Tag Archives: books

Five Facts on Feathered Friends

It’s hard to say when exactly my interest in birds crystallized. There were many influences throughout my childhood. My grandma was a bit of a birder, my family always had bird feeders and many of the most memorable TV/cartoon characters from my childhood were birds: Darkwing Duck, Howard the Duck, Woodstock, Foghorn Leghorn, Huey, Dewey and Louie, and yes, even Tweety Bird. I vividly remember watching with fascination a Jack Hanna special on the near extinction of the dinosaur-looking California condor and the now successful efforts to revive the wild population. As a kid I always found seagulls to be quite handsome, quirky and almost charming. As an adult, I am stopped in my tracks at the sight of a sandhill crane or a great blue heron. When I hear the hoo of an owl or the sound of a wood pecker, I always look up. I consider a bald eagle sighting to be among the most special treats of being outdoors. 

The Genius of BirdsWhile I don’t consider myself a birder, (as I don’t formerly track what I see or go outside with the specific intention of spotting birds) my interest continues to grow. When I discovered a book called The Genius of Birds, by science and nature writer, Jennifer Ackerman, reading it was a no-brainer. Following its release in April 2016, it became a New York Times bestseller.

As the title would hint, this book is about how smart birds truly are. Traditionally, birds have gotten a bum rap when it comes to intelligence. I will be the first to admit I assumed small brain meant not very smart. However, with years of extensive bird research piling up, Ackerman reveals that it’s more clear than ever that many species of birds including corvids (crows, jays, ravens, magpies) rank right up there with humans, apes and dolphins in intelligence/learning/resilience.

Here are five of my favorite bird facts and takeaways from The Genius of Birds. [I attribute all the facts and figures below to Ackerman’s book and her sources.]

1. Birds split off in evolution from mammals more than 300 million years ago. Birds evolved from dinosaurs, and while humans evolved to get bigger and be mobile, birds got smaller for flight. While bird brains are much smaller than humans, they have an entirely different neural architecture than humans and mammals, and a much denser system of neurons. That is why we can’t compare intelligence simply based on brain size. 

An Andean condor soaring in Peru.

An Andean condor soaring in Peru. Modern condors may have lived alongside prehistoric condors. (Image source: Emily Wilson)

2. Not only have birds joined humans and apes in the rare art of toolmaking, by using, bending and manipulating sticks to get at tasty grubs, snacks, and other treats, they learn to wisely adapt to their environment. You may have seen this (viral) video of wicked smart crows in Japan that learned to crack nuts by taking advantage of the crosswalk system and passing cars. 

3. While humans are considered to be the most successful species, the world today is home to more the 300-400 billion individual birds. From the coasts, to the desert and jungle, to the mountains above, and everything in between, birds have evolved to live on all continents, across nearly every climate type and habitat.

A puffin off the coast off Norway. They can swim underwater and often live in cold climates. (Source: Emily Wilson)

An Atlantic puffin off the coast of Norway. Puffins can fly/swim underwater and typically live in colder climates. They are also quite handsome (Image source: Emily Wilson)

4. Songbirds are special. Learning to sing is like learning to speak (which African grey parrots have learned to do), with even more precision. While we have a larynx, birds have a syrinx, made up of two chambers deep in the bird chest. Mockingbirds and canaries can contract and relax the muscles of the syrinx with sub-millisecond precision (a hundred times faster than the blink of an eye — try to comprehend that). A winter wren can sing thirty six notes per second (!!!). A mockingbird can nearly exactly imitate more than 40 other bird calls and songs. 

A young mockingbird on the Galapagos Islands

A young mockingbird on the Galapagos Islands. (Image source: Emily Wilson)

5. Birds have an insane ability to mind map their immediate surroundings and perhaps vast sections of the world. Some birds migrate 40,000 miles every year from Greenland to Antartica, without ever getting lost. During one experiment, migrating birds were plucked from their path and placed 2,000 miles off course. They almost immediately figured out how to get back on path. There were 54,000 pigeons used by the United States in World World II as messengers (and perhaps triple that used by the UK). Pigeons are still used in Cuba to deliver election results from remote parts of the country. Some species of birds can hide (cache) up to 5,000 seeds, in unique locations, and remember where each are. 

Solider pigeons of World War II. (Source: America in WWII)

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a fascination for our flying friends. 

Many of the images used in this post are complements of my dear friend Emily Wilson. Enjoy more of her bird pictures.

Other times I blogged about birds:

The Boys in the Boat: Derek’s Three Favorite Things

When I like a book I tend to rave about it. The Boys in the Boat was released in 2013 and as of June 2015, still sits on the NY Times non-fiction bestseller list. It will appeal to those that read Unbroken in awe and everyone else that enjoys well written accounts of amazing achievements and interesting times in history. The Boys in the Boat tells the true story of Joe Rantz and eight other unprivileged, hardworking boys from the University of Washington. They would eventually represent the United States in the eight man rowing competition at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (where Unbroken subject Louis Zamperini ran the 5,000 meter race).

