Birdology by Sy Montgomery (author of The Good, Good Pig)
Genre: Nonfiction–with rich passages of narrative and persuasive writing (in short, a goldmine)
Ages: Upper middle school and older; all ages for selected passages shared aloud.
Birds are all around us. Yet we know precious little about them. Few of us have ever imagined how resilient, ingenious, clever, intelligent, and affectionate these creatures can be. Though we may admire (or envy) them for their ability to fly, we don’t always appreciate how very much we have in common with them–or how much we stand to learn from them. Sy Montgomery, who is a naturalist, documentary script writer, and radio commentator (in addition to being an author of numerous books for children and adults) takes her research very seriously. As she tells us, “Birds have been trying to educate me since I was a child” (p. 1). She treks through leech-infested forests for a chance to come face to face with the heart-stopping Cassowary (a 150-pound bird that occasionally eviscerates people). She assists a wildlife rehabilitator who rescues baby hummingbirds, and shares with us the story of Maya and Zuni, orphaned hummers so tiny they hatched from eggs the size of Navy beans. (No thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat so much as their story.) She learns to fly falcons–and yes, it takes a lot of time and a good bit of nerve to do this. In short, Montgomery lives what she writes. And her book, which treats us to an insider’s view of chickens, pigeons, crows, parrots, and more, rings with the confidence and insight that only comes from knowing your topic by living with it. As this book teaches us, experiential research gives an author information to share, stories to tell, and passion that is the hallmark of great persuasive writing. This is a book you won’t soon forget–and even if you teach primary writers, you’ll find many a fascinating small passage to share.
In the Classroom
1. Take some time to talk about birds in general–before sharing anything from the book. Do your students have memorable personal experiences of observing or raising birds of various kinds? You may wish to focus particularly on the species featured in the book. What interesting or unusual things do your students know about chickens, hummingbirds, pigeons, hawks, etc.? If possible, share photos or other illustrations, including basic data on size, weight, and general geographic location of the birds Montgomery discusses.
2. Talk briefly about the author, too. Montgomery calls herself a naturalist. What is that? What other books has she written that your students might know? (Look her up online for additional information.) Encourage your students to think about the kind of research Montgomery does to create this book.
3. In the final chapter of this book (p. 242), Montgomery makes this comment: “Birds are as ordinary as they are mysterious, as powerful as they are fragile, so like us and so beguilingly Other.” This extraordinary statement seems to encapsulate the central theme of the book–and you might use it as a guide to help you find passages you want to share. After reading the book on your own, highlight perhaps one or two short passages per chapter that you will read aloud and discuss with students. Then as you read, see if you and your students can connect Montgomery’s comment to each species that she portrays. (Suggestion: Assuming you do not have time to share whole chapters, try for a passage that runs 250-400 words in length. This will give you the true flavor of the book and allow you to share significant chunks of information. Also, if time is limited, choose your favorite three chapters instead of trying to read from all of them. If possible, though, make the book accessible to students who want more.)
4. As you share Montgomery’s writing aloud, think about two things: (1) What are you learning? What details does she use to bring these birds to life for us? (2) How would you describe the voice of this writer? Her information is often technical and scientific–but does she also have the voice of a poet? Are you noticing voice? Elegant or lyrical phrasing? Vivid imagery? Sensory details?
5. Take time to discuss genre. Does this writer do an outstanding job of blending genres? Which ones? What does she show us about good science writing?
6. Once you have shared a number of passages, focus on the nature of this writer’s research. To what lengths is she willing to go to uncover the information she seeks? What do her methods teach us about the nature of research–and the importance of preparing to write before sitting down with a pencil or keyboard?
7. This book contains photographs, but they are not the focus of the book. In other works by Sy Montgomery (see The Tarantula Scientist, Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, Kakapo Rescue, and Saving the Ghost of the Mountain), photographs play a vital role. If you have access to any of these works, you may wish to view them for purposes of contrasting the two presentation styles. Talk about what illustrations add to any work. They are expensive to produce and to incorporate into text. And for a work intended primarily for an adult audience, they are sometimes considered extraneous. What is your students’ point of view on this? How should a writer, designer, or publisher make decisions about whether and how to illustrate a book? Should this decision be based primarily on the age of the intended audience–or on other factors?
8. In the chapter called “Hawks,” Montgomery shows off her knowledge of terminology. See pages 118-119 for examples of terms related to falconry. Share all or part of this section and talk about how this particular kind of word choice differs from the word choice we might look for in a creative piece of writing.
9. In the chapter titled “Cassowary” (see particularly pages 48-49), Montgomery discusses the theory that birds have evolved from dinosaurs. Does she present a compelling case for this point of view? How many of your students agree with this widely accepted view? How might this perspective change the way we look at birds of today? For example, is a sparrow really a small, modern dinosaur? Consider writing short persuasive paragraphs supporting or questioning Montgomery’s position.
10. When you have finished sharing passages, talk about the most interesting things you learned from this book. Did anything surprise or startle you? What will you remember? Have students use what they have learned about good research to create informational pieces of their own, also using hands-on research. Their writing might focus on birds or other living creatures–but they should have freedom to choose any subject at all. What matters is the ability to become involved, to experience what they plan to write about, and to talk with an expert if possible. When they finish, ask them to share not only their writing, but also their research process. How does this kind of personally designed research differ from looking up information in books or on the Internet? Ideally, should the two be combined–or is one more valuable than the other? And how does the kind of research one does influence the type of writing that results?
11. Have your students ever heard the word “birdology” before? How do they interpret its meaning? (If you wish, share the author’s own thoughts from the Introduction to the book.)
Note: Birdology was named one of the top 10 nonfiction books of 2010 by Hudson Booksellers.