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Originally published Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 12:03 AM

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‘The Thing With Feathers’: what bird brains can teach us

In “The Thing With Feathers,” author Noah Strycker explores similarities between the way humans and birds feel and think.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Things With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human’

by Noah Strycker

Riverhead, 304 pp., $27.95

Have you ever tried to catch a penguin? Apparently it’s fairly simple. Just walk over to one and pick it up. They are a bit wily, but otherwise appear to have little fear of humans, or so writes biologist Noah Strycker in his new book, “The Things With Feathers.” But, adds Strycker, penguins are “afraid of the water.” How could this be, he wondered? The answer upended some long-held beliefs about penguins.

Scientists had long thought that penguins couldn’t see well in the dark, which is why they hunted during the day and migrated to escape the darkness of winter. Turns out, however, that what penguins fear are leopard seals, Antarctica’s top predator. The birds could see fine in the dark, they just didn’t want to get in the water with the seals. Fear, concluded the researchers, was the driving force that led to the penguins’ daytime hunting and long distance migration.

Fear, then, was a powerful emotion that had greater consequences than originally thought. And, since animals appear to experience emotions as we do, writes Strycker, penguin fear may have implications for us. “If that’s true, those of us trying to get inside the mind of a penguin must first understand our own.”

This is the basic framework of Strycker’s book. Open with an unusual story, often first hand, about a particular bird, pull back and address a field of human research, such as self-image (magpies), pecking order (chickens), memory (Clark’s nutcrackers), or art (great bowerbirds), then tie the two together, weaving in more science and observations about the birds and people.

Strycker does a fine job of telling his stories and providing surprising insights. Like many other recent books of natural history, such as ones by Bernd Heinrich or Lyanda Lynn Haupt, “The Things With Feathers” will encourage you to take a closer look at the natural world around you, and perhaps learn more not only about what you see but who you are.

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