GOOD LITERATURE envelops the reader in a whole world; it invites us to be visually, verbally, and sensually present in that place. While absorbed in a good book, we lose ourselves to extraordinary possibilities and come back to our quotidian lives a little richer, a lot more compassionate.
Birdology is, plain and simple, good literature. After you set the book down and step back into your daily chores, you’ll notice a tinge of difference in just about everything you perceive. For instance, by now, it’s fairly common knowledge that birds are dinosaurs. But Sy Montgomery renders this abstract notion palpable. When we interact with birds, she reminds us, “we are communing across a gap of 300 million years” — making birds a little like stars, whose light we see millions of years after it first shone. Early on, Montgomery emphasizes the “otherness” of birds. The 150-pound cassowary, with its bony weapon of a head and a lethal blade on its feet, comes clear as a living dinosaur. “I am witnessing the story of evolution writ small,” says Montgomery.
The chapter on parrots assures you that, though we may not share much with birds in terms of physiology or physiognomy, what we do share is significant. Snowball, the cockatoo whose dance moves have gone viral on YouTube, making the bird a cult star, is a phenomenon not only in pop culture, but in science as well. His cool moves undo the long-held scientific belief that musical beat perception is unique to humans. Likewise, Alex, Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s famous African gray parrot, throws into question many scientific assumptions about the uniqueness of human language. Before his premature death, Alex could identify colors, types of matter, and, of his own accord, began to add numbers to accurate sums. Characteristic of Montgomery’s wildly eclectic writing, this chapter also seamlessly explores the history of the rhythm of language itself.
But these days information is only a mouse-click away. And information is not what makes this a damn good book. It’s Montgomery’s writing, beautiful language embedded in tightly woven narratives. In her breathtaking chapter on hawks, Montgomery describes the first time Jazz, a Harris’s hawk, sat on her arm: “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.”
Montgomery says Birdology is not a book about ornithology, but rather a book about understanding birds. Avid birder though I am, I believe that definition minimizes what she accomplishes. I’m tempted to say Birdology makes us more human. But it does something even better than that: it reminds us that we are an inextricable part of the animal family.