Driven by instinct but also trained by local culture, male bowerbirds are artists first and foremost. They spend the better part of the year building elaborate stick-woven huts in hopes of wooing a mate. In “The Thing With Feathers,” Noah Strycker describes the experience of stumbling upon one of these bowers in the Australian outback:
“It was formed of twigs woven vertically into two thick, parallel walls that created a tunnel in between, and just outside each entrance lay a pile of white stones, bleached bones, and green leaves, clearly arranged by design.” Lest we think that the bower is the future home of the wooed mate, Strycker reminds us that after a quick copulation, female bowerbirds are done with the males, flying off to build a more humble nest and raise their young on their own. As for the male, he soon gets back to what is most important: his art. He works on the nest with monomaniacal intensity. “The perfect bower leaves no time for anything else,” Strycker writes.
Of course it isn’t just birds but also humans who obsessively try to create beautiful objects, and some of these objects we call books. You may have noticed that in recent years more and more of these books have focused on the lives of animals. Like the nests of birds, these books differ in complexity of construction. The more plain volumes dish out fascinating animal facts in journalistic fashion, facts that entertain us while the author’s hands never get too messy with things personal or environmental, and while incredible knowledge and proficiency are often on display, the author may not do much with that knowledge. The more complex books weave strands of both human and animal into something as surprising and beautiful as a bowerbird’s nest. I am thinking here of Doug Peacock’s raw writing about living with grizzly bears in “Grizzly Years” and John Hay’s radiant explorations of the lives of terns in “The Bird of Light.”
At first, “The Thing With Feathers” seems a fairly simple nest. All the field marks of bird journalism are there: the nearly absent author, the lack of environmental urgency, the listing of traits of one species after another, the building of walls with facts. In his introduction Strycker announces that he will tackle a bird a chapter, giving us an ornithological equivalent of a short-story collection, not a novel. This approach runs the risk of being shallow, requiring the author to quickly get in and out of each bird’s life.
But the book surprised me. In each chapter Strycker confidently takes an avian trait and then gradually connects it to the human world. This comes off not as anthropomorphism but as an acknowledgment of our essential kinship with other animals. Strycker has a keen eye for what is most interesting about each species, and he presents each bird story with tight language, humor and even an occasional splash of self-consciousness. For instance, he ends his lyric description of seeing the bowers this way: “I stood in quiet amazement: This was like watching a nature documentary on TV.” Along with humor, this liveliness keeps us turning the pages, while swallowing the latest information about each species (including some good stuff on this past winter’s media superstar, the snowy owl).
And what about relevance beyond mere fact? Each chapter, each species, is paired with an idea, and most of the ideas are as fascinating as the birds. For instance, the flocking of starlings leads into a consideration of game theory; the way nutcrackers cache and find their food turns into an exploration of memory feats, both human and avian; and the lives of fairy wrens, which help raise young not their own, kick off an essay on altruism, cooperation and evolution. My one complaint is that a couple of times these essays are wrapped up too glibly and neatly; I’m not so sure I need to know that the lesson of hummingbirds’ frenetic lives is that I should stop and smell the roses. But otherwise this is a lively and vibrant book. Bird journalism of the highest order. Bird journalism that crackles.
I opened Bernd Heinrich’s 17th book, “The Homing Instinct,” with excitement. His earlier work, particularly his intimate descriptions of the lives of the ravens that are his neighbors in the Maine woods, offered just the sort of weaving of human and animal concerns that makes this sort of writing come alive — again, not anthropomorphizing so much as establishing relevance to humans, the only animals that read, after all — and the new book’s introduction promised more of the same. The announced theme was the great one of homing, “migrating to and identifying a suitable area for living and reproducing and making it fit our needs,” a drive equally vital in birds, bees and humans. The book begins with a promise to “speculate freely” about how homing applies to all of us in the animal kingdom and to think deeply about the meaning of home.
It is a promise that goes only partly fulfilled. For the bulk of the book we are indeed treated to many examples of home-building, child-rearing and migration, of the finding and maintaining of nests and webs and tunnels and holes, but what we don’t get is the promised layers, and, after about 100 pages, the book began to take on a survey-course feel, each chapter featuring a different animal or two and its homes, and I found myself wishing that the author would let himself be freer — freer with speculation, freer with language, freer with describing the connective tissue among all the lives discussed.
I got my wish in the last section, “Homing Implications,” which returns us to the author’s home ground in Maine. There is some deep and insightful writing here that reminded me why I have always taken such pleasure in Heinrich’s work. Particularly exciting are his thoughts about the role of fire in defining us as a species: “We are that animal that has learned to make, and live with, and use, fire” he tells us, and the act of gathering around the fire in turn made us into more social (and storytelling) creatures. The trouble is that in this section there is also an abrupt change in the tone of the book. While before we were in the summary-descriptive mode of journalism, we now slow down into scenes — often beautiful, moment-by-moment scenes of hunting and bird-watching in the woods — that don’t quite seem to fit with what came before but instead have the feel of a coda.
At one point Heinrich describes the homes of weaverbirds: beautiful, hanging nests that are made by intertwining fibers of grass. I found myself thinking back to Strycker’s bowerbirds and the elaborate intertwining of sticks required to build their artistic homes. What “The Homing Instinct” needed was just the sort of weaving that both of these bird species so abundantly display. It would have been a better book if Heinrich had woven the strands of animal migration with the strands of his days in the camp, rather than letting the two threads lie separate, the effort of intertwining left to us.
THE THING WITH FEATHERS
The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human
By Noah Strycker
Riverhead. 288 pp. $27.95
THE HOMING INSTINCT
Meaning & Mystery
in Animal Migration
By Bernd Heinrich
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 352 pp. $27