

After an introduction which taps into the desire to fly that most of us have experienced at some time, each double page focuses on one aspect of bird behaviour as illustrated by a particular species. After initially pointing out that there are some similarities between birds and humans, the rest of the book highlights the diversity to be found in the class of birds and the range of adaptations displayed by birds which have enabled them to inhabit all the continents of the globe. The spreads are fully illustrated in Catherine Rayner’s sumptuous muted watercolours, with the text arranged in paragraphs blended with playful font effects.

As each bird is examined, its extraordinary skills and behavioural patterns are recounted in story-like prose which is easily understandable but does not talk down to young readers. Scientific vocabulary is used and explained precisely. The sections have titles that might be found in a chapter book; The Hunter Who Listens, Falling from the Skies and Sledging for Beginners are some examples. The book is therefore equally suited to being read aloud by an adult to share with children, or read and understood independently by Key Stage 2 or even advanced Key Stage 1 readers. Within the pages you will learn which bird has the most light-sensitive eyes of any animal species; which bird loses half of its body weight whilst waiting for its egg to hatch and which bird flies non-stop for eight days on its migratory journey between Alaska and New Zealand. Tim Birkhead shares his expertise with a light touch, comparing the incredible skills exhibited by the birds with everyday objects and phenomena with which children can easily relate. In my opinion, this is a marvellous gift to present to children; first rate information in a format that they can easily comprehend.

I absolutely love this book and know that I would have loved it as a child; I can still remember my primary school Year 3 teacher who signed our whole class up to be young ornithologists, constructed a bird table outside our classroom window and instilled a life-long love of birds. Whilst my knowledge and interest back then was based on observation of the natives of Hampshire (I clearly remember the excitement when a nuthatch clambered up the bird table) I would have been fascinated to learn about the symbiotic relationship between honey guides and humans, the local accents of macaw parrots and the carrying-pouches hidden under a male sungrebe’s wings. As with all the best children’s books, I learned something new from reading it, an amazing fact about the robin which I will leave you to discover for yourself. I highly recommend this book as an addition for all school libraries and classroom bookshelves. It would also make a beautiful gift for any primary school aged child, a fountain of knowledge that they will enjoy referring to time and again.

I am most grateful to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

6 thoughts on “Review: What it’s Like to be a Bird written by Tim Birkhead, illustrated by Catherine Rayner

  1. Ooh, I need this – I love Catherine Rayner’s illustrations!
    Also, had to smile at your Yr 3 bird memories – we had nothing so exciting but did have to a Bird project at home in Yr 3! Still remember being sat with a big bird book and my egg-shaped pages writing about puffins and owls and not sure what else!

    Liked by 1 person

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