The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lvies of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human
© 2015 Noah Strycker
One of the blessings of living in a semi-rural area like myself is the daily sightings of birds — and not just the neighborhood regulars like robins, sparrows, and cardinals, but sights as grand as great egrets and red-tailed hawks. But birds aren’t just beautiful, argues ornithologist and avid birder Noah Styrcker: studying them can inform our appreciation on emergent order, altrusim, and consciousness. The Thing With Feathers documents exceptional behavior in a variety of species (the nest-making of bowerbirds, say, or the apparent dread penguins have of the dark) and then lightly explore that topic, usually with an eye to connecting it to the human experience. The book combines nature writing and science, though it’s light-ish fare, and the human connections are sometimes a bit of a stretch, as in the chapter on hummingbirds. Styrker wraps up with the following reflection:
“Hummingbirds are slaves to speed, desperately fighting for control of calories, so single-minded that they don’t even partner up to raise a family. They apparently have an unusually high rate of heart attacks and ruptures, which is hardly surprising. Hummers blast through their billion heartbeats in one brilliantly intense rush, and when the engine shorts out, they fade just as quickly into aether, hardly leaving any trace to show that they ever existed at all. It seems like humans are speeding up—we strive for more gratification with fewer delays. Our fast-food culture isn’t a cliché; it’s a fact. And things are only accelerating. But do we really want to become hummingbirds?”
The avian content itself has much to offer. There’s been considered debate and many experiments done to see if vultures could smell, for instance; although the first round of testing indicated that they can’t (vultures would pitifully try to pick at drawings of dead animals and ignore actual ones which were covered with leaves), some species do — and they’re so reliable at sniffing that natural gas companies use them to locate pipeline leaks. Vultures are surprisingly picky about the animals they clean up, with a marked preference for herbivores; they’re also reluctant to eat anything that’s been decaying for more than three days. Less on the stinky side is the appraisal of how starlings can conduct such massive, coordinated ‘dances’ in the skies; emergent order never fails to fascinate me, so I was intrigued to learn that the pattern appears so long as the birds follow three tendencies (separation, cohesion, and alignment); at least, those are the rules employed by swarm models that replicate the behavior of starlings and similar birds.
If you have any interest in birds at all, by all means give The Thing with Feathers a looking-over; it explores a variety of bird behaviors and is an entertaining read all around.