If an Archaeopteryx of the Late Jurassic Period perched on our rooftops, we’d surely take notice. But rushing around, we often fail to see birds—the only wild animals that we encounter every day, and a link to our prehistoric past—eating berries from backyard bushes, drinking from puddles and raising young in delicate nests of stray hairs and blades of grass. It’s a subject ripe with possibility for noted naturalist and writer Sy Montgomery (The Good Good Pig). Her new book, Birdology, reconnects readers with the “winged aliens” that fill our lives with movement, song and mystery.
Each chapter reveals a fundamental truth about birds, such as Birds are Individuals (Chickens), Birds are Dinosaurs (Cassowary), Birds are Made of Air (Hummingbirds) and Birds Can Talk (Parrots). Montgomery draws a line from her beloved childhood parakeet Jerry to her current barnyard full of gregarious chickens and beyond, focusing on one aspect of these common birds’ anatomy, physiology or behavior—the hawk’s incredible eyesight, the amazing architecture of hummingbird wings—to hint at the larger wonders and mysteries of the approximately 10,000 living bird species. Her reporting takes her to a wildlife rehabilitator in California who specializes in baby hummingbirds the size of a bumblebee; to Australia to track down the dinosaur-throwback cassowary; to New England to hunt with birds of prey. She gets a seat at the start line at a Boston-area pigeon race, allows a dangerous Harris hawk to perch on her leather-covered hand and dances with a cockatoo. “Although we are separated by 325 million years of evolution,” she writes, “Snowball and I move together, as if in a mirror.”
The often poetic, relaxed elegance of her observations make this adventure into the science and natural history of birds deeply satisfying. Whether keeping watch over a newly relaunched hummingbird until he is “just a silhouette that dissolves into the soft, moonlit night” or putting a hood on a bird, “like extinguishing a candle,” Montgomery’s microscope reveals feathered creatures with intellectual and emotional abilities remarkably like ours, animals that “stir our souls in ways that change our lives.”
Deanna Larson writes from Nashville.