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Friday, January 17, 2014

Those Fascinating Birds: Bird Brains by Budd Titlow

When I saw the title of this book, I thought that it would be a book about studies that evaluate the intelligence of birds.  It isn't, but it's still quite interesting.   I reviewed Bird Brains for The Bookplex.

This book contains photos and stories dealing with a hundred bird species.  Most, but not all, are North American birds.   Budd Titlow draws on his long history as a lover and observer of birds.  He always finds some attribute that sets each species apart from the others.  These characteristics can range from the roadrunner having two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward to the call of the barred owl that sounds very much like “Who cooks the soup?” A friend suggested that the great horned owls, who appear to be saying "Who's awake?" all night, would annoy human insomniacs so much that they could end up in the soup.  In that the case, the barred owl's cry might be that of an avenging predator. Whoever cooks the soup should keep an eye out for a sharp beak and claws.

It seemed to me that generally speaking, Titlow admires predators, despises scavengers and thinks prey birds need protection. These are rather typical attitudes.  Yet when I think about it, successful scavengers might merit more respect for their adaptability and resourcefulness.

I imagine that the photography in this book must be gorgeous in color.  Unfortunately, the Kindle on which I read this book displays in black and white only.  So I’m unable to comment about the quality of the color in the bird photographs. Titlow’s biography states that he is a photographer, and he discusses his adventures in photographing various types of birds.  So I was surprised to discover in the photography credits that almost none of the pictures in Bird Brains are Titlow’s.  I wondered about the reasons for this decision. 

Titlow’s writing style is engaging and insightful.  He gives us the history of how each type of bird has been viewed and in some cases the cultural role that it has played.  He reveals the threats to the preservation of certain species and how well they are currently thriving.  In his Afterword, Titlow discusses the measures needed for bird conservation in general .  They are key principles for maintaining the environment for all species including our own.  

I don’t know enough about birds myself to judge Titlow’s accuracy on this subject, but he cites a source as saying the Puebloan peoples have teepees.  This has never been the case.  I looked up the folklorist J. Frank Dobie who Titlow was citing to see what he actually said.  According to The Texas Parks and Wildlife Website, Dobie said that the Pueblos drew roadrunner footprints outside death tents to confuse evil spirits.  It's worthy of note that when I did a search about Pueblo death customs, I saw no reference to death tents.  I did find the following quote in a birding source,Southwest Birds :  "one of the New Mexico Pueblo groups felt that tracing the roadrunner's inscrutable tracks around a deceased person would confuse nearby evil spirits."  Again, no mention of death tents.  It's instructive to look up the meaning of the word "pueblo".  In the Free Dictionary it states that  a pueblo is " a communal dwelling of certain agricultural Indians of the southwestern U.S., consisting of a number of adjoining houses of stone or adobe, typically flat-roofed, multistoried, and terraced, with access provided by ladder." The Puebloan peoples got their name because they lived in these structures. Given this sort of architecture, does it seem consistent with their culture to erect teepees for death ceremonies? Teepees are characteristic of  Plains native cultures like the Lakota and the Cheyenne, not Southwest native cultures like the Puebloans. It seems to me that Dobie was mistaken. Titlow gave tacit support to Dobie's misguided comment by citing it.  

This may seem like a small error, but there is an unfortunate tendency of viewing the earliest inhabitants of North America as if all of them had the same beliefs and practices.  That is an indication of prejudice which is not a small error.  Even if  the prejudice was Dobie's , not Titlow's, perpetuating prejudice should be avoided.

Despite my concern about the mis-perception of the Puebloans, I did enjoy reading Bird Brains.  I feel that I got to know the included bird species a great deal better, and can therefore appreciate them more.    

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