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Book Review: The Birds of Pandemonium

By (September 8, 2014) No Comment

birds of pandemonium coverThe Birds of Pandemonium: Life Among the Exotic & Endangered

By Michele Raffin

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014


When Michele Raffin recounts the story of adopting a beautiful little finch at the beginning of her beguiling new book The Birds of Pandemonium, she imagines the essential lesson the bird wants to impart: “Pay attention. Look hard; listen better. We’ll all be better off.” It’s very similar to the admonition Mark Avery imagines from the last passenger pigeon in his wonderful recent book Message from Martha: “Please care. Please do better. Please start now.” The books present an image of a bird world full of emphatic urgency.

None of the birds Raffin writes about are quite so bad off as the passenger pigeon, and some of the credit for that goes to Raffin herself and her family, through Pandemonium Aviaries, a bird sanctuary devoted to saving and breeding some of the rarest and most threatened birds in the world – sometimes, as Raffin winningly points out, with less-than-computerized efficiency:

Taking care of some of these rare birds involves a scary amount of guesswork. How does one hand-feed a newly-hatched green-naped pheasant pigeon? What’s the proper humidity in which to incubate a Victoria crowned pigeon egg?

Raffin began her non-profit as an outsized hobby in her backyard, and it has since filled with a baker’s dozen exotic birds of all kinds, from a one-legged turaco named Amadeus to a foul-mouthed red-headed Amazon parrot named Amigo to the star of the book, a small-bodied but big-willed quail named Sweetie. The Birds of Pandemonium is at heart a natural raconteur’s series of favorite stories about the adoption and care of these strange and beautiful creatures, and in the book’s most snappingly bravura passage, Raffin shares her strong belief that they aren’t in fact all that strange:

Our birds are gorgeous. But that’s not why I’ve fallen for them so hard and so deeply. I’ve learned that their behavior is far more fascinating than their plumage. What birds know has upended anything I thought I understood about the natural world and our place in it. Birds mourn, they sacrifice, they engage in wicked tricks. They name their babies. They invent, they plot, they cope, and, as you’ll see, some of them know devilishly well how to manipulate unsuspecting humans. Beset by the forces of nature and the follies of man, they parry with marvelous wit and resilience. They can teach us volumes about the interrelationships of humans and animals.

It’s a rare and wonderful thing to find an endangered-animals book as infused with hope as this one. The birds that fall under Raffin’s care are luckier than all their brethren – one might almost say luckier than they realize, except that according to their doting caretaker, there’s precious little they don’t realize.