27 July 2010

Tonight’s program is one for the birds. We’ll be talking with author Sy Montgomery about her new book, Birdology, a celebration of the amazing physical and mental characteristics of birds, along with stories of her experiences working with birds and some of the people who love and train them.

Listen to the program.

Birdy Background

Earthlife.net tells us there are about 9,703 species of birds divided up into 23 orders, 142 families and 2,057. They can be found on all major land masses from the poles to the tropics as well as in or over all our seas and oceans and their accompanying islands.

The total number of birds on the planet is very difficult to estimate because their populations fluctuate seasonally, but scientists have suggested that there may be between 100 and 200 trillion adult or near adult birds on the planet at any one time.

Since the 1600s, however, at least 115 species of bird are known to have gone extinct, mostly as a result of human interference of one sort or another. http://www.earthlife.net/birds/intro.html

That extinction number actually seemed surprisingly small to us, given what we humans have done to the planet. Listeners may also recall that we inteviewed Alvin Powell, about the eventually unsuccessful efforts to save the Po’ouli in Hawaii.  You can find that archived on our website, ecotopiakzfr.net as program #54, and that included a good deal of information on the Endangered Species Act. http://ecotopiakzfr.net/2009/10/  You can also check out Alvin Powell’s book at alvinpowell.com  

 One of the best known extinction stories, of course, is that of the Dodo, as described by David Reilly, The Dodo.

In the year 1598 AD, Portuguese sailors landing on the shores of the island of Mauritius [in the Southwest Indian ocean off Africa], discovered a previously unknown species of bird, [which came to be called] the Dodo. Having been isolated by its island location from contact with humanity, the dodo greeted the new visitors with a child-like innocence. The sailors mistook the gentle spirit of the dodo, and its lack of fear of the new predators, as stupidity. They dubbed the bird “dodo” (meaning something similar to a simpleton in the Portuguese tongue). Many dodo were killed by the human visitors, and those that survived man had to face the introduced animals. Dogs and pigs soon became feral when introduced to the Mauritian ecosystem. By the year 1681, the last dodo had died,… davidreilly.com

There are also a few positive news stories concerning extinction. Earthlife.net notes the example of the:

 …Mauritius Kestrel [from the same island as the dodo] … once down to 4 wild individuals, but now there are more than 300. [There’s also the success story of] the Californian Condor … which after the last wild male was caught in 1987 was down to 27 individuals all in captivity. By 1994 captive breeding had brought the population up to 75 with 9 in the wild. 

Our Discussion with Sy Montgomery
Our guest tonight is Sy Montgomery, author of a new book from Simon & Schuster titled, Birdology. Sy is a naturalist who has traveled all over the world observing birds and animals, then writing about them. In this book, she shares–as the subtitle tells us–Lessons Learned from a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Cassowary.
  • You identify yourself as a “birdologist” as compared to an “ornithologist.” What’s the distinction? How did you become a birdologist? What got you started on the quest for this book?
  • There are dozens of great stories in your book, but there is an underlying theme that birds are underappreciated by the average person. For example, you raise chickens in your New Hampshire yard and argue that chickens are smart, that they have recognizable personalities, that they learn in all kinds of ways. Please tell us a little about “the ladies” and what you learned from them. [And why did your chickens cross the road?]
  • You say in the book that we’ve been misled about dinosaurs. They didn’t go extinct; they became birds. Please explain that thesis. How is a hummingbird like a dinosaur? [Please tell us a little about your experiences raising bumblebee-sized hummingbirds.]
  • As part of your exploration of bird intelligence, you’ve danced with Snowball, a parrot widely featured on TV, and you’ve sorted through the evidence that parrot language is not just cute mimicry. So how intelligent are these birds (and what’s the nature of that intelligence)?
  • Reading your book, we sensed that you were particularly intrigued by raptors such as hawks (despite your being a nonviolent vegetarian). You studied falconry as part of your research and were really close taking up falconry in your own back yard. What did you learn from and about fierce carnivore birds?
  •  There’s so much more to talk about in your book.Could you please tell us another story, maybe about homing pigeons or crows? Or meeting that Cassowary?

