The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

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by Noah Strycker
     
 

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An entertaining and profound look at the lives of birds, illuminating their surprising world—and deep connection with humanity.
 
Birds are highly intelligent animals, yet their intelligence is dramatically different from our own and has been little understood. As we learn more about the secrets of bird life, we are unlocking fascinating…  See more details below

Overview

An entertaining and profound look at the lives of birds, illuminating their surprising world—and deep connection with humanity.
 
Birds are highly intelligent animals, yet their intelligence is dramatically different from our own and has been little understood. As we learn more about the secrets of bird life, we are unlocking fascinating insights into memory, relationships, game theory, and the nature of intelligence itself.

The Thing with Feathers explores the astonishing homing abilities of pigeons, the good deeds of fairy-wrens, the influential flocking abilities of starlings, the deft artistry of bowerbirds, the extraordinary memories of nutcrackers, the lifelong loves of albatrosses, and other mysteries—revealing why birds do what they do, and offering a glimpse into our own nature.

Drawing deep from personal experience, cutting-edge science, and colorful history, Noah Strycker spins captivating stories about the birds in our midst and shares the startlingly intimate coexistence of birds and humans. With humor, style, and grace, he shows how our view of the world is often, and remarkably, through the experience of birds. You’ve never read a book about birds like this one.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/25/2013
Strycker (Among Penguins), associate editor of Birding magazine, gets in his element, writing about his experiences watching penguins in Antarctica, putting out a deer carcass to assess the olfactory capabilities of turkey vultures, and monitoring the nests of purple-crowned fairy-wrens in the Australian outback. His work is a joy to read when he focuses on the interesting behavior of the birds with which he is obviously enamored, such as the astounding homing skills of pigeons, the uncanny talent of thousands of starlings to dart through the sky collectively without crashing into one another, or the ability of male bowerbirds to use sticks and brightly colored objects to assemble decorative structures that look like works of art. His prose is difficult to stop reading. However, when Strycker attempts to draw lessons, as his subtitle implies, about what it means to be human, he is far less successful. In discussing the evolution of music, ties between humans and birds are only loosely limned. Similarly, when he talks about evolutionary theory, from altruism to mating strategies, he presents little that is new or engaging. This will likely be a fascinating book for those captivated by birds but of only marginal interest to those looking for evolutionary insights into human behavior. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Thing with Feathers

"Mr. Strycker has the ability to write about the worlds of man and fowl without simplifying either.... He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet, and one of the small pleasures of The Thing With Feathers is watching him distill empirical research into lyrical imagery.... Part the palm fronds behind his sentences, and you can almost see the British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough standing there in a pith helmet, smiling with amused approval at Mr. Strycker's off-center sensibility." – Wall Street Journal

The Thing With Feathers turns a shrewd, comparative eye on a succession of bird families to explore what [Strycker] calls their ‘human’ characteristics…This is an engaging work which illuminates something profound about all life, including our own.” – The Economist

"Lovely, provocative..." – Robert Krulwich, NPR

"Fascinating" – Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"One of the best bird books you’ll read this decade. Guaranteed." — BirdWatching

The Things With Feathers will encourage you to take a closer look at the natural world around you, and perhaps learn more not only about what you see but who you are." – Seattle Times

“[Strycker] combines the latest in ornithological science with snippets of history and his own vast experience in the field to hatch a thoroughly entertaining examination of bird behavior… In Strycker’s absorbing survey, we find out how much fun it is simply to watch them.” – Booklist, STARRED

“[Strycker’s] prose is difficult to stop reading.” – Publishers Weekly

“A delightful book with broad appeal.” – Kirkus Reviews

“A dazzling variety of avian subjects, including connections between birds and humans.” – Library Journal

“There’s bird watching, then there is obsessing over why nearly 2,500 different species do the things they do. That’s Noah Strycker, and this lovely book is compelling to those that chart the different birds they see on walks, and the rest of us who just gaze longingly at them as they fly through the air.” – Flavorwire

“Noah Strycker explores the increasing likelihood that birds enjoy a vastly richer intellectual, emotional and even artistic life than we smug humans have ever suspected. Read this book.” – Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind and The First Frontier

"As the 'owner' of a dancing Green-cheeked Conure, as a life-long pigeon-lover, seabird researcher, and falcon enthusiast, I can tell you that not only is this book full of solid information—I expected that—but as a writer I am astonished at how loose and easy Noah Strycker has made the reading for us. This is an insightful and wonderfully companionable book. I can’t wait to read more from Strycker; meanwhile we have this gem."  – Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The View From Lazy Point.

