“The Thing with Feathers,” released at the end of last month, is a new book by South Eugene graduate and self-described bird nerd, Noah Strycker. The book’s been getting rave reviews from the birding community, but I think that sells it short. While Strycker begins each chapter with bird watching anecdotes and fascinating facts, he never stops there.
The book is loosely organized into three sections: body, mind, and spirit. Within each section, Stryker focuses on specific birds and some unique, universal feature about each one – such as magpies, mirrors, and self-awareness, or hummingbirds, battles, and the pace of life. He then explores his topic in the wide-ranging musings of an astute, well-educated human being.
In one chapter, Stricker writes about Snowy owl “irruptions,” dramatic bird population shifts that occur at irregular intervals. He describes trekking across the winter mudflats of Fern Ridge Reservoir to view and photograph a local visitor. Then he takes us through the historical perspective of these irruptions, including the snowy that showed up at Honolulu International airport, with fatal consequences. He makes connections to fluctuations in Canadian weather patterns and lemming populations. Next stop, Tolkien, “Not all those who wander are lost,” and thence to the concept of wanderlust. After a digression into etymology, we learn about current international populations of nomadic peoples, followed by a brief comparison of bird and human survival strategies. He then moves on to an exploration of the genetic evidence for restlessness and wanderlust in humans. It turns out there’s a “risk gene,” which tends to be more concentrated in human populations in areas that were more recently settled, such as the Americas. And from there, back to snowy owls.
When I first heard the title “The Thing with Feathers,” I thought: “Cute. Some young guy overreaching, naming his new bird book with a poetic metaphor?” Boy was I wrong. It turns out that this nod to Emily Dickenson is the absolutely perfect title to evoke Strycker’s remarkable blend of ornithological, intellectual, and psychological exploration – as well as hinting at his lyrical and lucid writing style. I trust you’ll find it as delightful as I did.