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addabook - Birdology
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Adventures with Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks, and Hummingbirds
Sy Montgomery
read on December 1, 2013

Birdology was a book I greatly enjoyed but that also drove me into crazy fits of frustration - it just isn't written for me. Sy Montgomery describes seven different bird families in great detail, very compellingly, and litters each chapter with fantastic little factoids making the reader genuinely want to seek out more information. It's a great book...

However for each interesting little fact or story that piqued my interest, there seemed to always be a corresponding passage that made my brain explode with frustration. Small things, but consistently, and they added up. For example:

It's obvious they [hawks] take joy in their flight.


He [a hawk] screamed insults into her ear and remained angry with her for a week.

These are two of but dozens of needless anthropomorphisms throughout the book. This is fine for fiction, or to drive a narrative - but if you're writing a book specifically to describe and explain the nature and behaviors of birds, you just can't do stuff like this.

...parrots who speak meaningfully are, in fact, remarkably common. On my flight from New Hampshire to visit Snowball, I happened to sit next to a man who told me about a cockatoo he knew named Mickey, also from St. Louis. Mickey was a smart bird who often opened and escaped from his own cage while his owner was out. One day the owner came home to find, to her great alarm, her Labrador retriever holding Mickey in his mouth. 'Drop the bird!' the woman screamed. 'Put Mickey down!' From within the dog's jaws, the bird cried, 'Put Mickey down!' The dog, astonished, dropped the parrot at the owner's feet.

First, you can't use anecdotal, second-hand stories to support an argument that you think is novel. Second, what's with the dog being astonished? Is the dog surprised that the thing in it's mouth made noise? Is the dog meant to understand the words "Put Mickey down" as well as the significance of a bird saying it instead of a person? On what grounds can Montgomery justify that this dog is actually astonished, and not just routinely doing what it is being told to do? And third (saving the best for last), the only purpose of this anecdote is to describe "parrots who speak meaningfully" - but it actually does the exact opposite. Speaking meaningfully would be if the owner came in and overheard Mickey shouting this on his own to the dog - or saying "Hey you dumb dog, please don't eat me", or if after the owner shouted "Put Mickey down", had Mickey said "Do as Master commands!", etc.. But the fact that the owner shouts it first, and that the parrot then *ahem* parrots it back to him, describes exactly the kind of garden variety mimicry that Montgomery thinks she is arguing against. Did no one edit this? How is it that the first person that read this didn't immediately run and tell Montgomery that she's arguing against herself?

Many scientists, however, refuse to believe that animals have any sort of consciousness; some even deny that animals feel emotions 'or suffer from pain' in a rigid adherence to Cartesian prejudices about human superiority to every other creature on earth.

This one is a bit insidious. Here she 1) declares as fact that all animals have emotions and consciousness, and 2) Invents a reason why she thinks people disagree with her. The reader is presented with the (false) binary choice that all animals have emotions and consciousness, or that animals are automatons put on this earth only to serve the superior humans. This is how Fox broadcasts "news": by twisting it into a specific shape and then serving it up in such a way that you'd have be an asshole to disagree with it. Montgomery is not an idiot. She clearly is knowledgeable and has many meaningful and interesting things to share - it's such a shame to see passages like this undermine that credibility.

My core problem here is that Montgomery doesn't draw a line between what her opinions are, and what she presents as fact. And while the book is super interesting, and engaging, and well paced, and funny, and probably mostly true, I couldn't get past some of the presentation. I couldn't help reading each anecdote and wondering if that was an objective description of an object, or if it was a very narrow and precise perspective of the object that happened to fit her narrative. I did enjoy reading this book, I'm glad this book exists and think other people would like it a lot, but it's just not compatible with how I think.

Author Bio:

Sy Montgomery is a naturalist, author and scriptwriter who writes for children as well as adults. She is author of more than 20 books,including The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, which was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Bestseller. Her most popular book is The Good Good Pig, the bestselling memoir of life with her pig, Christopher Hogwood. Her other notable titles include Journey of the Pink Dolphins, Spell of the Tiger, and Search for the Golden Moon Bear. She has been described as "part Indiana Jones, part Emily Dickinson". Her book for children, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo: An Expedition to the Cloud Forest of New Guinea was the recipient of the 2007 Orbis Pictus Award and was selected as an Honor book for the ALA Sibert Award. For a half-hour National Geographic TV segment, she scripted and appeared in Spell of the Tiger, based on her book of that title. Also for National Geographic TV she developed and scripted Mother Bear Man based on the work of Ben Kilham, who raises and released orphaned black bears, which won a Chris Award. Author Vicki Croke asked Sy what she has learned, not just about an animal’s natural history, but lessons about life. Sy answered: “How to be a good creature. How do you be compassionate?… I think that animals teach compassion better than anything else and compassion doesn’t necessarily just mean a little mouse with a sore foot and you try to fix it. It means getting yourself inside the mind and heart of someone else. Seeing someone’s soul, looking for their truth. Animals teach you all of that and that’s how you get compassion and heart.”