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Birdology: 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 (t)

Birdology: 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 - Sy Montgomery My groovy friend Eh! gave this to me, so I'm expecting it to be motherhugging awesome.“Birdology” is the phrase coined by the author’s friend to differentiate the scholastic discipline of ornithology from the body of knowledge average folk can glean about birds, just in the course of watching them carefully at the birdfeeder, or owning them as pets. Montgomery isn’t an ornithologist, but she is a birdologist (and a professional naturalist) with a lot of hours logged observing and reading about birds. In this volume, she doesn’t cover all birds, but just elaborates on a few select species:Chickens This is the most personal chapter, because Montgomery has owned her own chickens for twenty years now, and has obviously grown close with them; she refers to them as “the Ladies”. As a fellow bird owner, I can relate to the relationship with them she’s trying to describe. Birds can be affectionate, but they also kind of do their own thing most of the time. If you have a good relationship with them, they’re happy to have you around, and sometimes want to play, but they aren’t all lovey-dovey like dogs. On they other hand, they aren’t as “fuck you” as cats. (There will be comments.) Birds are kind of like roommates you get along well with, and occasionally kiss and feed things to out of your mouth.And occasionally take showers with.Montgomery has grown to understand exactly what a lot of her chickens' vocalizations mean. It's impressive. Then she goes on a while about how chickens aren't stupid. Well, they're not; they've got elaborate social structures which aid in their survival, a fairly robust language amongst themselves, and -as Montgomery relates through some interesting anecdotes, a fairly extensive and detailed spatial sense and memory.A few tidbits here I liked:1) Evidence suggests that chickens were the first animal humans domesticated. 2) Why having 20 hens around isn't much trouble, but why roosters tend to make very poor pets (and it isn't the crowing at dawn!) 3) Apparently some supply houses send live baby chicks in the mail?! 4) Why a rooster thought this author's minister was trying to have sex with a chicken.5) Fact: there are about 20% more chickens on the Earth than people.6) The story of a chicken which survived 6 more years after a grusome head injury which left it with less than 1/2 its head AND less than 1/2 its brain! Cassowary These giant (150 lbs, generally 5 1/2 feet tall) flightless birds are indiginout to Australia and New Guinea. They resemble dinosaurs, and in fact have taught us something about dinosaur anatomy and physiology. Like their Tyrannosaurus Rex ancestors, these birds can be formidable when they attack. They charge and slash with a specialized talon which can either slice or puncture.In the wild, they usually eat fruit, but they’ve been known to occasionally stomp on rats and then swallow them whole! Worldwide, Cassowary kill more humans than any other bird species. Most of the victims are hunters in New Guinea, where Cassowary populations are densest, and where the Cassowary rightly regard the locals as predators. Cassowary-related deaths do also occur in elsewhere, under much more familiar (to me) circumstances. Montgomery shares a few grizzly anecdotes from Australia. A few fun tidbits:1) Cassowary communicate with each other through low-frequency “infrasound”, more similar to how elephants communicate with each other than other bird species. Cassowary is the only bird with anatomy conducive to generating these sorts of sounds. 2) An odd anecdote about a woman who lives alone in a house without windows or doors, deep in the Australian rainforest.3) Talk about dinosaur DNA, if you're into that.4) Remember how we all learned that dinosaurs used to rule the Earth, until an asteroid hit, causing climate changes, which caused them to all go extinct? Well, it's pretty clear now that the earliest birds were just dinosaurs which developed specialized scales, which allowed them to glide between trees, like modern-day flying squirrels. When the asteroid hit, those little flying dinosaurs were able to adapt and survive. The upheaval removed most competetors, causing their population to explode. Assorted climate and food chain changes caused many varieties to develop from the original little Microraptor, resulting in present-day's 10,000+ varieties of birds.5) Birds seem to be the most adaptable of the higher animals. Mammals, reptiles (for those who don't consider birds a subset of reptiles), amphibians and insects haven't been able to find a way to survive in the harsh climate of the Antarctic interior, yet birds (penguins) have.Hummingbirds Most of the chapter follows the rehabilitation of two newly-hatched hummingbirds whose mother was killed. This is a good springboard for discussing how delicate these little birds are. Like all birds, they’re built to be light for flight, which leaves them with vulnerabilities like hollow bones. Hummingbirds are even delicate as birds go; they can get injured by flying into a spider’s web. If that sounds crazy, Montgomery describes the smallest hummingbird of all- a species native to Cuba- whose survival hazards sound more like hazards most insects face, not birds: dragonflies eat them, fish jump out of the water and swallow them whole, and of course too many of them meet their end on a car windshield. Fun tidbits this time:1) Being so small, their hearts need to beat very fast to keep their tissues oxygenated. How fast? Resting heart rate is 500 bpm, and