The 1936 United States 8 man Olympic rowing team. They ended their 4 year University of Washington collegiate career undefeated as national champions.

The 1936 United States eight man (+coxswain) Olympic rowing team. They ended their four year Univ. of Washington collegiate career undefeated and as national champions. (photo credit: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1936)

My favorite things about this book can be wrapped up into three buckets:

The Boys in the Boat1) It introduced me to rowing and piqued my interest in it as a form of exercise. Early in the book the author confirms that physiologists have calculated that rowing a 2,000 meter race — the Olympic standard — takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. I’ve  since added the rowing machine to my gym routine.

The cat and mouse dynamic of rowing races is also interesting and fun to watch. I’ve scoured YouTube for recent Olympic regattas as a form of entertainment.

2) Reading the book was a fun geography ride through the Pacific Northwest, notably Seattle and the University of Washington campus. The author describes in detail the key water ways and bodies that makes the Seattle area unique: Lake Washington, the Montlake Cut, Lake Union and Union Bay adjacent to campus. I was reading the book during a visit to the Emerald City, and I was so intrigued by the geography that I enjoyed a special trip to check out the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, a unique engineering feature on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Lake Union is a beautiful freshwater lake entirely within the Seattle city limits.

Lake Union: a beautiful freshwater lake within Seattle city limits (photo credit: Jelson25)

Reading the book while visiting Seattle was a fun and appreciation-filled experience.

Reading the book while visiting Seattle was a fun and appreciation-filled experience.

3) Finally, The Boys in the Boat told a beautiful story about a man that suffered at a young age and prevailed, fulfilled and proud in the end, through hard work and an unwavering will to live. Many chapters of the book take place during Joe Rantz’s tragic adolescence after he was abandoned by his family in Idaho. After working his butt off, living alone and supporting himself through his early teenage years, Joe made his way to the University of Washington and eventually and serendipitously battled his way on to the well respected rowing team, with seven similarly hardworking boys. Compared with East Coast rowing royalty from schools like Princeton and Columbia, these boys worked there way through college, barely making ends meet. Rowing was their outlet and their teamwork and determination learned through hardship growing up, led them to become the best rowing team in the world.

If you’re intrigued by this story, you’ve now got two options. Read the book, or  watch this well-made book trailer:


(And in case you’re wondering, The Weinstein Company owns the film rights to the story and intends to produce a movie.)

10 things I learned about the 2012 election

Collision 2012There are certain topics I ramble on about on my blog more than others, like movies, hikes, music and food. Two things I haven’t written a lot about are politics and books. That changes today.

As I was riding in a cab on the way to the airport about a month ago, I overheard an interview on NPR with Dan Balz, a writer with The Washington Post. Balz was discussing his new book, Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America. I just happened to be on the market for a new, interesting read, and because I like to dabble in and out of non-fiction, it sparked an interest. I downloaded this in-depth election examination and chewed through it in a couple weeks.

One of the things I love about reading on my Kindle Fire HD is that it gives me the ability to highlight key passages and take notes, which I can then go back and review. While reading Collision 2012, I captured dozens of interesting facts about our president, the pool of colorful Republican challengers in the 2012 election, and the evolving election process.

Here are ten of my favorite things I learned or was reminded of, reading this book, that you might equally enjoy, in no particular order:

  1. By the time Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, his net worth was estimated at more than $200 million.
  2. Barack Obama almost always speaks, in formal and some informal settings, with the aid of a teleprompter.
  3. The Obama campaign employed hundreds of developers that spent a year building a software platform that compiled and integrated an unprecedented amount of data including voter lists, donor lists and volunteer lists. Eventually named Narwhal, this platform allowed for integration between a campaign online and a campaign on the ground, for the first time ever. (The Obama campaign built a second and equally impressive platform called Dashboard that allowed thousands of field organizers scattered around the country to communicate and share important information over the web.)
  4. Nancy Reagan lobbied Mitt Romney to run for president.
  5. Mitt Romney loves Brooks Brothers non-iron shirts.
  6. Republican nominee Newt Gingrich pledged at one point during the campaign that he would establish a permanent moon colony if he were elected president.
  7. When Mitt Romney formally announced Paul Ryan as his running mate on the deck of the USS Wisconsin, he introduced him as, “the next president of the United States.”
  8. When Michelle Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention, she was interrupted by applause almost 50 times in 23 minutes.
  9. Through savvier ad buying and negotiations, Obama paid significantly less for his ads than Romney. For an ad during the Emmy awards, Romney paid $3,600 and Obama paid $1,200.
  10. More than $2 billion was spent during the 2012 presidential election.

If you’ve got an interest in politics, elections or just well written non-fiction, I recommend this book.