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View of the pond at Felix Neck
Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, Edgartown

What We're Reading at Felix Neck

April 26, 2023

by Steve Allen, Felix Neck Volunteer

Slow Birding by Joan E. Strassman

Should I stay or should I go? The Clash asked that famous question, and birders should, too.

In The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman did the latter, taking us around the world to learn about how birds talk, work, play, parent, and think. In Slow Birding, Joan E. Strassman is asking us to stay, focusing our attention closer to home.

Taking her inspiration from the Slow Food and Locavore movements, Strassman suggests that we not focus so much on compiling long, competitive life lists by traveling around the globe to see exotic birds. Instead, we should concentrate on learning as much as we can about the endemic backyard birds we see every day.

Strassman, a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, has chosen 16 common birds that she can see regularly on walks within 20 miles of her home. Every bird gets its own chapter, with a general description of the bird’s behavior and lifestyle, and a review of the latest scientific research about that particular bird. Each chapter then concludes with a to-do list of things to look and listen for about that bird on your daily or weekly walks.

Most fascinating about this research is that ornithologists are looking at the love lives of almost every bird species and discovering some pretty saucy stuff. We tend to think about birds as joining up as a monogamous housekeeping pair, building a nest, mating, and creating a family. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it’s a regular Peyton Place out there in your backyard. 

Many recent studies involve obtaining tiny blood samples from every adult and nestling of the species in the neighborhood and using DNA testing to determine the parentage of the chicks. In virtually every case, a substantial percentage of the nestlings are fathered by another nearby male, suggesting that both adults were committing adultery by mating outside the housekeeping pair.

There is also evidence of intra-species nest parasitism, that is, nestlings unrelated to either of the housekeeping pair hatching from eggs surreptitiously laid by another female. Bigamy has also been documented—a male forming pair bonds with two females and establishing two housekeeping pairs with separate nests. It’s all a bit shocking!

Beyond the salacious love lives of these feathered friends, there is a lot of ongoing research asking questions you might not have thought to ask: the importance of birth order to survival; whether American Robins find worms by sight or sound; how European Starlings, which have a very short lifespan, have surpassed 200 million individuals in North America; why the population of Northern Cardinals has grown along with the expansion of American suburbs; and much more.

Slow Birding will make you look differently at the birds you see every day and is a welcome addition to every birdwatcher’s library.

Steve Allen is a volunteer at Felix Neck. He is also Lead Editor of the Habitat Herald, the newsletter of the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy in Virginia, where this review originally appeared.

Get Your Copy of Slow Birding

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