exertional rate can get as high as 1500 bpm!2) Hummingbirds have forked tongues, like a snake.3) In addition to nectar, hummingbirds eat tiny insects like fruitflies.4) Some species migrate yearly between Alaska and Mexico- pretty impressive for a 1 ¼ inch animal who weighs 2 grams.5) The author lists a number of comical misconceptions/myths about hummingbirds, including some people believing that they have no feet (have you ever seen them?), and an ancient Aztec belief that they could come back to life (a variation on the cats having 9 lives bit). Hawks This chapter was as much about Sy’s foray into falconry as it was about actual hawks and falcons. BTW, if any experienced birdwatchers out there want to share with me how they tell hawks from falcons, I’d love to hear it. Even studying the pictures in a guide, they pretty much look the same. In the wild it seems like it would be impossible. Falconry is one of those activities which seems to be all consuming to those who get involved. It’s got a whole language of jargon unto itself, and all sorts of specialized equipment, and a history going back to ancient China and Mesopotamia. In Middle Ages England, there were very regimented rules about who was allowed to own which type of bird for falconry, based on rank and status. Only a king could own a gyr falcon. Earls could own… I forget now, but you get the idea. As for the birds themselves, this was a good chapter for me, as far as learning new information. The most gruesome new fact was what a hawk’s idea of a perfect kill is: they always go for their prey’s eyes. A perfect kill is getting the powerful back talon to pierce the soft globe of the prey’s eyeball, puncture the thin bone at the back of the eyesocket, and lodge into the brain. Not only is it an instant kill with no struggle (or pain for the victim), but it gives the hawk a secure grip on the target’s skull, so it can fly off with dinner, with minimal chance of dropping it. When it's diving in for the kill, a hawk may reach speeds of 200mph or more.There’s a whole bit about the mentality of the predator, and how predators aren’t evil, and they’re just following instincts, and they perform a vital function in the ecosystem, &c. I don’t think most readers really need that lecture, but there you go.Fun tidbits:1) Most falcons lay eggs twice in a season. In most breeds, the first batch helps the mother hunt and feed the second batch. It’s nice when kids help out around the house, and look out for their younger siblings, isn’t it?2) Hawks and falcons are all gender-dimorphic, with the females being larger and stronger. It may have evolved this way because it sounds like most of them are single mothers.3) Apparently an ancient human child’s skeleton was discovered in South Africa in the 1940’s which shows distinctive beak and talon marks to indicate the child was killed by a local breed of falcon.4) In the densest part of the human retina, there are up to 200,000 cone cells per square millimeter. Most falcons have from 500,000 to a million, which means their vision is capable of up to five times the resolution.5) Apparently it is not uncommon for falconers to bear all sorts of fairly grotesque scars from their mishaps handling their birds… people with talon marks going all the way through their forearms, gaping scars on their faces, disfiguring marks on their upper arms and shoulders. These are usually borne with a sense of pride, I gather. Falconry doesn’t sound like a hobby for the passing fancy; falconers are a hardcore group. PigeonsYou know what? I think I'm giving away too much of this book. I'll leave a little bit of mystery here. This chapter has some interesting stuff about pigeon racing, how birds navigate, and famous pigeons throughout history. (There really are some!) Parrots Who doesn't love parrots? Stevie Nicks loves parrots, at least I think she loves this cockatoo; it's her brother's.Here's me with a friend's African Grey. And with my cockatiel's egg.Trying to maintain a little bit of brevity here. I'll just say that this chapter was easily the funniest in the book, including a lot of fun anecdotes you might characterize as "Parrots say the darnedest things". There's quite a bit about language aquisition, and the famous Alex at University of Arizona, who greatly expanded how much communication we thought was possible with other species. Crows This chapter has a lot on how crows live in tightknit communities and cooperate in hunting and defense from predators. To do this, they have excellent language skills. They apparently also have excellent memories, and pattern recognition abilities as proven by one researcher. They have an unfortunate bad reputation as being ominous and bad luck. A lot of this is due to the fact that they tend to eat the dead. Crows inhabit battlefield sites and rip the flesh from the fallen, before they can be cleared away. The Romans first noticed this, and nobody has forgive crows since. Well, I have. For my money (no money is involved here; it's just an expression), they are the most entertaining wild bird to watch. Where I work is just about 100 yards from the shore to Puget Sound, and crows are always dropping clams on the parking lot, to crack them and get at the delicious inside. My last car was 15 years old, and had all these tiny dents on the hood, from falling clams. I have a slightly newer car now, and I'm trying to keep it nicer than the old car. I'm trying to figure out where to park it, so that doesn't happen any more. I parked it under a tree, and -predictably- it got covered in crow shit. I still love 'em though.============================================Further recommended reading: [Link]Thanks to Ceridwen for that!