This is a book about the range of surprising and sometimes alarming behaviors that birds perform daily, activities that firmly, sometimes gleefully, reverse conventional notions about what is "normal" in birds and what we thought they were capable of.
Lately, scientists have taken a new look at behaviors they have run past for years and dismissed as anomalies or set aside as abiding mysteries. What they have found is upending traditional views of how birds conduct their lives, how they communicate, forage, court, breed, survive. It's also revealing the remarkable strategies and intelligence underlying these activities, abilities we once considered uniquely our own, or at least the sole domain of a few clever mammals—deception, manipulation, cheating, kidnapping, and infanticide, but also ingenious communication between species, cooperation, collaboration, altruism, culture, and play.
Some of these extraordinary behaviors are conundrums that seem to push the edges of, well, birdness: a mother bird that kills her own infant sons, and another that selflessly tends to the young of other birds as if they were her own. Young birds that devote themselves to feeding their siblings, and others so competitive that they'll stab their nest mates to death. Birds that create gorgeous works of art, and birds that wantonly destroy the creations of other birds. Birds like the white-winged chough that contain their own contradictions: one murderous bird that impales its prey on thorns or forked branches but sings so beautifully that composers have devised whole compositions around its songs; another with a reputation for solemnity that is strongly addicted to play; and another that collaborates with one species—humans—but parasitizes another in gruesome fashion. Birds that give gifts and birds that steal, that dance and drum, that paint their creations or paint themselves. Birds that build walls of sound to keep out intruders, and birds that summon playmates with a special call—and may hold the secret to our own penchant for playfulness and the evolution of human laughter.
Earth is home to well over ten thousand different species of birds, many with marvelous, often Seussian, names—the zigzag heron and white-bellied go-away bird, speckled mousebird and naked-faced spiderhunter, the Inaccessible Island rail, pale chanting goshawk, shining sunbeam, military macaw, and wandering tattler, a yellow-legged stanza of elegance I watched probe for crustaceans and worms on the fringes of a tiny island in Alaska's Kachemak Bay. The wandering refers to its presence everywhere over vast stretches of sea. Tattler refers to the shrill tattling call to alert other birds if an observer approaches too closely. There are whydahs and widowbirds, fantails and fairy-wrens, broadbills and hornbills, and buff-breasted buttonquail (known as BBBQs). Birds live on every continent, in every habitat, even—like the burrowing owl and the Puerto Rican tody—underground. They run to extremes in everything from size and flight style to feather color and physiology. I once saw a biologist weigh a male broad-tailed hummingbird: one-seventh of an ounce. Compare this with the cassowary, a giant weighing one hundred pounds—around twelve thousand times the hummer—that looks as much like a dinosaur as any living bird, can rise up six feet to pluck fruit from limbs, and is capable of killing a man. Or consider the ten-foot wingspan of an Andean condor relative to the five-inch span of a goldcrest.
Some birds are agile fliers, like the northern goshawk, slalom king of the bird world, and swifts and hummingbirds, those avian acrobats. Big, flightless birds, such as the emu and the cassowary, don't take wing at all, although their ancient ancestors did. Likewise, the Galápagos cormorant used to have flight, but lost it over evolutionary time in favor of the grounded life. Seabirds such as the wandering albatross log tens of thousands of miles each year to return to tiny islands in the middle of vast oceans to breed. They may go for years without touching land and, when seas are rough, will sleep on the wing, one eye open to navigate. Bar-tailed godwits migrate from Alaska to New Zealand in a single 7,000-mile flight, traveling day and night for seven to nine days—the longest recorded nonstop migratory flight. In terms of flying distance, the Arctic tern takes all, circling the world in orbit with the seasons. The bird flies from its breeding grounds in Greenland and Iceland to its wintering grounds in Antarctica—a round trip of almost 44,000 miles, the longest migration ever recorded. Over the thirty years of its life, a tern may fly about 1.5 million miles, the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.
As an astronaut who traveled to the International Space Station and made the first all-female space walk in 2019, Jessica Meir knows a thing or two about going to extremes. Meir's goal had always been to walk in space, and on her way to that dream, she explored the lives of two birds capable of truly exceptional physiological feats—one that holds its breath for impossibly long periods of time, the other that flies at breathtaking altitudes.