The Magic & Mystery Of Birds by Noah Strycker (book review).

I have no idea why they thought of us unless it was because we are geeky when Noah Strycker’s book ‘The Magic & Mystery Of Birds’ landed on my doorstep with nary a bird delivering it. Once I started reading, I suddenly realised just how much like an alien species birds actually are and then how close their behaviour can be to us. As the older species, the birds were doing our kind of behaviour first. Various species have senses that we don’t have and their own level of intelligence and its easy to forget how birds fill every evolutionary niche like we do. Don’t forget, some birds are also tool users, something once thought exclusive to mammals, although this book doesn’t focus on that.


There’s a lot of useful information. The first domesticated bird was actually the pigeon 5000 years ago because they could be trained to carry messages and long before the chicken was farmed. Exploring how pigeons navigate, there are areas which become dead spots for them which should leave you scratching your heads as to what causes it, especially as they navigate by landmarks than magnetic.

Starlings get a chapter to themselves about how they’ve propagated across the world. We might have gotten the grey squirrel from the USA but we gave them the starlings and they’ve got bigger numbers over there. Our native starling population is going down at the moment. Although I think they can deprive the other smaller species of food in the gardens, seeing them out in the sticks doing their mass flight at dawn and twilight always leaves a feeling of awe that they never collide. Indeed, there’s a computer program that can imitate it and has been used in films like ‘Batman Returns’.

I should point out this is basically an American book, the original title being ‘The Thing With Feathers’. Unlike the UK, where bird followers are called twitchers, in the USA, they are called ‘birders’.

Reading Strycker’s experiments to see if vultures track carrion by sight or smell shows how he developed his interest in birds, although this is not a book about his career just insights from his investigations.

The more I read into this book, the more I started to appreciated the difference in intelligence and perceptions of our avian colleagues and even ended up watching Snowball the cockatiel showing a taste for music and dancing on YouTube after he pointed it out. A second tune I watched showed Snowball doing a different beat to it. Just goes to show that birds had rhythm before humans.

Considering that birds have descended from dinosaurs, which filled most niches at the time as well, can it be any more surprising that birds have shown a similar thing today. It’s hardly surprising to me that the corvids family (that’s the one that contains magpies, rooks, ravens, etc.) is the smartest. The bower birds show artistic ability and as Strycher points out, a knowledge of perspective, enabling the male bowers to entice the female bowers. Romance also exists in birds and shares similarities to humans including infidelity.

I can see what is meant by the comparison of humans to birds, although it makes more sense the other way around. If anything, it’s a demonstration of evolution that extends into behaviour will fill in every niche whether we want it to or not. When you consider real intelligence is only amongst a small selection of bird species, then it re-enforces my thought that it might not be as high up the list of evolutionary requirement of survival. As such if you do pick up this book then I think you will learn a lot.

GF Willmetts

September 2015

(pub: Souvenir Press. 288 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: £12.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-28564-323-9)

check out website: www.souvenir

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