Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Thing with Feathers: A Bird Book Review by Laurence Butler

Only last month a very intriguing book hit the market. The Thing with Feathers, enjoyably written by renowned ABA contributor, birding guru, and ecology expert Noah Strycker, hit the market (Amazon retail $20) with relatively little fanfare (what bird-centerred book doesn't, except To Kill a Mockingbird? We birders are a quiet lot.but with a bold, even discomforting mission: to examine, "The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human."

I found the overall structure of the book to be delightful, both easy to read while simultaneously stimulating and intellectually provocative. It is neither field guide, biology manual, nor simply a birding memoir or novella, and as such it occupies a more unique niche within the world of bird literature. It is, as one might guess, centered on the birdies, but it is also very accessible to muggles (non-birders) and many of the superlative bird characteristics will impress the neutral reader in their own right. They might even prompt him or her to start scanning the tree tops.
Mr. Strycker skillfully blends aspects of statistics, philosophy, the fine arts, and plenty of fascinating bird behaviors with his own personal anecdotes. The compilation of essays examine different remarkable, one might even say extreme behaviors of birds and their similarities to human behaviors, even behaviors once thought unique to people. These examinations run the gamut between existential wondering, love, dancing, and social hierarchies. They in turn prompt questions about natural selection and the development of these behaviors in the various respective species. I should mention right away though that this is no apologia for birds as being equals of human in sentience or emotion.
It is not a series of stances, but intriguing observations and postulations backed up with well-managed data and enjoyably communicated reasoning.

The first sense Mr. Strycker addresses is navigation, or homing, examining Pigeons and Shearwaters as some of the foremost and well known demonstrators of this uncanny skill. Even when removed thousands of miles form their homes, the birds can use magnetism, landmarks, the stars, polarized light, and even smell--physical senses that are not really accessible, or even relatable, to humans (for that matter, so is self-propelled flight) to find their way home.
In conjunction with these impressive navigational abilities, Strycker also examines the wanderlust of Snowy Owls, progenitors of a peregrinating complex much more complicated than a simple economic relationship to the population of arctic lemmings. Snowies have been all the rage these last two winters, but revealing data has shown that most of the vagrant birds captured are in very good health and have expanded their normal diet to include fish, birds, and other mammals (and whatever that bird in Hawaii was eating), and may be moving more so to find new territory and space farther south than to simply forage. This certainly is encouraging news to one such as myself, who has not been able to enjoy the Snowy irruptions yet.
Resilient people have their reasons for moving from place to place, and in the case of Snowies, this may be an essential trait developed in a capricious and merciless arctic environment.

Female Snowy Owl, courtesy of Wikipedia

While the rugged and relatable individualism of the wandering Snowy Owls has a clear 'wow' factor, Strycker also elaborates on some fascinating group dynamics seen in the bird world. And as much as we humans like to think of ourselves as unique, independent individuals, we must also conceded that a major portion of our existence is spent both seeking and trying to cooperate with human communities.

Strycker also discusses the fascinating studies behind massive and mesmerizing flocks of European Starling, the emergent, spontaneous order (or, as he concludes, not quite so spontaneous) that allows millions of birds to fly in such close proximity without colliding amid constant changes of direction and velocity. The Starlings, like Pigeons examined before and people too, are able to comprehend and orient themselves in relation to seven other bodies. Doing this while abiding by the other physical rules of their self-propulsion is something that is mathematically replicable, as it turns out, but no less beautiful. A big, floating, natural, free market or something...

Strycker's examination of chicken coup pecking-orders, a brutish reality of a social structure that's still better than all of its alternatives, and the much more amiable, cooperative nesting of Australian Fairy Wrens are equally well-researched and fascinating reads, be it from the statistician, naturalist, or trivial pursuit sort of perspective. 
The Fairy Wren section featured a very enjoyable discussion of the infamous economic "prisoner's dilemma" and the social merits of being abusive vs. charitable as a method for long term species survival. In the end, charity and cooperation seem to win out, especially if one can find somebody else to help take care of one's kids.

