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The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human Hardcover – March 20, 2014


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (March 20, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594486352
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594486357
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,677 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Birds are fascinating, and the more we humans study them, the more similarities we find between ourselves and our feathered neighbors. Strycker, editor of Birding magazine and author (Among Penguins, 2011), here 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. Some avian behaviors don’t apply to humans—the almost magical homing abilities of pigeons, the incredible sense of smell of turkey vultures (as tested by the teenage author with the cooperation of a very dead deer and his extremely tolerant parents)—but many seemingly incredible bird actions have parallels in our own lives. Fairy wrens are cooperative breeders and show us one reason humans so often collaborate. The famous pecking order seen in domestic chickens certainly is evident in office politics, and magpies have often been seen holding impromptu funerals for their deceased flock mates. A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Snowball dances in synchrony to his favorite Backstreet Boys CD, leading to a discussion of the role of music for both birds and humans. Birds are equally alien and familiar, and in Strycker’s absorbing survey, we find out how much fun it is simply to watch them. --Nancy Bent

Review

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

More About the Author

Noah Strycker, 28, is living an adventurous life of birds. Noah's first book, "Among Penguins" (2011) describes a season in a rugged Antarctic field camp. His second book, "The Thing With Feathers," about the fascinating world of bird behavior, was released in March 2014.

Customer Reviews

Like Dickinson, Strycker, sees the study of birds as a way to understand ourselves--that their behavior can tell us much about human behavior.
C.R. Hurst
I just finished reading Noah Strycker's new bird book "The Thing with Feathers." This is one of the best pieces of nature writing that I have read in years.
OregonReview
Whether you're a birder or just interested in the wonders of nature, you will enjoy Noah Strycker's informative, entertaining new book, The Things With Feathers.
Steve Brumfield

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This could have been titled Birds and Philosophy. Author Noah Strycker illustrates interesting behavior in the bird world, and compares it with human behavior. Sometimes it's unexpected behavior, other times it's downright startling. As we learn more about what makes other creatures tick, it gets harder to pin down what makes us different, what makes us human.

The male bower bird, for instance, spends ten months a year building, decorating, and perfecting an nest-like area that only serves to impress potential mates. Once the female bower bird has been sufficiently impressed by the male's building and decorating accomplishments, they mate, then she flies off to build her own nest and raise her chicks on her own. The male continues to work on his bower, and may mate with a dozen female bower birds per season. Since there's no apparent practical value in the bower itself, one wonders, is it art?

Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, unlike other birds, and most mammals. Does this mean they have a sense of self, that they can recognize their reflections outside of themselves?

Nutcrackers have amazing memories, recalling hundreds of locations where they've stored seeds for the winter. Having eliminated smell, luck, and some kind of marking system as methods of finding the seeds, researchers are convinced the nutcrackers memorize where the seeds are much the same way we would, by relying on landmarks and other patterns to remember.

When birds and animals exhibit behavior that we typically think of as human, it's difficult not to anthropomorphize. Strycker keeps this to a minimum, but does occasionally make cutesy comments about the birds. And when it came to albatrosses, who mate for life, he was quite lyrical about romantic love.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Jaylia3 TOP 1000 REVIEWER on March 20, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Author Noah Strycker is not someone to sit back and enjoy birds from a distance. He’s trekked within a few feet of a mating albatross pair, grabbed hold of penguins to attach GPS tags, and as a teenager he brought home a roadside deer carcass in his trunk, which filled his car with such an overwhelming stench that even at 65 miles an hour he had to drive with his head hanging out the window, just so he could could get close up photos the of turkey vultures as they feasted on gore for a week in his backyard. As both a field scientist and bird enthusiast Strycker has lots of fascinating information and personal stories about birds for this book, as anyone who was anywhere near me while I was reading knows since it was impossible not to share (sorry family and friends).

Each chapter focuses on the wonders of a particular bird, including homing pigeons, mummerating starlings, fighting hummingbirds, self aware magpies, and architecturally gifted bowerbirds, but from there the discourse spreads out to include such topics as neuroscience, the definition of art, game theory, memory palaces, altruism, the fight or flight response, and what unique species qualities are left to humans (a diminishing list). There were just a few stories I found disturbing, like the one about his friend who hates non-native starlings so much he relishes shooting them with an air gun, clipping their wings, and feeding them disabled but alive to hawks (which Strycker reported as a field scientist neither condemning nor applauding), but those are the exception. Most of the book totally enthralled me with wonderful birds, vicarious birding adventures, and thoughtful commentary.

I read an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing. The opinions are mine.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By C.R. Hurst TOP 500 REVIEWER on March 20, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
When I first saw the title of Noah Strycker's book, The Thing with Feathers, I immediately thought of the Emily Dickinson poem, "Hope is the thing with feathers". Like Dickinson, Strycker, sees the study of birds as a way to understand ourselves--that their behavior can tell us much about human behavior. This parallel is what helps make The Thing with Feathers such an imaginative mix of personal observation, avian history, and hard science.

Take, for example, a flock, or murmuration, of starlings. Who has not witnessed the strange collective flight of these blackbirds and not asked: how can they do that? According to Strycker the answer lies in using stereoscopic triangulation (the same technology used for the "Hawkeye" instant replay in tennis) to study the patterns created by starling mass flight. One especially surprisingly result of this study concerns how the starlings are able to coordinate direction by remembering the movements of its nearest seven flock members. This trait, according to the author, may well be shared by humans. Earlier studies concerning human memory consistently show that we can only remember about seven items, a "cognitive limitation" that we seem to share with starlings.

It is these types of comparisons, coupled with its author's whimsical sense of humor (for instance, in his introduction, Strycker imagines what might happen if birds watched us!) that make the book so compelling and so original in its perspective. Does the behavior of birds indeed mirror our own? After reading The Things with Feathers, I imagine so.
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