Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur (t) Hardcover – Apr 6 2010
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"Sy Montgomery does for birds what Jane Goodall did for apes. With an infectious sense of adventure, and a sense of awe and mystery, her stories change the way we look at even the most 'common' birds and instill in us a deep sense of gratitude that we are privileged to share this planet with such delightful creatures. Birdology is bound to become a classic." -- Stacey O'Brien, author of Wesley the Owl
"Spell-binding, absolutely compelling, and so beautifully expressed, Birdology tells stories that everyone should know. Nobody has ever gone so far into the minds of birds as Montgomery has. She completely conveys the life, the obsession, the fascination with birds in an intimate, personal, and engaging style. A magnificent achievement." -- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie about Love
"Sy Montgomery may be the best interpreter of animals of all time. With impeccable science and profound respect, Birdology describes the miracle of these apparently familiar beings. We take them for granted and that is our mistake. In fact, they are dinosaurs, still living on earth after two hundred and thirty five million years, with minds and abilities that often far surpass our own. One seldom finds a real page-turner as a source of important information, yet Birdology is all of that and more." -- Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Social Life of Dogs
"From the first greeting of her charming hens to her celebration of crows in all their smarts and wit, Sy Montgomery has me hooked. One cannot read this book without imagining birds as special people, with emotions and personalities and sometimes an intellect not all that different from our own." -- Dr. Don Kroodsma, author of The Singing Life of Birds
"Sy Montgomery has once again taken animal writing to another level of consciousness, compassion and understanding. Birdology is a brilliant, strikingly original, and beautifully written look into the fragile, rich story of birds, whose lives as more varied, endangered, individualistic, and powerful than dogs and cats. I've never read anything like this about birds. These stories will haunt and enrich you, and they remind us how important birds are to our history and ecosystem. And how much they need our attention." -- Jon Katz, author of A Dog Year and Katz on Dogs
"Sy Montgomery has the mind of a scientist and the fierceness of a raptor as she dives beneath the skin and deep into the bones of the avian world in Birdology. Brimming with insights about hidden bird abilities and the secrets of their behavior, the book is at its heart about the emotional bond between birds and people. Whether describing the gentle art of keeping hens or the bloodcurdling perils of falconry, Sy's writing dazzles like hummingbird feathers drenched in blazing sunshine." -- Bob Tarte, author of Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather
"One of America's pre-eminent writers on animals, the immensely talented Sy Montgomery leads us on a compelling journey of exploration into the very depths of what makes a bird a bird. With wit, compassion, and a cornucopia of fascinating facts, she delves into the lives and sensibilities of seven types of birds, tracing our relationship to them throughout evolution and human history. From hawks to hummingbirds and crows to cassowaries, Sy highlights bird language, individuality, homing and hunting abilities, and relationship to dinosaurs in a manner that not only reveals her deep love for birds, but also her inner quest to understand all living things. With this book, birders, animal-lovers, or anyone with a with a mild curiosity about birds, will gain a new-found respect and appreciation for the essence of these avian marvels." -- Don and Lillian Stokes, authors of Stokes Field Guide to Birds
"There could be no better guide to the wonder of birds than Sy Montgomery. Her empathy with wild things is as real as it is rare; yet she seems to like the people who study, care for, and work with birds just as much. This is a book about intense connections between people and birds. Montgomery unlocks some of the secret of how and what birds may be thinking. Read it, and you will never look at a parrot, chicken, hawk or pigeon in quite the same way again." -- Julie Zickefoose, NPR commentator; author of Letters from Eden
"Montgomery weaves a delightful, insightful story of the unusual lives of familiar birds to show us that they are personable, fun, annoying, lovable, and awesome and do indeed, strike into our very souls. Her tales are an astonishing, wide-ranging blend of science, art, humor, understanding, and love, and a must read for all animal lovers. Montgomery captures not only the incredible and astonishing variety of bird behavior and intelligence, but the essence of the very soul of birds." -- Joanna Burger, Distinguished Professor of Biology, and author of The Parrot Who Owns Me
"This is my favorite kind of book: charming, witty, and wise, idiosyncratic and inspiring. And Birdology is Sy Montgomery at her very best. Not a catalog, list, or inventory, Birdology is more like a novel, a confession, or an engaging memoir of life lived with soul and wings. I love this book." -- Dale Peterson, author of Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man and Elephant Reflections
About the Author
Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, documentary scriptwriter, and author of twenty acclaimed books of nonfiction for adults and children, including the memoir The Good Good Pig, a New York Times bestseller. The recipient of numerous honors, including lifetime achievement awards from the Humane Society and the New England Booksellers Association, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, border collie, and flock of chickens.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Birdology isn't a natural history of birds or observations of them in the wild. Ironically, most of the birds Montgomery meets live in captivity of some sort, from her chickens (the "Ladies") to hawks used for falconry (only the cassowaries were truly wild birds). In fact, each chapter seems to focus both on a different species of bird and a person who knows it well, such as a pigeon racer or hummingbird vet.
I had mixed feelings about this. Obviously, birds are at their fullest in the wild, and that's where it would really be great to see them. At times, Birdology feels a bit too much like a book about "people and their birds." On the other hand, focusing on these particular birds allows Montgomery to really get to know them well and provide detailed observations. For example, after years of watching her hens in her backyard, she has noticed that certain personality traits are passed from one generation to the next - what we would call culture. Chicken culture - imagine that!
