Nest: The Art of Birds.

NEST: THE ART OF BIRDS
By Janine Burke
Allen & Unwin, $32.99

THERE'S a reason we dream of flying when we sleep. We're seduced by the illusory freedom of birds; their ability to duck and dive and soar when the mood takes them, chasing summer from the northernmost points of Europe to the southernmost tip of Africa, carried by slipstreams and thermal currents while the earth blurs below their outspread wings.

Generations of poets, scholars, artists and even aeronautical engineers have marvelled at the way our feathered friends go about their lives in the sky, and while hang-gliding enthusiasts perhaps come closest to the sensation of how it feels to float upon the breeze, it's not the same thing to momentarily linger beside a soaring wedge-tailed eagle as it is to soar yourself.

Yet flight, perhaps unusually, is not the focus of Janine Burke's elegant and unexpectedly engrossing journey through the lives of birds in Nest. Instead, her inquiry delves into the homes they build, a task that takes her from the Aladdin's Cave of the great satin bowerbird (Apollo Bay) to the suspended multi-level apartment blocks of the sociable weaver (Kalahari Desert), and from the clever resourcefulness of the mudlark's nest (Elwood) to the softly cushioned depths of a cheeky willy wagtail's home. At the Melbourne Museum, Burke holds a series of nests in her hands and marvels at their labels: where and when they were collected, and by whom. She likens the striped honey-eater's nest to ''an exotic purse worthy of an empress, stitched by a surrealist seamstress''.

The question at the heart of her wanderings is whether the nest could be considered a work of art - a prickly question for an art historian, perhaps, but one many of us would answer with an unhesitating yes. She leads us through galleries to see the work of artists and sculptors who incorporate birdsong, nests and even live finches into their work and we're left, as she is, all the more admiring of the lorikeets in our backyard gumtrees. Not for them the safety of a studio roof, protection from predators and the elements and the advantage of working with hands rather than beaks. What makes a work of art, she asks, or even an artist: must art have a price tag attached, be displayed in a gallery or conceived by a

so-called higher intelligence? Thankfully, Burke is far less interested in finite answers than the myriad avenues of thought her question leads her down: do birds understand beauty? Does the female bowerbird, who meanders between brilliantly adorned boudoirs to choose her mate, fall for the male with the fanciest design flair? Is she nature's first art connoisseur, whose very survival depends on aesthetic innovation?

These enchanting philosophical possibilities take Burke from animal architecture to evolutionary theory, from Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins and from Virginia Woolf to contemplative bush walks along the Great Ocean Road. We delve into the lives of John and Elizabeth Gould, the naturalist and artist behind the seminal Birds of Australia. We waltz from the verses of Emily Dickinson to Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth. We watch finches flit around Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art, giggle at Burke's noisy ''neighbours'', a pair of mynas nesting in the air vent in her study, and chase ravens from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allan Poe.

In the process, Burke follows an artful pattern of her own; each chapter begins with a humble rumination that gradually builds into a broader contemplation: how, when animals once figured in literature and poetry as evocative, illuminating metaphors for their human counterparts, did they lose their revered place in our collective imaginations? Have cultural shifts led to a disbelief in the abilities and intelligence of animals, and at what cost? Will the pivotal role birds once played in indigenous notions of spirituality, cosmology and kinship simply fade and disappear?

Nest, Burke writes, is a word that ''conjures fundamental notions of home, family, privacy, shelter and rest''. Her book alights intelligently and compassionately on each of these ideas, and between its pages the reader is given pause to gaze up at the sky and marvel at the pelicans or sparrows flying overhead.