Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Thing With Feathers by Noah Strycker

Or, as the subtitle says, "The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human." This remarkable nonfiction book, reads like a poetic recounting of both biological and anthropological fact, woven as creative nonfiction. It's by Noah Strycker, who holds the World Record for birdwatching's "Big Year" - 6,042 species of birds in 2015, and wrote Among Penguins, about his time in Antarctica.

Strycker is 30 years old, and is a prime example of someone living their (possibly geeky/nerdy) dream life. He happens to really love bird-watching, and learning about animal behavior. As a result, he has traveled extensively around the globe, been on all seven continents, and made a living while writing for Birding Magazine (where he's an associate editor) and publishing surprisingly engaging nonfiction accounts of bird life and behavior. Having read great reviews in the newspaper, I snagged my copy in an airport bookshop while traveling, and was happy to have it as my companion.

The Thing With Feathers is divided into three main sections: "Body", "Mind", and "Spirit", each containing 4-5 chapters. The chapters aren't cumulative, but are stand-alone ideas, although there are obvious overlaps and inter-relationships as the book moves along. The very first chapter is about pigeons - specifically, racing pigeons, which manage to navigate distances really well and can often find their way home even when great lengths are taken to drop them someplace far away (and to confuse them about how they got there). Along the way during that chapter, Strycker relates stories of mammals (dogs and cats) who also found their ways long distances to return to their homes or families.

Here's a short excerpt from the chapter entitled "Hummingbird Wars: Implications of Flight in the Fast Lane":

  As anyone who feeds them knows, hummingbirds are not the least bit cuddly. Backyard birders are sometimes horrified to watch their hummers body-slamming, clawing, and tearing at one another in knockdown fits around the yard.
  "I thought they were just cute little interesting birds and had this sweet image of them in my mind," a concerned blogger once wrote. "It was a shock for me to witness such unexpected violence."
  A birder in Alabama has complained, "Sitting on my back porch is like sitting in a Lilliputian battle field with miniature helicopters humming overhead," while a gardener in Maine observed, "Everyone seems to love hummingbirds except other hummingbirds. One has to wonder why feeders have multiple perches. Their very nature keeps them at war with one another."
  The Aztecs, who knew a bit about violence, figured this out long ago and named a hummingbird as their god of war: Huitzilopochtli, roughly translated as the "hummingbird on the left," who demanded occasional human sacrifices to stave off the end of the world. He was usually depicted with a feathered head and was said to be so bright that soldiers could see him only by peering through the arrow slits in their shields. When Aztec warriors died in battle, they were believed to return to earth as hummingbirds.
As the book goes on, it becomes apparent that we humans have far more in common with birds than we might realize, and that our high opinions of our own intelligence may have nothing on that of these much-smaller species, who sometimes know things we cannot.

An excellent read if you are interested in animal (or human) behavior or birds or really well-done creative nonfiction. Also great for anyone who has their own particular interest and wonders whether it's worth pursuing that as a career - it sure looks that way for Noah Strycker, at any rate.

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