Who among us has never envied a bird in flight? Our mysterious neighbors, many of them so well adapted to urban life, are a subject of endless fascination.
Noah Strycker’s book, The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human, is a delightful read, chock full of fascinating historical, scientific, and personal observations about our feathered friends.
A bird lover from childhood, Strycker shares his sense of wonder and dedication to learning about birds of all types and origins in this lyrical and well-written book. Easy to read, The Thing With Feathers will fill you with admiration and inspire you, the reader, to raise your appreciation for large and small winged creatures, some of whom may inhabit your back yard. From the repulsively mesmerizing visual and olfactory abilities of turkey vultures (who have cast iron immune systems) to the violently competitive and over-stressed hummingbirds, from the astounding navigation skills of homing pigeons, to the friendly curiosity of penguins, Strycker does not cease to fascinate.
Having observed over 2,500 species, the author has spent months at a time watching birds in a variety of remote locations, including the Ecuadorian Amazon, Cape Crozier, Antarctica, the Australian outback, the jungles of Costa Rica and Panama, the Galápagos Islands, and more. Each chapter of the book is devoted to a different type of bird, whether it be a parrot or snowy owl, detailing the author’s personal experiences with these creatures while demonstrating an impressive array of scientific research illustrating the prowess of each of these avian wonders.
To share with you just a small sample of this tribute to the native intelligence and personality of these birds and how this information is relevant to the nearly naked, or at least featherless bipedals that we are, here is a short excerpt from the introduction of this captivating book:
“Some bird behaviors don’t apply to humans, and those are especially fascinating and exotic: a ‘sixth’ magnetic sense (see ‘Fly Away Home: How Pigeons Get Around’), flocks that operate as magnets (see ‘Spontaneous Order: The Curious Magnetism of Starling Flocks’), and the smelling power of turkey vultures (see ‘The Buzzard’s Nostrils: Sniffing Out a Turkey Vulture’s Talents’). It’s hard to imagine having such super-powers, though birds sometimes inspire us to try.
But if you look closely enough, many seemingly incredible bird feats have human counterparts, with interesting lessons. Cooperative nesting in fairy-wrens (see ‘Fairy Helpers: When Cooperation is Just a Game’) helps illustrate why humans are usually nice to one another. The dazzling speed of hummingbirds (see ‘Hummingbird Wars: Implications of Flight in the Fast Lane’) serves as a warning about our own quickening pace of life. Snowy Owls (see ‘Snow Flurries: Owls, Invasions, and Wanderlust’) confirm that not all who wander are lost. Even the domestic chicken (see ‘Seeing Red: When the Pecking Order Breaks Down’) has something to teach us about the natural pecking order.”
The Thing With Feathers is full of humor, sensitive observations, scientific data, and a compelling vision of birds as intelligent and emotional beings with distinctive individual personalities as well as an amazingly varied capacity for survival. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each page of this lighthearted yet serious book.
DCPL has two other fascinating books related to the topic of little known aspects of animal or plant intelligence, and how this relates to us as humans:
- The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among Primates by Frans de Waal, 2013. “Is human nature a beast that needs to be tamed? Should we throw out Darwinism in our social and political lives? Or are we naturally altruistic, empathetic and moral?” Click here to read the full review of The Bonobo and the Atheist by Tessa Kendall in The Guardian.
- The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, 1973, reprinted 1989, described as “a fascinating account of the physical, emotional, and spiritual relations between plants and man.” Click here to watch an eponymous documentary film written by Tompkins and Bird with an original soundtrack recorded by Stevie Wonder.
Images above, from top: A murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows, parliament of owls