Bald Coot and Screaming Loon

Adventures in the Curious, Mysterious and Remarkable World of Birds
by Niall Edworthy
I must confess when Don Jewell gave me this book to review (along with A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects), I wasn’t initially interested. It sounded like an excuse for more stories featuring individual birds and susceptible humans who become fast friends and have marvelous adventures together: “At that moment I knew Coot knew what I was thinking, and we became something more than mere bird and man.” That’s the fault of the subtitle, mostly, but it’s abetted by the title, which is similarly misleading (and off-putting). In fact, loons don’t even get a mention in this book, and the small section on coots (fascinating as it is, see below) says nothing about their being bald (or maybe that’s somewhere else).
So it was a while before I dipped into this book, but when I did I was instantly hooked. Who wouldn’t be hooked by headings like these?

Parents from hell
The intriguing sex life of the Spotted Sandpiper
Why do some birds rub themselves with ants?
How do hundreds of millions of birds survive crossing the Sahara?
Do geese mind being force-fed to make foie gras?
Why do some people hate cormorants?
Why is it that millions of birds in huge swirling flocks never collide?

The book has actual, albeit somewhat arbitrary, chapters, but each chapter has two or even three headings per page, and probably the best way to read this book is just to flip through from time to time and read different bits. If the bits I selected above are a tad sensational, that’s not altogether fair; there is in fact sound science and fascinating bird lore on every page.
Did you know that most birds are lucky to reach their first birthday, felled by starvation and predators? That “roughly 75% of the population of small garden birds dies in the course of every year”? That seabirds have a low death rate, under 10 percent? And remember Eugene Shiefflin from the last book review (100 Objects), the Brit who introduced the House Sparrow and Starling to North America? He’s here too, with more details about his strange mania (it has to do with Shakespeare).
Another great feature of this book is the quotations sprinkled generously throughout, brief, memorable musings about birds from poets, politicians, and other notables. My favorite (but only one of many) is from Emily Dickinson: “I do hope you love birds too. It’s economical. It saves going to heaven.”

The only (minor) weakness in this book is its organization. You’re never sure where you’re going to find information on any particular topic, the chapter titles notwithstanding. But at least there’s a good index. Still, there is a tremendous amount of information in these pages, even if you never quite know what’s coming next. If you know any budding birders, by all means give this book to them. And even those who have already bloomed will find much here to enjoy.
So about those Coots. Here’s what the heading called “Parent from hell” has to say:

European coots make very strict parents. If one of the larger chicks becomes too demanding for food or hostile towards its siblings, the parent will sometimes pick it up with its beak and give it a good shake, or even submerge it under water. Occasionally the admonished chick is so distraught by its rough treatment that it paddles away, never to return.
Surely this speaks to us all. Who among us doesn’t know a few adults who might have turned out better if they’d been submerged now and then as children?
Craig Storti
craig@craigstorti.com

Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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