In the grip of an obsession like Phoebe Snetsinger’s (previous review), one is in danger of losing the bird and an understanding of why we might develop such passions. Colin Tudge’s The Bird reminds us of the inherent glory and fascination of birds themselves—which is, after all, why I am writing for, and you are reading, this magazine. The British edition is subtitled “Who They Are and What They Do,” and it is a fair brag.
Tudge starts not with the bird’s origins, but with “What It Means to Be a Flier” and speaks for all of us who consider birds especially attractive: “All animals are equal in the eyes of God, and all that manage to survive in this difficult world are in some sense ‘equal.’ But some, by all objective measures, are far more impressive than others, and none, not even the mammals, the group to which we belong, quite match up to the birds…they are, nonetheless, a very superior form of life.” He discusses the anatomy and physiology of flight, and reminds us of how it makes birds different, and the origins of feathers, not ignoring feathered non-avian dinosaurs. Only then, in the second chapter, does he discuss “How Birds Became.”
But this is only the beginning of this ambitious introduction to the science of birds. His second part introduces us to the history, basis, and necessity of taxonomy, and provides a speedy, up-to-date introduction to all the orders of birds. The third part, “How Birds Live Their Lives,” deals with physiology, sex, breeding, and the minds of birds. The fourth and shortest, “Birds and Us,” brings us around again to why we love birds—and should. He writes: “In short, birds are wonderful to behold. They can bring us pleasure wherever they are. But also, the more we look at them, the more they tell us about ourselves and the way the world really is. St. Matthew’s advice is well taken: consider the birds.”
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