While Montgomery loves her birds, she resists the temptation to anthropomorphize them. In fact, the best parts of Birdology discuss how birds are different from humans in ways we don't yet fully appreciate. Many birds still have strong instinctual impulses, from the gull chicks who incessantly peck at red objects to the overwhelming urge birds of prey have to hunt (known as "yarak"). She also suggests Alex, the famous African Grey Parrot, had trouble learning some colors because parrot vision recognizes a broader spectrum of colors than does our own.
I do wish Montgomery had chosen more birds to profile, especially when the goal of her book is to give readers some sense of what it means to be a bird. Some of the stories of the more familiar birds have been told in different forms elsewhere. For example, the discussion of Alex the Parrot is also the subject of Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Others birds, such as pigeons and crows, are fascinating if not exotic. It would have been nice for example to have had a chapter on penguins, a very different type of bird, or the great wandering albatrosses (the subject of Carl Safina's wonderful Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival). There are so many types of birds - over 10,000 species - so it's impossible to cover them all, but I definitely felt there was room in the book for a few more.
Reading Birdology, one gets the feeling that it would be really fun to just be Sy Montgomery. Some of the relationships she's had with birds are truly magical. She doesn't just describe the birds, but also tries to share how it felt emotionally to be in the presence of such wonderful animals. I thought it fascinating for example to hear her describe the hawk as master and the human handling it as the servant. For those of us who haven't been able to spend much time with birds, Birdology conveys that sense of wonder.
Note: If you want a straight up natural history of birds, I might suggest David Attenborough's The Life of Birds or Colin Tudge's The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live. The latter is a bit dry, but comprehensive.
"Not much gets past a pigeon. They notice details that humans miss: one study found that pigeons could learn to recognize the difference between the painting style of Manet and that of Monet faster than many college students. At one time, the U.S. Coast Guard trained pigeons in helicopters to spot orange life vests at sea; they outperformed human spotters three to one." One wonders why they are no longer used but Montgomery doesn't go into this.
She has a lot of territory to cover. Beginning with her own 20-year flock of chickens, Montgomery celebrates birds - their individuality, biology, and abilities. She opens each chapter with specifics - the people involved and the birds they are involved with - then ranges into the science surrounding the species, exploring their specialized anatomy and the many behavior studies.
Enraptured by her free-ranging chickens, affectionate hens who exhibit individual personalities, she intertwines an intriguing account of their lives and habits with results of studies on chicken communication and rooster behavior. But things change when a new flock of chickens takes up residence beside her own. "Everything the Rangers do is writ large. My hens are gentle, subtle; they are Ladies. The Rangers are drama queens." Observation drives her to the stunning conclusion that chicken culture is passed down through generations in one flock "of unrelated chickens of different breeds."
Covered with persistent leeches, torn by thorns, Montgomery bleeds and sweats through the rainforests of Australia in search of the big, flightless, elusive cassowary. Genetically alien to us, birds are descendants of dinosaurs and the ancient cassowary is the best exemplar.
At the opposite extreme are the tiny, dynamic hummingbirds. Montgomery visits a woman who raises and frees orphaned hummingbirds near San Francisco (which has 400 species!). Designed for flight, birds are almost more air than substance, and hummingbirds take this biology as far as it can go. Almost two weeks old, two baby siblings "weigh less than a bigger bird's single flight feather." If they survive they will be able to "hover, fly backward, even fly upside down." Some hummingbirds can dive at more than 60 miles per hour.
Montgomery feeds us marvels of hummingbirds while the birds are fed every twenty minutes, without fail, all day long (everyone gets to sleep through the night). Though starvation is never far away, fledging is even more terrifying as there is nothing a hummingbird hates more than another hummingbird, and that includes any hapless fledglings not their own.
Then Montgomery learns falconry, a fraught experience for a dedicated vegetarian and animal lover, but the thrill of the hunt opens new vistas. "A raptor's vision is the sharpest of all living creatures," she tells us. An eagle at 1,000 feet can spot prey across three square miles. Flight demands such quick comprehension that, because of specialized brain circuitry "birds capture at a glance what it might take a human many seconds to apprehend." "Raptors see in such fine detail that humans need microscopes to begin to imagine it."
Birds are also thought to see colors we cannot even describe. At Irene Pepperberg's lab (famous for Alex, the African grey of Alex and Me) Montgomery sits in on a training session. Asked to name the color of various objects, the young subject bird seems annoyed and frustrated. On a hunch, one of the experimenters paints all his orange toys the same color orange and the frustration disappears.
For her birthday Montgomery went dancing with Snowball, made famous from a You-Tube video (if you haven't seen it, do). Snowball lives in a rescue home with a lot of other parrots because he fell in love with his previous owner's daughter and was violently offended when she left him and went away to college.
The crows wind things up. Smart toolmakers and users, crows are less beloved for their urban winter roosting habits. In Auburn, NY, the winter population is 28,000 people, 50,000 crows. And they prefer downtown. Why is a matter of some speculation - warmth from the asphalt and concrete, perhaps, or the excellent dumpster dining, or the bright lights that make predators visible. Montgomery visits the place when the city fathers decide to rid themselves of the crows once and for all.
Montgomery's stories are funny, sad, poignant and fascinating. Her writing is engaging and she shares vast swaths of the latest research. Which brings up my only complaint. I would have liked some chapter notes.
There is an index and a useful chapter-by-chapter bibliography, but notes referencing specific studies would have been handy. I would have liked to know more about the Monet-discerning pigeons, for example. Particularly as Montgomery more than once notes the conflicting results of bird studies (i.e., the amazing mechanics of migration).
However, this minor quibble in no way diminishes the pleasure of the read. I defy anyone to read this book and look at pigeons, crows, or even hummingbirds, those tiniest dinosaurs, in quite the same way again.
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