Bird book full of fun, feath­ery facts

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gene Walz

NOAH Strycker never men­tions that the ti­tle of his won­der­ful new book comes from the Emily Dickinson poem Hope Is the Thing With Feath­ers. If you’re un­fa­mil­iar with the full po­etic phrase, the ti­tle might seem ba­nal or plainly mis­lead­ing, but it doesn’t take long for the au­thor to cor­rect any im­pres­sion that birds are just dis­re­gard­able, feath­ery things. Rather, Stryker’s point is that birds are mar­vel­lous crea­tures with in­trigu­ing in­tel­lec­tual, emo­tional, and even artis­tic qual­i­ties and habits. In fact, as the sub­ti­tle notes, the book is full of sur­pris­ing, even star­tling, in­for­ma­tion about bird be­hav­iour. Amaz­ingly, birds share quite a few traits with hu­mans, and Strycker man­ages to re­late these qual­i­ties to many cur­rent de­vel­op­ments. Strycker is the au­thor of Among Pen­guins, an in­for­ma­tive, colourful and per­sonal tale of three months spent in Antarc­tica study­ing Adélie pen­guins; it’s far bet­ter than the pop­u­lar March of the Pen­guins movie. He’s an or­nitho­log­i­cal sci­en­tist, but also an edi­tor of Bird­ing mag­a­zine, a gifted pho­tog­ra­pher, an in-de­mand bird guide and a self-con­fessed “bird nerd.” Writ­ten in a per­sonal, breezy style, The Thing with Feath­ers never makes you feel as if you’re be­ing blud­geoned to death with im­pen­e­tra­ble sci­en­tific data or smoth­ered with bird-nerd anec­dotes. Eas­ily un­der­stand­able dis­cus­sions of “stereo­scopic tri­an­gu­la­tion,” cog­ni­tive lim­i­ta­tion, neu­ro­science, al­tru­ism, game the­ory, the fight-or-flight in­stinct, mem­ory palaces and the def­i­ni­tion of art find their way into these 13 chap­ters. The book is wide-rang­ing in its cov­er­age. Among other things, Strycker ex­plores the hom­ing abil­i­ties of pi­geons, the cu­ri­ous mur­mu­ra­tions of star­lings (in which hun­dreds of birds fly in stun­ningly ab­stract for­ma­tions and never bang into one an­other), the wan­der­lust of snowy owls, the orner­i­ness of hum­ming­birds, the mu­si­cal­ity of par­rots, so­cial hi­er­ar­chy in chick­ens, self-aware­ness in mag­pies, co-oper­a­tion among fairy wrens and the artistry of bower­birds. It’s prob­a­bly best to read this book alone, away from the com­pany of oth­ers, other­wise you will make a pest of yourself, in­ter­rupt­ing what­ever they are do­ing to re­count some fas­ci­nat­ing bit of pro­found or triv­ial bird lore. For in­stance: Did you know Mozart kept a pet star­ling, which he taught to mem­o­rize parts of his songs? (When it died, he buried it in his back­yard and wrote a com­mem­o­ra­tive poem about it.) Did you know a Clark’s Nutcracker (a Rocky Moun­tain bird named af­ter the Clark of the Lewis and Clark ex­pe­di­tion) can re­mem­ber each one of the 5,000 caches in which it has buried the pine seeds it needs to sur­vive the win­ter? Or that only three per cent of birds are monog­a­mous? (The tiny Salt­marsh Spar­row is the most pro­mis­cu­ous.) Or that, among the most faith­ful, are the al­ba­trosses that can put count­less kilo­me­tres on their two-me­tre wings ev­ery year and still re­turn to the same place to mate with the same part­ner? If you do read the book alone, how­ever, you will likely keep re­fer­ring to the In­ter­net or YouTube to find ex­am­ples of the be­hav­iour be­ing de­scribed, de­spite the fact The Thing With Feath­ers is so ef­fort­lessly writ­ten it’s hard to put down. For bird lovers this is a must-read. If you’re not in­ter­ested in birds, you will be once you read this book. Even the book’s notes and sources en­tries are well worth read­ing. Gene Walz helped put to­gether the books The Birds of Man­i­toba and Find­ing Birds in

South­ern Man­i­toba.

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