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The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

Imagine what might happen if birds studied us. Which human traits would catch their interest? How would they draw conclusions?

Birds are highly intelligent animals, yet their intelligence is dramatically different from our own and has been little understood. As scientists come to understand more about the secrets of bird life, they are unlocking fascinating insights into memory, game theory, and the nature of intelligence itself. The Thing with Feathers explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, the good deeds of fairy-wrens, the influential flocking abilities of starlings, the deft artistry of bowerbirds, the extraordinary memories of nutcrackers, the lifelong loves of albatross, and other mysteries—revealing why birds do what they do, and offering a glimpse into our own nature.”

Despite the fact that its chatty nature was not dissimilar to Frankenstein’s Cat, for some reason The Thing With Feathers charmed rather than annoyed me. It’s not really hardcore, meticulously researched science, and it didn’t ultimately come away with any grand conclusions about humanity, but the book was interesting and full of fascinating anecdotes. Although I was disappointed that crows and ravens were not given a section, I certainly learned a lot about many other types of birds (nutcrackers, a type of corvid, are featured).

The Thing With Feathers is divided into thirteen chapters, each focusing on a single trait of a specific species of bird. There are also three parts: body, mind, and spirit. In each section, Strycker muses on the nature of avian brainpower, and whether in certain cases these qualities are really a mark of intelligence or not. But that of courses poses the question of how one even defines intelligence, particularly in regards to animals. Because as Stycker reveals, there are plenty of astonishing things that birds can do that we cannot even begin to.

He begins with the seemingly miraculous navigational ability of the homing pigeon; in experiments, all outside stimulus that humans use to navigate was blocked off, and yet pigeons still managed to find their way home over hundreds of miles, despite being knocked out, blinded, and more. It seems pretty clear that pigeons are able to use magnetic fields to navigate, to name one example. This is certainly something humans are incapable of. So are pigeons smarter than us in this respect? 

Each chapter was fascinating in its own way, with lots of interesting tidbits of information; I learned a lot about various bird species, including starlings, hummingbirds, penguins, snowy owls, and vultures. Birds are just so enigmatic sometimes, and Noah Strycker conveys their mystery very well, especially with the snowy owls, who for no apparent reason come very far south in some years.

Vultures, too, are fascinating, if somewhat disgusting. Strycker chronicles several centuries worth of vulture experiments, all of which attempted to determine whether vultures use sight or smell to locate carcasses. His conclusions are surprising….

For those interested in avian behavior, The Thing with Feathers is a charming book worth reading. It’s not very studious or in-depth, but I enjoyed it. 

263 pages. 

Rating: ****