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New Book : Birds of the Homeplace - The Lives of Ireland's Familiar Birds

We all love stories of ingenuity, escape from danger and intrepid travels to foreign lands - birds provide this derring-do in spades! From birds who grow brain tissue to enlarge their memory capacity of where they hide food to Peregrines who encounter G-forces strong enough to make a human pilot black out, birds are extraordinary creatures. And they're right on our doorsteps. No matter where one lives there are birds: in gardens, neighbourhoods, on farms, in towns or cities.

Birds are the original jetsetters, complete with summer homes, winter homes and even GPS. Anthony McGeehan became fascinated with birds around his childhood home. His has been a reporter's journey to gather all the facts about how Ireland's birds live their lives. He puts forward the (egocentric) argument that what happens to birds could happen to us. He also asks why some species decline while others thrive and how we can encourage more to visit our homeplaces. Ironically, the loss of acres through monoculture can lead to an increase in birds – lawns, trees, shrubs water features, feeders and nest boxes combine to boost those species that thrive in 'edge habitats'.

Today's generation of birds are the toughest yet, as they migrate across a world that has changed drastically: the timeline of Swallow migration has, through the millennia, known days when the trip to Africa did not include crossing the Mediterranean – it did not exist – and routes were over lush land the whole way.

Over seventy species are centre stage in these descriptions, written in McGeehan's trademark witty and elegant style, bringing alive the feathered characters of Irish neighbourhoods. McGeehan believes birdwatching is more akin to appreciating art than studying science and showcases Ireland's familiar birds in thought-provoking words and exquisite photographs. Discover how birds live and appreciate them even more.

Anthony McGeehan, from Belfast, has been watching and photographing birds since childhood. Today, he leads birdwatching tours and assists BirdWatch Ireland. Widely published in magazines and newspapers, his book Birds Through Irish Eyes (2012) attracted much favourable comment.

Julian Wyllie is one of the last birders who learned to read with The Observer's Book of Birds. Sharing his love for the natural world with a fascination for post-1965 underground music, he worked as a second-hand record dealer, as a dishwasher and for conservation bodies. He lives on Sherkin Island in West Cork, birding or listening to The Fall.

Birds of the Homeplace – The Lives of Ireland's Familiar Birds by Anthony McGeehan with Julian Wyllie is published by The Collins Press, price €24.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from http://www.collinspress.ie/birds-of-the-homeplace.html.

Some fascinating bird facts:

  • The brains of some titmice (such as Coal Tit) brains expand in volume by 30 per cent during the autumn burst of food storing so that the bird can remember where it left its winter stores of food.
  • Birds have eyes with two focussing spots and because the optic nerve is controlled by two separate parts of the brain, what is seen by the left eye isn't remembered by the right.
  • Birds can see in ultraviolet as well polarising light and use it as a means to navigate – as did the Vikings who are believed to have used a crystal, coined a 'sunstone', as a polarising filter that glinted blue when pointed to the invisible sun during cloudy weather.
  • Songbirds can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight at night.
  • Longevity records aren't always accurate as the metal rings used to tag birds corrode in water, meaning individuals could be older.
  • When a Peregrine attacks from above, it reaches such velocity (70–90 m per second/252–324 km/h) that the G-forces encountered would make a human pilot black out.
  • A Swallow, whose arrival signals the end of winter, weighs about the same as a slice of buttered toast.
  • Dunnocks sometimes indulge in a ménage-à-trois with a female using two males to make sure her two chicks are well fed.
  • It's well known that Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests but did you know that Cuckoo chicks jettison their step-siblings from the nest, despite weighing a mere 3 grams?
  • Male sex organs regrow just before the mating season. And during the mating season the males display and the females choose!
  • Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, who founded a framework for naming nature called binomial nomenclature, used phonetics to name birds e.g. Crex crex for Corncrake and Pica pica for Magpie.
  • Birds identify each other through song and often adopt the trills of neighbours – an outsider doesn't stand a chance of sneaking in.
  • A bird's respiratory system extracts oxygen from air using air sacs as well as lungs. Sacs are located throughout the body, such as within abdominal cavities and between the skin and body walls. Ironically, the lungs themselves hold almost no used air. Each intake of breath travels a continuous path around various parts of the anatomy where sacs extract oxygen from the passing stream of air.
  • Inside eggs, chicks call to each other. Chicks can also pick out their parents' call from a crowd.
  • Blackbirds stalking worms employ a rugby scrum 'crouch, touch, engage' action.
  • A Jackdaw was trained to open eight boxes to find five pieces of food, some of which were stored in pairs to challenge the bird's counting skills. He found them all and counted by nodding his head once for the first piece, twice for the second and so on.
  • Sparrowhawks are harbingers of havoc – in Anglo-Saxon Old English, 'hafoc' meant hawk.

Birds of the Homeplace – The Lives of Ireland's Familiar Birds by Anthony McGeehan with Julian Wyllie is published by The Collins Press, price €24.99. It is available in all good bookshops and online from http://www.collinspress.ie/birds-of-the-homeplace.html.

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