For the birds: A parallel universe up in the air

“We know very little of what it might be like to be a bird. If we did, we would be awestruck.” – Sy Montgomery, Birdology.

What do you think when you hear a bird sing? When you see a bird fly, soar, glide, perch, dive? The great mystery is that while birds are some of the most common creatures among us, they remain a vast mystery. Sy Montgomery of Hancock, an internationally renowned naturalist, writes: “We can know a bird’s name; we can identify it by its sighting, add it to our ‘life list’; but still, the essence of the bird flies away.”

Our knowledge of birds is still in its infancy. Academics studied insects long before birds. Serendipitously, the life of violin maker Carleen Hutchins – the subject of my book American Luthier – lead me directly into the fields of Sapsucker Woods at Cornell University where in the 1930s, one passionate pioneering ornithologist, Dr. Arthur Allen, formed the first, one-chair department of Ornithology within Entomology (insects). In fact, Hutchins, a junior biology major, was among the first students to aid Allen in setting up microphones in the woods to record birdsong for the first time in this country – Hutchins’ first experience in acoustics.

Avian research across the board is reversing centuries of erroneous assumptions. We have viewed birds only as flocks rather than individuals; judged a bird by its size; misjudged it by the size of its brain; misunderstood its instinct and intelligence. In fact, at the 2009 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, University of Cambridge professor Nicole Clayton suggested the pejorative cliché “bird brain” be replaced by “brainy birds.”

Birds see colors we can never know. They sense Earth’s magnetic fields; detect and navigate subtle differences in odor and barometric pressure; use the sun as a compass; “read” the stars, the wind, the weather, visual landmarks, cues from nature; listen to and heed infrasounds we cannot hear; time migration. Research with Alex the parrot proves that birds not only sing songs, they learn new songs, develop repertoire, learn language, extend vocabulary. Snowball, a dancing cockatoo, keeps rhythm and dances to different music – the subject of a scientific paper presented at an international conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Sapporo, Japan.

Birds are made of air – fragile yet strong. Hummingbirds are fast, and fierce. The Allen’s hummingbird, the fastest bird in the world, dives at 385 body lengths per second, nearly doubling the speed of a peregrine falcon. Feathers are made of keratin – the same material as a horse’s hoof or a rhino’s horn – yet are tougher than both. Feathers outweigh a bird’s skeleton, yet each feather is itself largely air – a paradox that makes flight seem impossible.

Birds are dinosaurs. In her remarkable book Birdology, Montgomery heads to the wet tropics of North Queensland, Australia, to pursue one glimpse of a cassowary – a 6-foot tall, 150-pound, 5-inch daggered claw-footed “bird” – more dinosaur than bird. In fact, DNA research has overturned our view of avian evolution. Dinosaurs did not “disappear,” but instead became “the most diverse group of land vertebrates on Earth – the world’s 10,000 species of birds.”

The ancient art and science of falconry – the keeping and training of birds of prey for the sport of hunting – is a unique way for us to personally experience the “wildness” of birds.

A few weeks ago, I visited master falconer Nancy Cowan, founder of the New Hampshire School of Falconry, in Deering. Cowan met her husband Jim, at age 17, when he was an avid animal lover. She a horsewoman, later a dogsledder. Soon after they met, Jim became a falconer, but falcon hunting was not legal in New Hampshire. In 1984, Jim initiated a falconry bill, which eventually passed in 1988, making New Hampshire the 46th state to legalize falconry.

In 2005, Nancy Cowan founded the New Hampshire School of Falconry. Her first student was Sy Montgomery. Montgomery, a confirmed vegetarian, described the surprising way in which the hunt took hold: “At that moment, there is no room in my soul for the quail’s pain and fear. I am flooded with the hawk’s elation…I realize that I want, more than anything, for this hawk to catch it.”

In her introductory workshop, Cowan brings her falcon out of its mew (cage). The hooded falcon perches calmly on the heavy leather glove adorning her left hand. In their forward to Cowan’s book, “Peregrine Spring,” Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explain: “When hooded, it’s like their souls are turned off. You take off the hood and the soul returns to the bird.” Montgomery: “To be in the gripping gaze of that bird was like looking directly into the sun.”

Falconry is an ancient art. For centuries, western European society’s social classes were indicated by the type of falcon owned by a king, duke, or lord. In fact, we use falconry phrases every day. “Cadger” refers to the falcon’s perch. Falconers, too old for hunting, were given the task of carrying the cadge into the field – hence the term “old cadger.”

“Hoodwinked” refers to the hooded hawk, likening covering a bird’s eyes to blindfolding a person to tricking someone.

Cowan explains the partnership she develops with her falcon. “Not to hunt with a falconry bird is to deny what they are. Hunting is the strongest instinct they have…It cements the partnership.” Cowan also explained that falcons help humans and the environment through “bird abatement.”

A few days later, I experienced bird abatement first-hand when I visited the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, California, and met full-time falconer Joe Roy III. When he and his falcons are not touring the grounds of this seaside resort each morning, Roy is hosting educational demonstrations with his birds of prey to educate the public about the immense importance of falconry as a green environmental protection tool. In six years, Roy’s falcons have killed just one seagull, but their daily presence keeps the entire resort free of seagulls and the pollution they cause. Bird abatement programs work effectively in airport hangers, even at Wimbledon, where one celebrated falcon named Rufus keeps the courts free of seagulls.

Birds teach us reverence for life, for a world much larger than the world contained within human vision. No creatures on earth show us our limitations every day better than the birds.

Montgomery: “When we see a bird in flight or let our hearts soar on the notes of its song, the mystery of the world wells up before us – a mystery we long to embrace rather than conquer.”

Montgomery said it best in her response to Don Stap and his book Birdsong: A Natural History, where he writes that “birdsong is like light streaming through the keyhole of a lost world.” Montgomery: “But perhaps it is not so much a lost world that I long to glimpse, but a strange parallel universe – where creatures made of air and cloaked in feathers share with us the capacity for language, an appreciation for music, and even the ability to dance.”

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Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, author, historian, biographer and poet and a lifelong resident of New Hampshire. Contact her at or