Friday, November 11, 2011

"Birdology" Sy Montgomery

Although I waited anxiously to read Sy Montgomery’s book “Birdology: Adventures With Hip Hop Parrots, Cantankerous Cassowaries, Crabby Crows, Peripatetic Pigeons, Hens, Hawks and Hummingbirds” I have to admit I wasn’t that impressed when I first finished it. But months passed and I went back to it – first to re-read the chapter on hummingbird rehabilitation, then the one on chickens then the one on hawking…and now I’m sure I’ll be going back to this book often.

I think I was fully expecting something epic such as “Journey of the Pink Dolphins”, “Search for the Golden Moon Bear” or “Spell of the Tiger” a full-on immersion expedition, intense, exotic and emotional. But “birdiness” is not a conveniently packed, uniform quality, nor is it located anywhere specific – you might go to New Zealand to see a particular bird but you can also see a particular bird out your window. In effect birds are incredibly diverse from pre-historic looking predators to something so common as to be invisible such as a pigeon; they might elicit feelings of tenderness in the form of a baby hummingbird, or of moral uneasiness in the shape of a hunting falcon or a highly intelligent parrot kept as a pet.

With this in mind “Birdology” assumes the perfect shape with its self-contained snapshot chapters that each address not only a particular species but also a more generic characteristic of birds. As weird as it might sound it’s a book that I love now even though I thought it was only o.k. when I first read it almost seven months ago.

"Kraken" Wendy Williams

I had been meaning to read “Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid” ever since I first saw it. But it after reading Sy Montgomery’s brilliant article on octupuses for Orion magazine and seeing Wendy Williams book listed as a suggested reading I had to order it right away.

And it is an amazing book. Packed with astounding information on these amazing cephalopods (and also octuposes and cuttlefish) that will make anyone realize just how incredible they are. While their physiology is so alien-like (three hearts, blue blood, capable on changing color) scientists have also found incredible similarities with human beings namely in the structure of their eyes and neurons. It was truly startling to learn of the many medical breakthroughs that have been based on research carried out on squid. Future treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s will most likely owe something to these animals.

And yet they remain enigmas – do they think or communicate in ways we might fathom? Or did their brain structure and invertebrate body (not to mention their marine environment) cause them to evolve a relationship with the world and each other that our brains, so tightly wound inside our skulls will never be able to glimpse? It seems indisputable that there is “something” there, even if we try to stay away from loaded terms such as intelligence and conscience.

“Kraken” will fascinate anyone interested in natural history, science, animals and the sea. Wendy Williams has written a book that has not only a perfect rhythm but also a perfect length – and doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is still so much we don’t know about squid (and also doesn’t hide the immense amount of squid dissection needed for scientific research- which is the “slightly disturbing” part, I guess).

Any reader, even acquainted only with cephalopods in the form of lunch, will come away with a newfound respect for these creatures and maybe more importantly, a desire to know more.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011