Book Review: Birdology, by Sy Montgomery

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
October 15, 2010
Book Review: Birdology, by Sy Montgomery
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Don’t be put off by what may seem to be a silly title (there is really a reason for it) or a cover showing four nervous chickens and a subtitle that includes the phrase “Hip-hop Parrots.” Birdology is an original, even brilliant, account of seven species of birds—their fundamental strangeness and their strange familiarity. Each species, whether seemingly mundane like a chicken or a pigeon, exotic like a hummingbird, or alien as a cassowary, symbolizes an essential quality of birds. For instance, the cassowary shows without a shadow of a doubt that (all) “birds are dinosaurs.” Hummingbirds demonstrate that birds, with their hollow bones and air sacks, “are made of air.” Improbably, her flock of chickens demonstrates that “birds are individuals.” The author also covers birds of prey, their raptorial fierceness; pigeons and their mysterious senses; the uncanny ability of parrots to communicate real “ideas”; and the adaptation of crows to the urban landscape.

Perhaps the most amazing chapter is the one in which this lifelong vegetarian (albeit an intrepid world traveler, who trekked through Mongolia and once lived on a houseboat in the Sunderbands, where man-eating tigers often come aboard) goes to falconry school and flies a hawk. It’s also a bravura piece of writing. “At that moment there is no room in my soul for the quail’s pain and fear. I am flooded with the hawk’s elation…I have never felt this before yet it feels as familiar as my own skin…I have no desire to hurt that quail—but I realize that I want, more than anything, for this hawk to catch it.”

I am known for my fascination with raptors, so let me say that I have learned something from every chapter in this book: that I would not have the patience to succeed in raising baby hummingbirds, feeding them a puree of fruit flies every 20 minutes from before dawn until after dusk; that parrots are intelligent enough to act like bratty children—the famous African Grey Parrot, Alex, after deliberately giving the wrong answer several times to a number question, was given a time out, only to yell from behind a closed door, “Two…I’m sorry…come here!”

Michael McCarthy demonstrates the importance of birds and documents their decline; Sy Montgomery celebrates their fabulous abilities and diversity. If we can come to appreciate birds enough, might we begin to take the necessary measures to preserve all of this?

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