Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Birdbrain is a compliment

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds

"In medieval times, biblical scholars imagined that Hell was a place with no birds." This statement occurs near the end of the book, but could serve as an introduction. This is a book about birds for those of us that simply like to watch birds and learn about birds: 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, by Sy Montgomery.

There are a number of ways of looking at birds. Sometimes, we only notice them when a flock of them makes an obvious spectacle, like this flight of shorebirds. Some have a pet bird, a parakeet, canary, macaw, or mynah. Many more of us know someone who has a bird. A friend I had years ago had a parrot that would always call out "Goodbye!" as you were leaving the home.

At a bird of prey show at a place such as Sea World, you might come nose-to-beak with a hawk, and see things, if only for an instant, from the prey's point of view. In such a moment there is no doubt that the bird in no way considers you superior; quite the contrary (I'd be fascinated to learn how the photographer for Wallpapers Crunch got this picture; if indeed it isn't a painting).

The seven parts of the book's subtitle correspond to its seven chapters, though in a different order. Each chapter is an extended essay and memoir of the author's explorations of different aspects of birdhood. Ms Montgomery empathizes with the birds to the point that, though she is a vegetarian, learning how to train a falcon and send it to hunt, she experiences the joy of its bloodlust in the kill. Tracking cassowaries in Australia, she must imagine herself as a living dinosaur, calming her impatience until one of the birds, larger and heavier than she is and as dangerous as a Velociraptor, deigns to wander into her presence to scarf up a piece of fruit.

In every chapter we learn more of the smarts and cleverness of birds. In a chapter on Snowball the dancing cockatiel and Alex the speaking parrot, we learn that their level of feeling and understanding rivals our own. Imagine rocking to your favorite tune, and seeing a robin-sized bird rocking right along with you, even leading at times. Consider trying to ignore a gray parrot who asks, "Want a nut?", "Want corn?", and finally, in exasperation, "Well, what do you want?" Can there be any question that Alex understood when spoken to, and knew what he was saying? Both dancing and speaking are unknown among nonhuman primates, and mammals in general.

This shows that these activities, once thought to be exclusively human, are not restricted to large brains, but are expressed when certain brain functions exist, regardless of size. Rhythm is common to language and to music, and birds have rhythm in a way very few mammals can rival. Also, birds have grammar. Utterances in a different order have different meanings, just as "Run, Sid!" means something quite different from "Sid? Run!"

Some of the most touching scenes are in the chapter on raising orphaned hummingbird babies. A half grown Allen's hummingbird may be 3-4 cm long and weigh but one gram. A mammal that size would weigh 5-7 grams. The bird is mostly air; as the chapter subtitle has it, "Birds are made of air". Half of that gram is feathers, and the body, including all the larger bones, is filled with air sacs that extend the capacity of the lungs and add structure without adding weight. You can kill a hummingbird by trying to pet it. Imagine spending a few weeks feeding this tiny feather puff with a catheter, every twenty minutes. Even sitting still, the baby burns through food so fast that it will die in a few hours if unfed. Yet when grown—now weighing three grams—the adult bird will fiercely defend all the flowers in its territory from rivals. Hummingbirds can be remarkably mean.

Time and again, the author makes it clear that birds are really quite alien to our understanding. One minute you think you and a bird are on the same wavelength. Then you realize that hour thoughts and its thoughts are as different as can be. Alex is just one of many birds that learned to use human language expressively. How many humans have learned to speak a bird language? Birds began speaking their own languages millions of years before there were humans.

The last common ancestor of birds and mammals lived more than 300 million years ago. The two lineages have developed quite differently, and you could say that the birds succeeded better. Bird species outnumber mammal species about 2.5 to one. Were it not for a single omnivorous primate species, birds would be clearly dominant. We worry that, if we blow ourselves up, perhaps the cockroaches will take over. I doubt it. Birds eat cockroaches. The most likely successor species to ours is the crow.

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