Next, we’d like to take up some of your concerns about the future of birds:

  • Your book is mostly narrative rather than editorial. But we were struck by a compact paragraph at the close the book where you talk about threats to the bird population.
  • What’s going on in the world of birds?
  • Why are birds, broadly speaking, in trouble? What are the signs?
  • Are there canary-in-the-coal mine species that offer particular warnings?
  • You say, “at fault are the usual suspects.” Please give us some examples of these suspects, e.g.
    • factory farming and fishing
    • logging and clearcutting
    • introduction of nonnative species
    • global climate change
  • The Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon won’t be coming back. Can other bird species rebound?
  • Are there specific organizations or campaigns aimed at protecting bird populations?
  • Could it be that birds are stuck: dependent on people’s waking up to direct threats to human populations–with birds as byproduct beneficiaries?
  • What can concerned individuals do learn more and to get involved in helping to protect avian populations?
  • In closing: What’s your next project?
The book is Birdology: Lessons Learned from a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds,and One Murderously Big Cassowary. It’s published by Simon and Schuster, and you can learn more about Sy and the book at the “authors” section of the simonandschuster dot com.
Do-It-Yourself Birdology
We want to close with some Do-It-Yourself information that can help listeners enhance their birdology skills.For example, the website 42explore has a number of activities that are directed to kids (but are intriguing for adults and could certainly lead to family activities). For example, they suggest:  

  • Start a Birding Journal. Select a notebook. Then begin by recording your own bird sighting information. Decide what you are going to include in your journal. Find lots of help at sites like Birding’s Bird Databases. Identify species new to you. Build your own database of bird information. …
  •  Build a Bird Habitat. Look at some bird habitat [web] sites , then improve or develop some of your own feeding and watering sites, birdhouses, and landscaping. You may even want to join the Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation.
  • 42 Explore also has some excellent suggestions for kids to “Take a Journey into the World of Birds” by completing several webquests on such birds as the bald eagle, bluebirds, owls, and penguins. 
  • Follow in Audubon’s Way. Try drawing the birds that you identify. First start by observing as many birds as possible. Pay attention to the details of relative size, their actions, coloration, etc. . . and then make your own drawings. Keep at it, watch for your own improvement. Decide which drawings you like the best. You might want to make and use personalized note cards with your artwork on the cover.


 There are also numerous sites for people of all ages who want to learn more about birds and participate in bird conservation.

  • Right here in the northstate, for example, the AltaCal Chapter of the Audubon Society includes monthly meetings at the Chico Creek Nature Center and frequent bird walks at trips. Coming up in the next couple of months are trips to the Mono Lake region, Point Reyes Seashore, and, closer to home, the Oroville Wildlife Area. The AltaCal Chapter is also a major sponsor of the annual Snow Goose Festival. Check them out at http://www.altacal.org/
  •  And while you are online, check out the website of the National Audubon Society, which includes a number of activist links on: The Gulf Oil Spill, Global Warming, Energy, Endangered Species, Ecosystem Restoration, Wind Power, Clean Water, and Agriculture. Check them out at http://www.audubon.org/
Playlist for Ecotopia #96 Birdology
Northern Lake With Loon Calls        2:25        Sound FX       
        Amazing Sound Effects of Birds                       
Blackbird        2:18        The Beatles       
        The Beatles (White Album) [Disc 1]       
Red Bird        5:28        MaMuse       
        Strange And Wonderful       
Blackbirds        3:31        Voices On The Verge       
        Live In Philadelphia       
Little White Dove        4:06        Voices On The Verge       
        Live In Philadelphia       
Weave Me the Sunshine        4:28        Peter, Paul And Mary       
        The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary       
Fly        2:38        Dick and Jane