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Down and Dirty Birding

by Joey Slinger

Down and Dirty Birding is downright hilarious. Which is not to say it isn’t informative and useful – it most certainly is. Slinger tells us about the birds in the trees in much the same way as the kids in the schoolyard told you about the birds and the bees. You’ll learn something and be amused and titillated (ornithologically speaking) at the same time.

Though it may not be required reading for expert birders, the book is well suited for enthusiasts and anyone who has ever questioned the appeal of bird watching. Even if you’ve never gone into the woods with binoculars or erected a bird feeder in your backyard, Down and Dirty Birding is educational and entertaining. It is full of musings about birders, practical tips on bird watching (don’t use bird sound tapes because they can “chase away whatever it is you are trying to attract… and they make other birders homicidal”) and real information about wild birds (the white stuff on your windshield is more accurately bird pee). The humour and attitude shatter the pomposity often found in birding guides.

What also sets this book apart from the gaggle of guides on the market is its no-holds-barred descriptions of birders, bird behaviour, and bird anatomy. There are footnotes on almost every page, most of which are useful, others genuinely silly. A footnote to Slinger’s use of the word “grice,” for example, reads: “Grice is not the plural form of grouse, but it ought to be.” In the chapter on bird parts he explains that every type of feather has a special purpose, unlike every type of hair on the human body. “Go ahead,” he challenges in a footnote, “tell me the purpose of the hair that grows in your ears.”

Slinger gets down and dirty indeed with his use of everyday words and phrases as in the section on bird behaviour in which he uses language that would surely ruffle Roger Tory Peterson’s feathers. Words like “boink,” “crap,” and “horny” pepper a chapter that includes a theory on gay birds. The chapter on bird parts includes some discussion about genitals using terms like “hard-on,” “penis-like gizmos,” and “balls.” Slinger reveals that “a hummingbird is hung like a hummingbird” and that bird testicles can swell up to as much as 1,000 times their normal size. “Can you imagine such a thing? Think of the wear and tear on your shorts,” he writes. Now that’s information Audubon never gave us.

Although broken up into topics, Down and Dirty Birding is not a typical reference book and therefore will likely be read cover-to-cover. As such, some of the repetition is unfortunately obvious. Slinger informs the reader three or four times throughout the book that vultures vomit on their feet to keep cool. It was interesting the first time.

Down and Dirty Birding belongs in every birder’s collection, if for no other reason than to serve as a constant reminder that when it comes right down to it, birding is little more than people gawking at things that fly. It is bold, funny, and interesting, and even answers the question we’ve all pondered, regardless of our interest in birds: how do they, you know, do it?