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Book Review: A Peep into the Nest

What do the lives of birds tell us about our own?

6:30 AM, Nov 19, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Like many of our amphibian friends, birds have been around since dinosaur times, and denuded of their feathers, would not look out of place sharing a prehistoric savanna with Tyrannosaurus Rex. But unlike the terrible lizards of yore, birds have survived and adapted over time, congenially sharing the earth with homo sapiens, and even playing a role—not a trivial one, and almost wholly benign—in the human imagination. Birds have never been domesticated, of course, but in art, literature, music, mythology, religion, cinema, sport—and on and on—they are part of the human landscape.

Book Review: A Peep into the Nest

Bridget Stutchbury is a biologist who has written, in Silence of the Songbirds, about the existential threats to birds’ existence. This new volume is not so much a warning as an explanation: The “private lives” of birds—sex, domesticity, masculine and feminine traits, habits of survival—are here examined in entertaining detail, but shown to be the product of a long process of evolution in an ever-evolving world. 

As might be expected, the varieties of avian behavior are nearly infinite: Puffins, owls, meadowlarks, and hawks lead very different lives, and patterns of domesticity—monogamy, parenting, promiscuousness, male pattern caddishness—are consistently varied. The habits of birds in everyday life are nearly as numerous as types of birds themselves, but their social behavior is equally as significant as the instincts that keep them alive and reproducing. Some birds live in harmony with other types; some are naturally belligerent. Is this a random pattern of nature, or a small piece in a larger evolutionary puzzle? We know that birds sing, and that every bird song is different from every other; but why do they vary, and what is the purpose of communication between and among birds?

The implicit question in this fascinating study is, to use an old-fashioned term: whither? Do we care about the bird secrets uncovered here because birds are charming, or auguries of innocence, or agreeable background music to man’s dominion? Or do the lives of birds tell us something about the nature of life itself? And if the continued existence of birds is threatened—whether by human or natural predation—is this bad news just for birds, or a signal of a dangerous disharmony in nature?

The private lives of birds are astonishingly complex, and the survival of the species has never been a certainty. The great value of this book, of interest to birders and non-birders alike, is to remind us of the many rooms in nature’s mansion, and the implications in the lives of birds for their human neighbors.

The Private Lives of Birds: A Scientist Reveals the Intricacies of Avian Social Life by Bridget Stutchbury, Walker, 272pp., $25

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