The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird’s Egg

IMG_1550

‘Poetry And – The Red Egg’, a free talk and poetry reading with two award-winning writers, scientist Tim Birkhead and poet Paul Farley, takes place on Tuesday 28 November at King’s Chapel on the Strand, 7-8.30pm. Curated by Ruth Padel, Tim and Paul will share their passion for birds, birds’ eggs and the mystery of human engagement with them. Please register for this free event, with free wine, here.

Below, Tim discusses his 40-year passion for birds and birds’ eggs, as well as his most recent book, The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird’s Egg (Bloomsbury 2016), a celebration of the extraordinary biology of birds’ eggs and our long-standing cultural fascination with them. David Attenborough called the book ‘magnificent’ and Nature said: Birkhead’s historical acumen and sharp pen had me seeing eggs in a new light.’


 

Tim Birkhead

My book The Most Perfect Thing is a journey to the centre of the egg, starting from the shell and working inwards to the genetic core and the site of fertilization (whose mode differs so strikingly from our own). My interest in eggs stems from studies of guillemots whose pyriform (or pear-shaped) egg has long fascinated and puzzled biologists and oologists alike.

Since 1972 I have visited Skomer Island off the coast of Wales, returning in the spring of each year, like the birds themselves. Long-term studies like this provide unique and privileged insights into a species’ biology, and this case, unique information on how we might protect species whose numbers are in decline. For the last few years (after the Welsh Government withdrew their support) I have been fighting for funding to keep the Skomer guillemot study going in perpetuity. There is more on my visits to Skomer in this video for the Guardian here.

At the age of 18 I dithered between art and science. After an interview at Leeds Art School in 1968 (think: flower power and hippies) and seeing a lot of long-haired would-be artists lolling languidly around, I opted for the more structured and dynamic life that science seemed to offer. It was the right decision: I love the rigour that scientific research demands. But I also love teaching undergraduates about science, about communicating science and the joy of engaging with nature. I despair of the way children are ‘educated’ at school today, and my style of undergraduate teaching is designed to help them break free from the tick-box pseudo-education that they’ve had imposed on them by flawed governments.

In the 1950s and 1960s school education was very different. Among other things, I was introduced to the wonderful poems of D. H. Lawrence, and relished those inspired by nature. His ‘aeons of weariness’ in the elephant’s eyes has remained with me ever since.

 

Towards the sun, towards the south-west
A scorched breast.
A scorched breast, breasting the sun like an answer,
Like a retort.
An eagle at the top of a low cedar-bush
On the sage-ash desert
Reflecting the scorch of the sun from his breast ;
Eagle, with the sickle dripping darkly above.
 
Erect, scorched-pallid out of the hair of the cedar,
Erect, with the god-thrust entering him from below,
Eagle gloved in feathers
In scorched white feathers
In burnt dark feathers
In feathers still fire-rusted ;
Sickle-overswept, sickle dripping over and above.
                                    (from ‘Eagle in New Mexico’ by D.H. Lawrence)

 

I have been fortunate to have won awards for my scientific research, undergraduate teaching, outreach activities and popular science writing.  I continue to engage with artists, writers, poets through New Networks for Nature, which, with three colleagues, I helped to establish in 2008: an association of individuals inspired by and concerned for, the natural world. A talk I gave for TED, ‘The Early Birdwatchers’, has been watched over a million times and can be viewed here, and a lecture I gave at the University of Sheffield, as well as a Q&A, can be listened to or downloaded here.

Tim Birkhead

About Tim Birkhead

Tim Birkhead, zoologist and ornithologist, is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Sheffield. His books include 'The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology', 'Bird Sense: What it Is Like to Be a Bird', and 'The Most Perfect Thing: the Inside (and Outside) of a Bird's Egg'.