“A thoughtful, engaging book, encompassing pigeon races, physics, vulture baiting, the Backstreet Boys, and a mathematical model applicable to both tennis rankings and chicken hierarchies—a work of dazzling range, nimbly written.” – Brian Kimberling, author of Snapper

“I’ve read books about birds all of my life and this is the one I’ve been waiting for. Birds have a great deal to teach us. Strycker loves birds, understands their magic and mystery, and can extrapolate from their behavior wisdom for us all. At last we have a book worthy of this subject.” – Mary Pipher, author of The Green Boat

Library Journal
01/01/2014
Here is good reading on a dazzling variety of avian subjects, including connections between birds and humans. Birder and bird photographer Strycker (Among Penguins) divides his book into three sections: "Body," "Mind," and "Spirit." In the first section, he explores the homing abilities of pigeons, the flocking abilities of starlings, vultures' sense of smell, unusual irruptive flights of owls, and the pugnaciousness of hummingbirds. The "Mind" section features coverage of parrots' attraction to music, food hoarding in species of crows, and penguins' particular fears. "Spirit" examines bowerbird courtship, intergenerational cooperative behavior in some bird species, and the apparent love among albatrosses. Strycker writes engagingly and with extensive documentation; his notes and sources contain veritable minichapters of additional information. VERDICT Now that anthropomorphic approaches to studying animals are gaining respectability, Strycker's book is all the more relevant. A fine choice for birders and readers in natural history. With minimal illustration.—Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-23
Birding associate editor Strycker (Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica, 2011) backs up his claim that "[b]ird behavior offers a mirror in which we can reflect on human behavior." The author pinpoints experiments beginning in the 1970s that examined the amazing memory of nutcrackers, which were able to survive cold winters at high elevations by stashing pine seeds in the ground. Surpassing the memory skills of most humans, "[i]n one fall season, a single nutcracker may store tens of thousands of pine seeds in as many as 5,000 different mini-caches, which he will retrieve in winter." Strycker writes about how bird fanciers puzzled over this feat, since the birds left no obvious signs of how they did it. By a process of elimination, an ornithologist designed an experiment that demonstrated how the nutcrackers oriented to landmarks in the environment to build three-dimensional mental maps. Even more intriguing are magpies, which join the select company of humans and great apes, elephants, dolphins and orcas in recognizing their own images in mirrors. Seemingly, this is an indication of self-awareness and a capacity for qualities such as empathy. What, then, asks the author, can we say about pet dogs, which fail to self-recognize in mirrors yet do demonstrate empathy? Referencing the behavior of Antarctic penguins, which only jump into the ocean in groups to avoid the seals that feed on them but are calm in the presence of humans, Strycker weighs in on the nurture/nature debate and concludes that, for us and penguins, "emotion itself is innate, fear of particular things is regulated by experience." The author speculates that the behavior of fairy-wrens, a species that sometimes assists feeding nonrelated birds, serves as an expression of altruism in nature, and he attributes the abilities of homing pigeons to the intelligent use of sensory clues. A delightful book with broad appeal.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780698152731
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/20/2014
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
173,640
File size:
4 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Mary Pipher
I've read books about birds all of my life and this is the one I've been waiting for. Birds have a great deal to teach us. Strycker loves birds, understands their magic and mystery, and can extrapolate from their behavior wisdom for us all. At last we have a book worthy of this subject. -- Mary Pipher, author of The Green Boat
Brian Kimberling
A thoughtful, engaging book, encompassing pigeon races, physics, vulture baiting, the Backstreet Boys, and a mathematical model applicable to both tennis rankings and chicken hierarchies—a work of dazzling range, nimbly written. --Brian Kimberling, author of Snapper
Scott Weidensaul
Noah Strycker explores …the increasing likelihood that birds enjoy a vastly richer intellectual, emotional and even artistic life than we smug humans have ever suspected. Read this book, and you'll never look at the chickadee on your feeder the same way again. --Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind and The First Frontier
From the Publisher
Praise for The Thing with Feathers

"Mr. Strycker has the ability to write about the worlds of man and fowl without simplifying either.... He thinks like a biologist but writes like a poet, and one of the small pleasures of The Thing With Feathers is watching him distill empirical research into lyrical imagery.... Part the palm fronds behind his sentences, and you can almost see the British naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough standing there in a pith helmet, smiling with amused approval at Mr. Strycker's off-center sensibility." – Wall Street Journal

