It’s not all war, all the time on this blog.  I do take breaks.  Last month it was for a more engaging than anticipated book about birds: The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Life of Birds and What they Reveal about Being Human.  The author, Noah Strycker,  is a young, professional ornithologist with months and months of rigorous outdoor observations of birds on almost every continent.  His “lifelist” includes a sighting of almost one-fifth of existing bird species in the world, a modest 2,500.  He’s going for broke in 2015 with what is known in birding circles as “A Big Year,” hoping to see 5,000 species.

Books Thing with FeathersThe Thing With Feathers, his second book, concentrates on thirteen species, from the lowly (and wondrous) starling to exotic, communally minded, fairy-wrens, the size of ping-pong balls,  up to the mighty albatross with its twelve foot wingspans.  He organizes his observations into three sections: body, mind and spirit.  Though a bit subjective, we don’t mind his call.

Under Body, for example, he wonders, along with John James Audubon and Charles Darwin, and likely many of us, how the vulture locates the carrion it feeds on — by scent or sight.  Both men, and others after them, set up various field experiments, covering the dead animals as to be invisible, or revealing them but sealing off the scent, trying to figure it out.  A nice excursion into observations by Texas pipeline workers that vultures gathered around leaks lead to the finding that they were attracted not by the gas itself but by mercaptans added to make the otherwise odorless gas recognizable to the human nose. It is also one of many compounds released by rotting flesh.

The starling, pest to farmers across the country, leads him to higher mathematics as naturalists and scientists have tried to solve the mystery of their close-order “murmuration” flights with thousands in some cases, wheeling and lifting without a collision. The underlying behavior, shared with other natural phenomenon, such as snowflakes and stock markets, has come to be called “emergence,” the “self organization of complex systems through simple interactions.” There seem to be just four rules: separation, cohesion, alignment and topological distance.  “Topological distance” is the constant estimation of distance not just to the very nearest bird but, in the case of starlings, the nearest seven — much as automobile drivers watch not just the car in front or to the side but several cars ahead.

He doesn’t mention the motor-bike swarms in Saigon which I experienced last year.  My formulation of their driving magic had two rules: don’t stop, don’t get closer than six inches. The roads themselves provide the cohesion.  A corollary would be: no sudden moves, which every Saigonese understands.  We soon learned that to cross the street we were to take slow, deliberate steps, never stopping or darting, across the stream of traffic.  The bikes moved unimpeded, and gracefully, like starlings, around us.   When Strycker takes this into particle physics, computer programs and its relation to birds, I am hooked.

In the section titled Mind, he looks at a dancing parrot and the pecking order in chickens — which, it turns out is linked to varieties of tennis tournaments.  The parrot and some few other animals dance to a human produced musical beat; most animals do not.  Why?  Seems there are at least two factors: one, a certain sociability in the species, and two, vocalization.  Elephants are another species that seem to be able to keep a beat.  Sorry, neither dogs nor cats do.  And all this leads into the thicket of whether music (and in a later chapter, art generally) is a by-product of the evolutionarily driven more complex brain, or whether music/art,  itself, provided some evolutionary adaptation, creating the human species.

Spirit includes several of my favorite essays, the first being about magpies and self-recognition in mirrors.  I’d never given it much thought but it turns out that understanding that a reflection is our own is quite unique among species.  A yellow-billed cardinal I observed in Hawaii, for instance, attacked his own image in plate glass windows for over an hour, trying to drive off a competitor.  Magpies on the other hand, when seeing in a mirror a red spot painted below their beaks, scratched at themselves, not at the mirror.

Great Apes, Elephants, Orcas and dolphins understand the self in a mirror, but not monkeys.   There seems to be a connection between self recognition and empathy, the ability to make inference about others.  He says that human babies begin to recognize themselves at about one year, at the time when there internalization of others’ feelings begins,  as in sympathetic crying.  I would have thought it was even earlier but perhaps what I took as self recognition when holding up my infant grand daughters to a mirror was merely curiosity about movement or people,  or recognition of me but not yet herself.  It’s all pretty fascinating stuff.

You may be interested to know, as well, that the most devoted bird couples, with a divorce rate approaching zero, are the mighty albatrosses, which are also the world’s widest wanderers.  Some will make a 2,000 mile round trip in search of food.  Seems like there’d be plenty of opportunity and motivation to get a quick nesting in around the globe.  Not so.  Go figure.

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