Birdology by Sy Montgomery. Or, Sy and the Birds

birdology

November 2014
Recommended for people who want to learn more about birds
 ★    ★    1/2

I’m a bird lover, so Birdology seemed an easy sell.

Ringo 3

The subtitle elaborates: “Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur.” Again, ought to be a delight. I spent one winter on the EagleCam watching Raptor Resource Project’s Decorah eagles raise three chicks (and what a nail-biting April that was during snowstorms), another winter watching PheobeAllen‘s garden hummingbird raise two chicks in the middle of a rosebush (have you seen how far a mom’s beak goes down baby’s throat?), have friends with chickens (and can re-tell the story of Rosie the pet chicken catching and eating a shrew), keep up somewhat with animal intelligence research, have a mixed aviary of finches and technically take responsibility for two parrots in my home.

Clyde and toy 1As the subtitle states, there are seven sections, each focusing on a particular bird species. ‘Chicken’ is based on Montgomery’s own little flock, ‘Dinosaur’ is about searching for the elusive cassowary, ‘Hummingbirds’ is about her feeding babies at a rescue, ‘Falcons’ is about her developing a relationship with a hunting hawk, ‘Pigeons’ is based on pigeon racing,  ‘Parrots’ is about her dancing with Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and ‘Crows’ is about an urban flock of crows, wrapping it up with musings on bird urbanization. Each section contains some basic biology about the species, along with different representations or meanings that species has in human culture, and perspectives from Montgomery’s own interactions as she sought out those interacting with the species.

Alas, despite Montgomery’s solid educational credentials and my own fascination with the topic, I had a very hard time maintaining interest in Birdology. It could be because I’ve run into at least a third to half of the information before (Irene Pepperberg should be a household name for every parrot owner), but honestly, I think it boils down to Montgomery’s story-telling style being a complete miss for me.  At the end of the book, I felt like I knew as much about Montgomery as I did about the topics she covered. For instance, Montgomery:

  • is a vegetarian
  • owns a flock of chickens
  • gets lost easily
  • knows how to say “I have broken my eyeglasses” in Italian
  • likes the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
  • had a mechanical dinosaur as a child named King Zor

You’re getting it, right? She plays as much of a role in the stories as the birds. Her interactions with the birds, some background research, various anecdotal stories, poetry and literature, as well as references to popular culture means it was a lot less interesting than it could have been for me. I get it: she’s supposed to be our human translator, our medium for experiencing the avian world and showing its connection to our own, but that really isn’t how I like my science journalism. I mean, that’s more than a bit species egotistical, right? Claiming a book is about birds when really its about yourself, humanity (usually Western) and their interactions with/about birds. 

Sadly, the writing didn’t help as the focus seemed digressive and scattered. As she pulled from multiple sources, she’s interrupting her story about interacting to tell a bit of avian background, reference a video or research project, mention the bird’s relationship to culture, or reminisce on her own reaction to the bird. It results in a frequently narrative-challenged story. On the positive side, it’s clear Montgomery has a passion for birds, biology and humanism. She conveys her enthusiasm without sounding completely dippy. Her language is often poetic, both a positive and a negative in science writing;  great when describing a visual such as of a flock of birds in flight, but not as thoughtful or logical when describing behavior. Because she is right, in one respect–the avian mind is an alien one, and interpreting perception and behavior of birds through our own (or mammalian) physiology and culture is a highly challenged one.

My favorite chapters were ones where she appeared least or were more focused by plot: the drama of hunting the cassowary, raising rescued baby hummingbirds, urban crows. I suppose the end flap truly does describe the book best: “it communicates a heartfelt fascination and awe for birds and restores our connection to these complex, mysterious fellow creatures.” A number of my book-friends liked it a great deal (although it is worth noting that they often characterized themselves as non-bird people), so by no means take my reaction as a lack of recommendation. I’d recommend it for people with a vague curiosity (or even dislike) of birds, an interest in science journalism but little general knowledge about the field.

Next up on the science non-fiction list: a return to one of my favorite science authors —David Quammen‘s Spillover.

Clyde stranded in sink

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About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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2 Responses to Birdology by Sy Montgomery. Or, Sy and the Birds

  1. 1stavenue says:

    There’s this photographer, Leila Jeffreys (http://leilajeffreys.com/), who takes beautiful portraits of birds. Your close-ups of Clyde reminds me of some of Jeffreys’ photos.

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