Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Thing with Feathers by Noah Stryker

The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human by Noah Stryker. New York. Riverhead Books. 2014. 289pp. ISBN 978-0-698-15273-1

This book is about how to address the issue of animal behavior as it pertains to birds and humans. It is quite compelling and Stryker poses very interesting questions and seeks believable answers. As a scientific thinker he does not assume incontrovertible answers but rather suggestions that are highly plausible. In the field of animal behavior so much has been learned in the two years since its publication that this book is already a bit dated. Yet his questions and insights remain relevant.

Stryker shows some √©lan in his writing style. He clearly loves the research he has done including many field studies. He draws from the works of others as well. One important point that he makes is that the work being done to understand various behaviors comes from different fields of science. For instance the Starling “Murmuration.”  Which can include several million of these birds is being examined by physicists as well as ecologists. He also discusses the impact of complexity theory the understanding of how self-organization of such mammoth numbers works. You really should click on the link above if for no other reason than the simple joy of watching natural beauty. He cites the StarFLAG project that is building many models to examine animal collective behavior. It is a massive interdisciplinary effort that is now in my browser “Favorites” to be explored often.

In addition to the eusociality of many birds, Stryker devotes much of the book to examining animal intelligence. When I first became interested animal ecology (as an amateur) I was stubborn in thinking that intelligence was sort of anthropomorphic conceit regarding way of describing animal actions. Reading the works of people like Heindrich, Van der Waal and now Stryker, leaves me far more on the other side on this issue. The evidence is simply too compelling to ignore. It is obvious that tool making of New Caledonia Crows (recently it was discovered that Hawaiian Crows use the exact same skills though they have not been in the company of each other in something like a million years) is a sign of intelligence. It is innate rather than learned.

The “Theory of Mind” another indicator of intelligence, was described by Stryker in the discussion about the nut stashing of Jays. In addition to the incredible memory of the birds, they also re-hide their cache when they discover they are being observed by conspecifics. They know that they would steal others nuts and assume that others will steal theirs.

In this book he discusses many other behaviors and how they apply to survival of the fittest. Kin selection and sexual selection are described in his chapters on Fairybirds and Bowerbirds. He makes the case that the love of art can be applied to sexual selection and is seen in the elaborate nesting yards of those Bowerbirds.

He talks about migration, spatial awareness and the many parts of the brain used to solve problems as well as many other activities. He always comes back to a few important points though. One is the use of interdisciplinary sciences to develop experiments from different perspectives in order to glean additional information. This is becoming more and more routine lately. One experiment cannot prove much regardless of how often it is replicated. To really get answers studies must come from many perspectives and experiments need to change.

This was a genuinely informative and entertaining book to read. It is the best way in my opinion, to bring science to the everyman. Stryker can teach the reader many new things about birds but also how science works and why it is the best method for getting at truths.

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