Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
How often have you observed a pair of king parrots or a magpie family in your garden and wondered about how they met and how long they stay together? Or felt for the baby brush turkey who will never know what it feels like to have a nurturing parent? Australia – “the cradle of all modern songbirds” [p4] – is full of fascinating birds and it seems that some of their bonding and mating behaviour is unique to our island continent. Moreover, “bird brain” no longer has currency as an insult – the more we learn about birds, the more their intelligence is manifested.
With distinguished publication and research credentials, Professor Kaplan tells a remarkable story about avifauna partnerships, penises and parenting. More of that later. In many ways, it is a touching love story. Perhaps not a feminist tome, but certainly setting the record straight on females, which for too long have been popularised as smaller, drab and generally less important.
One of the reasons why bird bonding is so worthy of understanding is that the vast majority of breeding birds form lifelong bonds – entirely the opposite of mammals: “we have far too long concentrated on competition and male attributes. This book will produce evidence that many Australian birds have achieved outstanding success by the clever use and practice of cooperation and by securing the trust of a partner, often lifelong” .
Although reminiscent of a scientific literature review, Bird Bonds is attractively collated for a wider audience. Professor Kaplan’s own research is woven into the narrative. The result is a book that explores the frontiers of our knowledge and clearly distinguishes what we know from what we are yet to learn .
The ten chapters have overlapping themes, including vocal learning, mating, partnership, plumage, and parenthood. The final chapter pulls together some of the themes, but does not attempt a definitive synthesis. The book is enhanced with 80 pages of glossary, bird names, references and index. A curious feature is the epilogue, which would normally serve as a concluding chapter. The content is reflective and some is speculative, so perhaps Kaplan felt that these less rigorous thoughts needed to be clearly differentiated from the evidentiary content of the core chapters .
We learn so much from this book that challenges some of the long held (though often ill-informed) views about birds, particularly those native to this continent. For example, Australian songbirds live up to four times longer than similar birds from the Northern hemisphere  and Kaplan notes that one of the reasons for her research focus is an attempt to explain this considerable divergence.
Until recently, there was a paucity of research into female song, and most of us tended to think that melodious song – not to mention beautiful plumage – is the province of the blokes: “What my own studies into Australian magpie song behaviour have shown clearly is that female vocal participation is not only equal to that of males, but the song repertoire of females tends to be slightly larger” . More colourful male plumage is only found in a minority of Australian birds and even in some of those species, it is hard to spot the difference . Indeed, some species, such as the shining flycatcher, the female is “brighter than the male” .
Those of us entranced (or perhaps envious) of a devoted pair of swans and their cygnets afloat on a lake at sunset may be surprised to learn that homosexual behaviour is not uncommon – perhaps a third of all male swans being in temporary relationships and a small percentage even forming long-lasting ones . Even some contemporary scientists are still struggling to accept the evidence .
While recovering from that jolt, we then learn that the vast majority of males lack a penis anyway . Obviously, it hasn’t too adversely affected reproduction . This fact has long been known to the science community, but only in the last few years has the mechanism of penis loss been discovered. Not as traumatic as you may think, but you will have to read the book to find the answer . Kaplan even proposes that being penis-free is a good thing because “sex, be it for reproduction or not, became a negotiated mutual event”. Male Homo sapiens take note.
As to brains, well it seems that some birds have as many neurons as a chimpanzee  and “similar levels of brainpower” . As one who has had his backpack opened by a currawong and the mobile phone removed, I can attest to their ingenuity. Kaplan also speculates that one scientist’s declaration that European corvids (ravens) are the “brightest birds in the world” may be challenged by more research on our very own galah, sulphur crested cockatoo and magpie .
It is not just about intelligence. Kaplan uses terms like personality, love, empathy and social systems to describe characteristics that many humans would be proud of: “Perhaps we should ask birds how they do it – for their success in keeping relationships together is likely to be much higher than that in human society” .
A key part of her thesis is that the tough conditions encountered by many species across this land have led to considerable adaptation: “remarkably, as has been shown, some avian species have maximised their resilience in the face of stress by forming firm attachments and effectively maintaining these in secure bonds – very similar to the way many human bonds work” .
“This book has proposed that life in bonds is not all about reproduction but about cooperation, mutual support and about intelligent choices and commitments” .
Bird Bonds is a significant contribution to a field that, in some ways, is only starting to get the attention it deserves. A quick scan of Kaplan’s references shows just how much new knowledge has come to light in only the last few decades. The findings even have some lessons for human behaviour that could benefit many of us. This book has wide appeal and would be worth purchasing for the cover photo alone!
“Gisela Kaplan …. is a
field biologist and Emeritus Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of
New England, Armidale, New South Wales and also serves as Honorary Professor at
the Queensland Brain Institute. She has authored more than 250 research
articles and has conducted ground-breaking research into vocal learning,
communication and cognition in birds and other vertebrates. Her books include …
Australian Magpie (2019), Tawny Frogmouth (2018), Bird Minds (2015) and Famous
Australian Birds (2004). For the past two decades, she has also raised and rehabilitated
injured native birds” [Pan MacMillan Australia].
By Gisela Kaplan
Pan Macmillan Australia