Book review of "Birdology," by Sy Montgomery

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Sunday, May 2, 2010


By Sy Montgomery

Free Press. 260 pp. $25

I knew, or thought I knew, what I was getting into with Sy Montgomery's "Birdology." Like a birder spotting a common species, I recognized the markings of just this sort of bird book: the personal anecdotes, the threading of relevant science, the side helping of awe. A quick skim confirmed my initial sighting: gushing sentences about birds "wondrous and mysterious" that cause the author to chirp, "My heart sings," and to declare of her avian encounters, "I am hungry for more." I'd seen it all before.

But then came the chickens: a flock of hens that roam the author's yard, befriend her neighbors and, as chicks, roost in her hair and peck in her lap. Their lives are intimately entwined with Montgomery's, and it shows as she brings to life the surprisingly individual worlds of a type of bird that most of us think of (if at all) as McNuggets. "Chickens both remember the past and anticipate the future," she asserts and then proves it through anecdotes and a sampling of relevant scientific studies. Sure, much of the way chickens act -- like pecking to death a wounded hatchery-mate -- is instinctive, but Montgomery deftly questions our easy ridicule of instinct, as if it isn't what drives much of our own behavior.

The author's heart might sometimes sing a little too much for my taste, and the prose is more often informative than transformative, but the book caught me by surprise, giving me a peek into feathered worlds. Like many recent books, including those by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Jeffrey Masson, "Birdology" strives to correct the dated but still-recent scientific assessment of animals in general, and birds in particular, as unfeeling automatons. Luckily, science has almost caught up to what every pet owner knows, and Montgomery avails herself of new findings as she brings to life parrots that converse rather than merely "parrot," crows that use tools and pigeons that navigate by making use of everything from Earth's magnetism to smell.

Since each chapter tackles a different bird, an unevenness prevails, and the homey birds prove most fascinating. For instance, after visiting the backyard chickens we head straight to the rain forest of New Guinea to search for the giant cassowary, a dinosaur-like bird that stands six feet tall and can leap in the air, kick and slice humans open with their "razor-sharp killing claw." Montgomery cautions against focusing on the more sensationalistic and violent aspects of the bird, but at the same time she indulges in those details, perhaps trying a little too hard to keep our attention. The result is that the cassowary, for all its grandeur, never flies quite as high as her beloved chickens.

-- David Gessner

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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