Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Learning from birds

You might not think you could learn anything about humans by studying birds, but Noah Strycker, who calls himself "a full-time bird man," thinks you can. What's more, he has written a terrific new book, The Thing with Feathers (Riverhead Books), in which he discusses 13 bird species whose behavior may shed light on human behavior.

Do bowerbirds display an artistic sense when males build elaborate bowers to attract mates? Is their behavior all that different from human males who sometimes use art, whether it is rock music or a sporty car, to attract women?

Are fairy-wrens being altruistic when they help feed the young of unrelated fairy-wrens? Does their behavior teach us anything about human acts of generosity?

Can the lifetime mating of albatrosses really be called love? Why do they seem to do it better than most human couples?

Whether he's writing about the militant ways of hummingbirds or the pecking order of chickens, Strycker always returns to the human species and draws some surprising conclusions.

I wonder how others in the scientific community feel about Strycker's research. Do they find him guilty of  recklessly extending human qualities to animals? But never mind. He writes more for general readers than for scientists, and this general reader, at least, is impressed. Here is one of my favorite of Strycker's conclusions: "Sure, we can never know whether or not real altruism exists in this universe, but wouldn't it be wise for us -- considering the bleak alternative -- to take a cue from fairy-wrens, and act as if it did?

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