Professor loves being in a flap over birds

Professor Tim Birkhead pictured with Guillemots
Professor Tim Birkhead pictured with Guillemots
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ORGASMS, promiscuity and false penises.

No, just another day birdwatching for Sheffield University Professor Tim Birkhead.

Professor Tim Birkhead

Professor Tim Birkhead

The study of some of the planet’s oddest creatures turns up some fascinating stuff and Professor Birkhead has turned up more than most, much more.

He’s the man whose book Bird Sense let a mass audience know that birds are more promiscuous than people, birds have a sense of smell and that their brains physically respond to birdsong.

Tim Birkhead has also written 13 books and brought in millions of pounds to the university in research grants.

Oh, he’s put Charles Darwin straight on a couple of points too and is currently leading £2million project funded by the European Research Council into the energy used by birds in making sperm.

It’s all go for the Prof but that’s how he likes it, often up at 4am and heading up research and monitoring projects from Wales to Canada, Sheffield to New Zealand.

“Sheffield University’s biology department is the equal of Cambridge, that’s why I’ve stayed here for so long,” said 62-year-old Professor Birkhead who came to Sheffield as a zoology lecturer in 1976.

“The biggest thing I have discovered in my time here is just how little we know.

“One of the reasons for writing books is that you learn so much in the process and you meet people you would not otherwise encounter who are experts in their field.

“A lot of people who have read the book say they have been amazed. I was also amazed in writing it.

“I want to put the sensory biology of birds back on the agenda.” But in these financially straitened times, isn’t research into bird behaviour something of a luxury?

“The Government has said it is only interested in research that has “an obvious and immediate payback” said the Professor in his office in the Alfred Denny Building at the university.

“But the thing about research is that you can never anticipate what might be useful. For example, rock guitarists often go deaf because the tiny hair cells in their ears are damaged by loud noise. Those damaged cells in humans are not replaced. But in birds they are.

“If we can find the genes that repairs them in birds we can come up with a cure for deafness for people.”

Research currently being undertaken raises the question of which sperm are meant to make it to the fertilisation stage.

“There is a lot of concern about the human fertility treatment Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI). There can be health problems with some of the children born through these techniques.

“It is a difficult swim for a sperm to get to an egg. Millions start off but only about half a dozen make it. We are looking to see if there are only a few sperm that are meant to be fertilisers.”

Studying that in people is difficult, but he says: “With a bird you can find the sperm on the membrane of the egg and we can get start to look at the characteristics of the ones that made it to the egg.” But there are lighter sides.

The Red Billed Buffalo Weaver for one. This Namibian bird has a false penis which he uses to stimulate the female and himself during intercourse.

He is the only bird proven to experience an orgasm and mating takes up to 30 minutes to complete rather than the two seconds it takes most other birds. The weaver must have something going on. As have most birds, apparently.

Victorian sentiment and Charles Darwin thought that most animals, including birds, were monogamous and only had one mate. But, like Victorians generally, there was a lot more going on than they admitted.

“After looking at a study of yellow dung flies and promiscuity I spearheaded the shift from thinking that birds were monogamous and we now know them to be promiscuous, some a lot more than others.

“That changed the whole way of thinking in ornithology and Darwin thought that females were monogamous but how could they be if males aren’t?

“With DNA fingerprinting we were able to prove that this was not the case.”

But the life of a professor is not all about promiscuous birds and studying sperm.

There are risks involved too.

After spending 40 years hanging off cliff faces studying guillemots there have been some hairy, even life threatening moments, but they aren’t on the curriculum today, save to say that Professor Birkhead can disprove the theory that a person can only last 30 seconds in arctic sea water.

He was in there for considerably longer after slipping off a boat.

“It’s a bit exaggerated. I was in there for ten minutes and I was fine. Cold, but fine.”

At the age of 62 Prof Birkhead is as full of enthusiasm as ever for research and teaching.

“I don’t want to retire, I will carry on as long as I can.”

See Bird-sense.com for more.