At the other end of the social spectrum, life is nasty, brutish, and often short for Hummingbirds, in large part because they live life on the edge, and not just in a catchy, take a long weekend and don't wear sunscreen kind of living life on the edge. No, their heart rates and metabolisms, when active, just as when sleeping, leave them so continually near death's doorstep such that if they stopped moving for more than a few minutes, they might just disappear altogether.

There are plenty of other enjoyable essays as well. The examination of fear in penguins, both learned and instinctual, will no doubt be a favorite of many readers, as may the investigation of resonating music with dancing parrots and other birds--a realm of boogying long thought reserved for only the most dignified of primates and bipeds. 
My personal favorite section involved the examination of self-consciousness (in the simple, literal sense of the word) with Magpies and their many other proofs of cleverness, including vocal mimicry as a seeming prerequisite in animals for self-realization and luring cats into oncoming traffic.  

A criminal mastermind, courtesy of wikipedia

Some of the essays, especially towards the end of the book, do not really follow through with the "what they reveal about being human" angle of the title. This does not make them any less fascinating to read, but the conclusions or applications of the exceedingly interesting studies are sometimes, by comparison, a bit mild or obvious. 
Consistently applying a myriad of different birds behaviors to human behaviors would always be the biggest challenge, especially because while not every reader has informed opinions about bird behaviors and their implications, we certainly all have opinions about our own. 
It must also be said that Strycker is very careful and considerate in his reasonings, trying to include as many possibilities or causes with behaviors, especially regarding natural selection, as can be manageably discussed.

With so many different topics addressed, it's almost inevitable that readers will take umbrage with some conclusion or evaluation at some point in the book, especially because birders, sociologists, scientists, and others who may be most interested in this read tend to be an eccentrically informed and opinionated bunch. In my opinion is all the more reason to give it a go since Strycker's arguments, even if contrary, are still informative and, at the very least, educational. 
My personal quibble came during his examination of the industrious Bowerbirds and the similarities between their creations, which are orchestrated for finding mates, and human fine art...which may well often be orchestrated for finding mates. 
To...err hem...illustrate the point, Strycker muses, "...then who are we to judge what is art and what isn't? It's just too hard, and probably hypocritical, to limit art to people...If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then art, by definition, is in the intention of its maker."
I'd quibble that the pleasure we get when enjoying a work of art comes from it being, by some general estimation, beautiful, but there is more to a work of art than that. We can call many things beautiful, like a car or a table or a pair of binoculars can be beautiful because they are well and skillfully made. This craftsmanship is one factor that enters into the estimation of a thing's beauty. We derive pleasure from recognizing the craft, and also purely from beholding it, from its aesthetic. However, a poorly made car, table, or pair of binoculars would not register with us as beautiful, both because it lacks craft and because we may additionally find it aesthetically unappealing. There should be a certain accounting for taste, of course, but also a recognition of the know-how, the skill and complexity involved in a work of art. The more we know about the difficulty and complexity of an art, the more we can judge it and appreciate it, it has an expanded capacity to be beautiful to be great, to be fine, and we judge it by its fulfillment of this capacity. As such, I'd say people can actually and with a fair amount of objectivity judge what is art and what is good art.
Intending something to be art does not make it art; it makes it an attempt at art.

Now perhaps what I enjoyed most about Strycker's book was it made me revisit and ponder many different enjoyable things--game theory, behavioralism, Aristotle, art--and while I did not always agree with his premises when the conversation turned farther away from birds, they still provoked a response, which is a high testament to the quality and interest in the stories. This is a book that, at times, may be disagreeable--though it is predominantly fascinating and a joy to read--but that is no way deters the reader from continuing. 
For its exciting story telling, careful and continually intriguing philosophical musings, and thorough attachment to the amazing and under-publicized abilities of birds, I highly recommend Noah Strycker's
The Thing with Feathers as a work of behavioral and social studies, as well as fun bird stories.  

1 comment:

  1. Excellent in-depth review of of The Thing with Feathers, Laurence! It sounds quite interesting. Thanks for sharing.