The Intersectionist: Sy Montgomery’s “Birdology“

The Intersectionist: Sy Montgomery

“Birdology: Adventures With a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur”
By Sy Montgomery
Free Press, New York, 2010

When I read my first Sy Montgomery book last summer, I was so moved and delighted, I gobbled up her whole oeuvre as fast as I could. The punishment for my greed was having to wait until now for a new book, “Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur.” Close to the end of this “Birdology,” I read a dozen or so pages with such a degree of actual joy and burgeoning enthusiasm, I felt an impartial reader was required. The chosen subject – who also happens to be a Ph.D. archeologist – read the same pages. Although perhaps a bit less gaga, he was no less charmed than I by the extraordinary mixture of science and awe, nature and culture, riveting factoids and generous story that is Montgomery’s stock-in-trade. Whatever her ostensible subject, she writes about “The Place,” the intersection where the human and nonhuman worlds, where past and present, meet and co-create in relation to one another and themselves.

Hawk on falconer's arm

Montgomery was tempted to apprentice to a falconer in the course of her research for “Birdology.”(Photo: Sy Montgomery)

A chapter for each is devoted to chickens, cassowarys, hummingbirds, hawks, pigeons, parrots and crows, the chapter subtitles suggesting an apparent design to report key aspects of bird physiology: “Birds Are Individuals,” “Birds Are Dinosaurs,” “Birds Are Made of Air,” “Birds Are Fierce,” “Birds Find Their Way Home,” “Birds Can Talk,” “Birds Are Everywhere,” an implicit promise that is kept, even as what is delivered is far more ample and ambitious: the restoration of “both our awe and our connection to these winged aliens who live among us.” “Birdology” is a term coined by Rev. Elaine Bomford, who claimed in a sermon Montgomery attended while she was writing the book that birdologists experience “the divinity of creation revealed in birds.” Yet, while the term “birdology” suggests it should be to birds what anthropology is to humans, Montgomery’s “Birdology” is a rich blend of the two: as she writes about species of birds and individual birds, she also writes about the relationships – general and specific – between the bird and human worlds. The chapter on chickens focuses on her own “Ladies”; in the chapter about Cassowarys, she introduces the people who live in close relation to them, including a couple whose garden is regularly visited by these giant “living dinosaurs.” One of the book’s most admirable human characters is hummingbird rehabilitator Brenda Sherburn, whose excruciating regimen and heroic efforts to save two baby hummingbirds Montgomery details. Montgomery learns the rudiments of falconry to investigate hawks and then wrestles with the life-changing decision whether to continue that austere discipline. She frequents pigeon racers and parrot owners, dances on her birthday with the particularly rhythmic parrot Snowball, visits cities where crow invasions have created material havoc and political turmoil: this is Gonzo Journalism at a whole other level.

Montgomery’s intrepidity and openness to experience is fed by extensive scientific research and the collection of choice anecdote. Typical passages combine these disparate sources seamlessly:

“… I tried to decipher the chickens’ language. At first my husband dismissed our efforts, insisting that most of what they were saying was, ‘I’m a chicken. You’re a chicken. I’m a chicken.'” He gave them more credit than many scientists did for many years” introduces a discussion into chicken communication that meanders through an encapsulated history of scientists’ dismissal of bird communication generally, ancient augury, personal observation, an anecdote from Farm Life Forum’s web page for poultry keepers, a summary of the findings of a recent study at Macquarie University in Australia of Sebright chicken vocalizations including quotations from the researchers, returning to her personal relationships with her “Ladies.”

Montgomery returns to birdsong in her parrot chapter where she details the similarities in structure and syntax between human speech and bird song, discusses the shared genetic ground for both and the similarities in the language learning process for birds and humans. Then she describes how the speech acquisition of a specific parrot, Alex, at the Pepperberg lab, relates to the more abstract knowledge; Alex’s love of rhyme segueing into a discussion of the relationship between language and music:

“The kinship between the two is obvious: Plato observed that uplifting music resembles noble speech. Centuries later, Darwin proposed the idea that music was the immediate predecessor of language, arguing that the human voice was first used to attract a mate. (That trick is still working: after all, by one calculation 40 percent of the lyrics of popular songs are still about sex and romance; and, indeed, the sexual success of pop singers – and jazz musicians, and even 19th century classical composers – seems to bear out the theory that a human’s ability to make music, like a bird’s ability to make songs, can be powerfully seductive.) And, although the issue is hotly debated, a sizable number of experts believe that our closest human relatives, the Neanderthals, lacked complex language – but sang instead.”

Montgomery then goes on to quote Steven Mithen, bringing rhythm into the theoretical discussion, before she returns to Snowball the parrot, caught dancing to polka music by himself …

The otherness and the closeness of the bird and human worlds are a recurrent theme, along with their imbrication:

“In the city, crows go even further: they manage to use human tools for their ends …

Walnuts are a crop new to Japan, but lately groves seem to be spring up everywhere. Crows find walnuts tasty and nutritious, but the shells are too hard to open. The solution: crows pluck nuts from trees, then fly to perch on the traffic signal at the nearest intersection. When the light is red, they fly down and place the nuts in front of waiting cars. When the light turns green, the cars run them over, cracking the hard shells. When the light turns red again and the cars stop, the crows fly safely down to eat the nutmeats.”

The Montgomery genre creates an excitement of its own. In spite of the diminishment of the natural world she simultaneously chronicles, hope for all creatures is implicit in these encounters. One’s faculties for observation, awe and sympathy with the worlds hidden within ourselves and in plain sight all around us are developed and refined. While she eschews all preachiness, Montgomery’s impact is nonetheless that of an expert sermonizer: her reader cannot but emerge with a more capacious soul, a richer understanding and enhanced appreciation of ourselves and our world.