BOOKS: A Feathered Family

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2002:

A Feathered Family: Nature Notes from a Woodland Studio by Linda Johns
Sierra Club Books (85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105), 1999.
272 pages, hardcover. $25.00.

Linda Johns is a painter, a sculptor, an author and an
apparently self-taught (she would say bird-taught) rehabilitator of
wild birds. All these elements come together in A Feathered Family.
The book is a series of verbal snapshots of one period in her 25
years of living in an isolated wooded area in Nova Scotia, just
before and after her partner Mack came to share her home.
It is a most unusual home, with an indoor garden for birds
to forage in, complete with two tall dead trees chosen for their
horizontal branches. There are mealworm cultures in an upstairs
closet and more perches than chairs. There is a hospice room for
isolating birds as occasionally needed, and an art studio, but most
of the house is an open design which has become a series of
interconnecting flyways. I found myself wanting to move in, despite
knowing the screen porch tub is occasionally stocked with ants.

Most of the birds are temporary residents, like a young
flicker brought to her, whose main problem seemed to be hunger. He
was released after learning to hunt ants by watching the author do
her best adult flicker imitation in the porch tub of dirt and ants.
But Digger, as the flicker was dubbed, was quicker to learn how to
communicate with humans than how to catch enough ants to fill his
belly. After hunting fruitlessly for ants in the tub, he once
sought out Mack and then “hammered on Mack’s foot with his long hard
bill and demanded ‘Food!’ Then he hopped up Mack’s leg to his knee
and glared, speakingly, until Mack carried him back to the porch
and stirred up the ants. Even flickers found us easy to train.”
Johns’ writing, though too lyrical for me at times, moved
me to laughter and to tears. Living with two rescued birds, I found
myself in deep sympathy as she described the terror that birds can
wreak on one’s sanity as they play tricks on their humans and quite
deliberately poop in the worst possible spots. Like children, birds
quickly learn how to get the maximum response from those they love.
To those who have never shared their life with a bird, some
of Johns’ stories may seem farfetched, but bird people will
recognize them as true accounts about the depth of personality,
emotion, and intelligence packed into a bird’s small body.
Knowing how truthfully her bird characterizations are drawn
left me wishing she had not, in the same book, shared her spiritual
musings, also presented more-or-less as fact. This casts doubt on
the accuracy of all her observations, at least for those of a more
scientific bent. I wished as well that she did not reinforce some of
the “weirdo” stereotypes about animal people by writing of her
off-the-beaten-path rituals at solstice and so on, which seem to be
of her own creation, rather than part of a heritage.
Johns led me to wonder why all wildlife rehabilitators do not
at least have their flighted birds in aviaries, if not in rooms or
houses designed for safe free flight?
This question extends even more compellingly to those who
share their home with captive parrots and parakeets. One begins to
realize that humans cage birds primarily because they are small, and
we can therefore keep them caged at relatively little cost. Yet
birds do not need to be caged to be kept safely indoors. Many
precautions must be taken, but not more than must be taken to keep
a toddler safe. Those who have attempted living with uncaged birds
may find, as Johns does, that it is a very demanding lifestyle,
and be tempted to revert to a caged system.
Yet imagine our reaction if a dog or cat were kept in a small
cage at all times. Too many of us say nothing when we see a bird,
meant to fly much further than a dog or cat could ever roam, kept
caged year upon year, let out for brief times each day at best,
usually with clipped wings to prevent flight.
Animal People readers will especially enjoy the descriptions
of the two roosters who live inside with Johns, one because of his
special needs and the other because the two roosters–contrary to the
common notion that cocks always fight–are inseparable. Actually,
Johns and the roosters become inseparable too. Chickens and roosters
are shown in their true colors, full of curiosity, jealousy and
affection, demanding hugs, sleeping on Johns’ lap, and at times
drooling in contented ecstasy as they are stroked.
You’ll read about Madeleine, the chicken who escaped from a
neighbor when she was about to be butchered, and rode 12 miles home,
perched on a truck axle, to become a revered member of her human
family. One wonders if the family continued to sell other chickens
for slaughter.
Birds in the wild, too, are shown full of character,
including a description of a wild crow who unmistakenly and
deliberately led Johns and Mack to a fellow crow entangled in a vine,
whom they set free, as the first crow evidently hoped they would.
You’ll learn how Johns comes to recognize the differences in
individual wild grackle’s calls as her indoor rehabilitating grackle
sits at the window and reacts to those she once flew with.
After reading this book, “bird brain” will never again ring
true as an insult.
(Reviewer Patty Finch shares her home with two rescued monk
parakeets, who have a indoor flight aviary and a larger outdoor
aviary, connected by a tunnel through a wall of Finch’s home, which
the birds use at will. They have built huge nests, some more than
three feet wide, from hundreds of thorned twigs, and engage in
other natural wild monk parakeet behaviors, including loud shrieking
as they fly. As a result of their captivity they also engage in
unnatural behaviors such as regularly speaking English to each other
to communicate.)

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