The Thing With Feathers turns a shrewd, comparative eye on a succession of bird families to explore what [Strycker] calls their ‘human’ characteristics…This is an engaging work which illuminates something profound about all life, including our own.” – The Economist

"Intelligence, altruism, self-awareness, love . . . Strycker is especially engaging describing his own fieldwork with penguins and albatrosses . . . As Strycker writes, 'By studying birds, we ultimately learn about ourselves.'"  – New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice
 
"[A] fun and enlightening read. Strycker knows words as well as birds; he has the literary chops to make the results of very complex experiments accessible."  – Newsweek
 
"Strycker has a keen eye for what is most interesting about each species, and he presents each bird story with tight language, humor and even an occasional splash of self-consciousness . . . this is a lively and vibrant book. Bird journalism of the highest order. Bird journalism that crackles."  – The Washington Post

"One of the best bird books you’ll read this decade. Guaranteed." – BirdWatching  

"Beautifully written, filled with strange and lovely details, The Thing with Feathers is a delightful read from start to finish."  – The Boston Globe
 
"It is Strycker's ability to see and draw connections between bird behavior and humanity that make The Thing with Feathers difficult to put down. . . The Thing with Feathers encourages reflection on one's own assumptions about the perceived limitations of the animal kingdom."  – The Oregonian
 
"Strycker marshals original reporting and scientific studies to argue the simple yet radical notion that birds have something to teach us about our own humanity. Spend some time with this book."  – Audubon
 
"Birds intrigue humanity, and in this research round-up Noah Strycker reveals why - in marvels such as the equal-radius paths of flocking starlings and the decontamination chamber that is a vulture's stomach. As he notes, such findings can mirror human realities."  – Nature
 
"Noah Strycker all but lassos readers with his binocular strap to bring people nose to beak with the plumed creatures he knows so well. . . [an] edifying and entertaining book."  – Science News

"Lovely, provocative..." – Robert Krulwich, NPR

"Fascinating" – Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The Things With Feathers will encourage you to take a closer look at the natural world around you, and perhaps learn more not only about what you see but who you are." – Seattle Times

“[Strycker] combines the latest in ornithological science with snippets of history and his own vast experience in the field to hatch a thoroughly entertaining examination of bird behavior… In Strycker’s absorbing survey, we find out how much fun it is simply to watch them.” – Booklist, STARRED

“[Strycker’s] prose is difficult to stop reading.” – Publishers Weekly

“A delightful book with broad appeal.” – Kirkus Reviews

“A dazzling variety of avian subjects, including connections between birds and humans.” – Library Journal

“There’s bird watching, then there is obsessing over why nearly 2,500 different species do the things they do. That’s Noah Strycker, and this lovely book is compelling to those that chart the different birds they see on walks, and the rest of us who just gaze longingly at them as they fly through the air.” – Flavorwire

“Noah Strycker explores the increasing likelihood that birds enjoy a vastly richer intellectual, emotional and even artistic life than we smug humans have ever suspected. Read this book.” – Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind and The First Frontier

"As the 'owner' of a dancing Green-cheeked Conure, as a life-long pigeon-lover, seabird researcher, and falcon enthusiast, I can tell you that not only is this book full of solid information—I expected that—but as a writer I am astonished at how loose and easy Noah Strycker has made the reading for us. This is an insightful and wonderfully companionable book. I can’t wait to read more from Strycker; meanwhile we have this gem."  – Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and The View From Lazy Point.

“A thoughtful, engaging book, encompassing pigeon races, physics, vulture baiting, the Backstreet Boys, and a mathematical model applicable to both tennis rankings and chicken hierarchies—a work of dazzling range, nimbly written.” – Brian Kimberling, author of Snapper

“I’ve read books about birds all of my life and this is the one I’ve been waiting for. Birds have a great deal to teach us. Strycker loves birds, understands their magic and mystery, and can extrapolate from their behavior wisdom for us all. At last we have a book worthy of this subject.” – Mary Pipher, author of The Green Boat

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Meet the Author

Noah Strycker has studied birds in some of the world’s most extreme environments, from the high Arctic to the Amazon jungle and Australian bush, and is an associate editor of the American Birding Association’s magazine, Birding. His previous book, Among Penguins, describes a summer in an isolated Antarctic field camp. Noah writes, lectures, and lives near Eugene, Oregon, between field seasons.

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