Sy Montgomery


“Birds are the only wild animals most people see every day. No matter where we live, birds live with us. Too many of us take them for granted. We don't appreciate how very strange they are, how different. We don't realize what otherworldly creatures birds are.

Their hearts look like those of crocodiles. Birds are covered with modified scales – we call them feathers. Their bones are hollow, permeated with extensive air sacs. They have no hands. They give birth to eggs.

No other scientific classification of living creature we commonly see is so different from the class Aves....It's easy to see a kindred soul when you look into the eyes of a chimp, for instance. They share more than 98 percent of our DNA. You can get a blood transfusion from a chimp. We shared a common ancestor with chimps as recently as five million years ago....We shared a common ancestor with even the most distant of our fellow placental mammals as recently as 100 million years ago. The last ancestor we shared with the birds, however, traces back 325 to 350 million years ago. A bird is as distant from us as a dinosaur.”

So writes Sy Montgomery (author of The Good Good Pig) in her latest work, Birdology. In elegant prose, she weaves scientific insights and narrative to share with the reader her fascination with and awe for birds. In the following passage, Montgomery explains:

“Feathers are among the most complex structural organs found in nature. Nothing of comparable dimension is stronger. They are made of keratin, the same as a human's fingernails, a horse's hooves, and a rhino's horn – but the keratin in feathers, due to a difference in molecular structure, is even tougher.

A typical bird's feathers outweigh its skeleton. Feathers define a bird. By trapping and moving air, feathers protect the bird from cold and wet, and they enable it to fly. But each feather is, itself, largely air, with a stiff central shaft that is light and hollow and attaches, beneath the skin, to a muscle. Like each scale on a reptile, each feather on a bird can be raised or lowered as needed.”

Or consider Montgomery's experience with a Harris's hawk named Jazz:

“On my hand, I hold a waterfall, an eclipse, a lightning storm. No, more than that. Jazz is wildness itself, vividly, almost blindingly alive in a way we humans may never experience.

This is one reason why I have always been drawn to animals: their sharpened senses give them a fuller experience of the world. Largely oblivious to the symphony of scents, humans experience only a small part of life. We hear but a sliver of the range of the world's voices and have evolved to depend on vision most of all. But although we live through our eyes, birds do so to an even greater degree.”

From hummingbirds to hawks, from parrots to pigeons, and from crows to chickens, the author explores the essence of these mysterious, familiar creatures that most of us see every day. The winged aliens who surround us have much to teach us, Montgomery argues convincingly and eloquently in Birdology. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright 2010, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.