Professor Tim Birkhead on our screens with David Attenborough

Tim and David

Zoology professor and inspirational teacher, Professor Tim Birkhead, will appear in a new nature documentary with Sir David Attenborough this weekend (Saturday 31 March 2018).

Professor Tim Birkhead, who has studied seabirds for more than 45 years, will feature on the ninth episode of the BBC’s Natural World series at 8pm.

The show explores how eggs are made, why they are the shape they are, and why eggs are used in reproduction despite millions of years of evolution. It follows the story of how the egg is made, fertilised, and how the chick develops and hatches.

Professor Birkhead, a Fellow of the Royal Society who has been a much-loved lecturer and researcher at our University since 1976, said: “A bird's egg is an external, free-standing incubation system.

“It works for birds breeding at the poles and on the equator; for birds incubating on wet, soggy nests and birds breeding in arid deserts and at different altitudes.

It was a real privilege to work with him.

PROFESSOR TIM BIRKHEAD

“A miracle indeed.”

The programme will also reveal how important the eggs that lie in our museums are and how they act as extraordinary repositories of data.

Professor Birkhead, added: “They have provided unequivocal evidence of the negative effects of pesticides, but also the effects of acid rain. It is almost certain egg collections will also help us understand environmental issues that we have not yet even imagined.”

A particular focus of the show is the shape of a bird’s egg and its pyriform (pointed) shape. The team use the guillemot as an example - the species that has been studied by Professor Birkhead for more than 45 years on Skomer Island in Wales where part of the programme was shot.

Along with his colleagues, Professor Birkhead has discovered that neither of the traditional explanations as to why a bird’s egg is pointed is correct. Professor Birkhead and his team have instead suggested that the pointed shape helps to keep the large end of the egg where the chick's head lies free from dirt on the often very dirty ledges on which guillemots breed.

Tim Birkhead and David Attenborough

During the programme Professor Birkhead and Sir David reveal a surprising discovery about the evolution of the great auk - a flightless species of bird that became extinct in the mid-19th century.

"A major surprise was the results from our micro-CT (effectively a mini-X-ray) scanning of the great auk eggs," said Professor Birkhead.

"We compared the ultrastructure of the great auk eggshell with that of two other closely related species: the guillemot and the razorbill. On the basis of the egg shape and how great auks bred, their eggshell ultrastructure ought to be more like that of a guillemot, but they turned out to be more similar to the razorbill, suggesting that in fact they may have bred more like razorbills - spaced out - than guillemots, packed together. "

Professor Birkhead said his experience of working with Sir David was extraordinary. He said: “It was a real privilege to work with him.”

He added “He was charming, knowledgeable and above all, modest. The fact that in an earlier interview (in BBC-Wildlife) he referred to my book The Most Perfect Thing — on which the programme is based — as 'magnificent' is the greatest praise a zoologist could ever hope for.”

Professor Birkhead is currently fundraising to secure the long-term study of guillemots on Skomer Island. Along with his team, Professor Birkhead has been monitoring the birds for more than 45 years and hopes to prolong the study for up to another 15 years.

Donations can be made to the fundraiser here.

What inspires me?

Professor Tim Birkhead speaks about what has inspired him over his 45 year career. You can find more videos from inspirational colleagues via the Kaltura Media Hub in MUSE. We will feature more videos from colleagues on the staff pages in future, if you have made a video for Kaltura, or have seen one that you think is interesting, please email internalcommunications@sheffield.ac.uk.