Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Thing Witn Feathers: The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human

by Noah Strycker
Riverhead Books     2014
304 pages     Nonfiction

My father had a word for retired people—"birdwatchers." How would he have felt if he had met young Noah Strycker, birdwatcher extraordinaire. He really would have scratched his head. When I read Strycker's bio, which you can read here, I scratch my head as well. Strycker is not even 30 years old. The Wall Street Journal review says: "Although Mr. Strycker is only in his late 20s, he writes like a man who's ripened into advanced eccentricity." The Thing With Feathers is an incredible look at the bird kingdom, but more importantly, it tells how the characteristics of birds reveal things about humans that we wouldn't have expected. 

The Thing With Feathers is divided into three parts: body, mind, and spirit. In each of these sections, Strycker talks about how specific birds exemplify these three characteristics. He discusses pigeons, starlings, turkey vultures, snowy owls, hummingbirds, penguins, parrots, chickens, nutcrackers, magpies, bowerbirds, fairy wrens, and albatross. Strycker has observed all these birds in their natural habitats, and he then relates what he has learned about each species and how those characteristics relate to human characteristics.

For example, he discusses art and the bowerbird. This, by the way, was a new bird to me. The male bowerbird builds elaborate huts to attract females, gathering bits and pieces of human waste, like bits of plastic and other colorful objects, to make a truly artistic and romantic site. When the hut gets altered, such as if a human moves one or two of the pieces, the bowerbird doesn't rest until his "artistic" endeavor is restored to its full glory. Strycker then explores the idea of art and human expression. 

He does the same with the concepts of music and love. My favorite chapter concerns the albatross and monogamy.
I don't ever expect that I will see an albatross in my lifetime, but I was fascinated by their journey through life. They spend their adolescence alone on the high seas and don't mate until they are several years old, and then they mate for life, even though they spend a great deal of time away from their spouse. Albatrosses live to be very old, sometimes tending nests until they are in their 60s, but they stay with the same mate until one or the other of them dies. Strycker compares them with flamingos: "Flamingos, for instance, are terrible at keeping commitments, with a chart-topping divorce rate of 99 percent."

My family has had a bird feeder nearly all of my adult life, and birds have always been a fascination with me, although I cannot be considered a birder. I simply love to look out the window and see "my" birds. I have tried to keep track of the species that appear at our feeder, but frankly, I don't always remember their names. My husband, on the other hand, is always trying to figure out bird behavior, and he obsesses over trying to modify that behavior. For instance, he won't fill the feeder until the birds have eaten all the birdseed on the ground under the feeder. Never mind that most of the birds will never pick up seed on the ground. 

Sometimes, we are surprised by what we see. The other day, for instance, we saw a male cardinal feeding a female Brewer's blackbird. We have never seen a male Brewer's blackbird feeding a female, but we have seen lots of male cardinals feeding female cardinals. This was a wonderful observation. 

Quite frankly, my husband and I loved The Thing With Feathers.
We read it aloud to each other every morning, as we sat gazing out the window at our birds. Which characteristics were we watching? Were we seeing the same birds day in and day out? Would those blue jays ever eat the seeds on the ground? (The answer, of course, is no.) We can highly recommend this look at a world we knew very little about.

You might also enjoy Red Tails in Love by Marie Winn, about the Red Tail Hawks that nest in a high rise across the street from Central Park, New York. My sister texted me all excited because she saw those Red Tails about a month ago. Following that book review, there is a short item about my most amazing bird encounter. 

The Wall Street Journal Review.
Noah Strycker's website.

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