It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a book about birds, so I figured I’d better remedy that. I do quite a bit of reading about animals, zoology, and natural history in general and at times it can get repetitive. In The Thing with Feathers, Noah Strycker spices things up a bit by drawing parallels between birds and humans. Strycker takes the reader on a journey of body, mind, and spirit while dazzling with tales of amazing avians, from the tiny bee hummingbird of Cuba (which is so lightweight that you could mail sixteen of them with a single postage stamp) to the wandering albatross, which has the longest wingspan of any living bird and flies an estimated 4 million miles in its lifetime.
What have birds got to do with humans? Take the wandering albatross, for instance. In spite of all its wandering, the albatross is a softy for love. Monogamy, extremely rare in mammals, is more common in birds, but the albatross takes pair bonding to another level. They pick their mates through intricate mating dances and, once paired, stay together for life, which could be upwards of sixty years. Although they are faithful, they are far from inseparable: the pair doesn’t stay together at sea; rather, each goes their separate way, wandering across the vast expanse of the Southern hemisphere. They will spend months away from each other, but they will meet up again to mate, and nobody really knows how they decide when that will be. They might only nest every other year, yet somehow they both show up at the nesting site around the same time, as if it had been pre-arranged, or they had some unbreakable bond between them. To me, that is more romantic than any of your time-traveling historical romances.
Another impressive bird is the Clark’s nutcracker, who lives on a diet of pine seeds that are abundant in summer and fall but scarce in winter and spring. The solution to this dietary problem is simple: cache thousands of clumps of seeds in the ground without any markers and then dig them up from memory when there is snow on the ground and the area is completely unrecognizable, much like Steve Buscemi’s plan in Fargo.
But with fewer wood chippers
Somehow the birds are able to find enough of their stash to survive through the winter. The needles that aren’t retrieved sprout into pine trees, so it’s a win-win. Even more incredible, though, is that studies have suggested that the nutcrackers are using spatial memory and three-dimensional mental maps to find their caches. Strycker likens the birds’ mental feats to those of human memory champions, who use the “memory palace” method of memorization to demonstrate seemingly impossible recall. The way this method works, you pick a place you are familiar with and tag things you want to remember in different locations throughout your “palace.” As you make your way through the palace, or house, or school, you are able to locate the memories you’ve stored. Wait, where have I heard this before?
Coincidentally, the Clark’s nutcracker also has the most sharply defined cheekbones of any songbird.
If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing a snowy owl outside of a Harry Potter movie, but you don’t live in the Arctic, don’t give up hope. These beautiful owls tend to turn up in unlikely places, from Boston to Honolulu. While some of these sitings may be due to a bird irruption, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Snowy owls are nomadic, moving from place to place to find food among the unpredictable environment of the Arctic. Studies using tracking devices have demonstrated that the owls’ wanderings don’t follow predictable migratory patterns. They seem to be nomads, like the 30 to 40 million human nomads, mostly shepherds and herders, in the world. “Like Arabian Bedouin herders, Mongolian tribes, and African Tuaregs, they keep no permanent homes, preferring to stay on the move.”
I’d rather herd sheep than deliver one more damn scroll.
Perhaps most surprising are the fairy wrens of Australia. These little passerines practice something called “cooperative nesting,” in which young birds will sometimes stay with the parents after fledging to help with the next generation of babies. Distant cousins, aunts, uncles, and even unrelated fairy wrens may help with nesting duties. This type of behavior is highly unusual among birds and is sometimes characterized as altruistic. They seem to “. . .violate a basic principle of Darwinian evolution. . . that the need to pass on your genes supersedes all else.” Strycker uses this surprising bird behavior to launch into a discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the classic game in which participants commonly betray each other even though it would be in their best interests to cooperate. For the prisoner, the worst possible outcome is to cooperate and have your opponent betray you, so most “games” default into both participants opting for betrayal. There are plenty of instances of how this plays out in real life; in fact, some political scientists consider the Cold War one big prisoner’s dilemma.
The problem with the prisoner’s dilemma is that, in real life, interactions aren’t limited to just one game. If A betrays B this time, B will likely betray A next time. If A cooperates, future dealings with B will go much more smoothly. In an academic tournament, mathematicians developed various models to determine which strategy would win in a long-term game of prisoner’s dilemma, and the winner was something called Tit for Tat: whatever your opponent does this round, you do to them next round. This ensures better behavior over the course of many interactions.
Fairy wrens, like tournament players, seem to have figured out that long-term cooperation is better overall for the species and for themselves. Indeed, studies have shown that the health of the nestlings and the mother benefit when “helpers” are present. If a young bird decides to hang out and help at a nest, he may inherit prime territory. The dominant birds allow these helpers to squat in their area, because it benefits their chicks.
So if these darling little birds have figured out that playing nicely is in everyone’s best interests, maybe there’s hope for humanity. . . .