Birds Do the Strangest Things
guest blogger gef ~ The Kindergarten Diaries and Lost in Texas
Leonora and Arthur Hornblow
pictures by Michael K. Frith
Random House, 1965
You know, one of the fun things about revisiting touchstones of your youth in this age of the Internets is finding out all kinds of cool stuff that you never would have known or cared about when you were seven years old. So I discovered this copy of Birds Do the Strangest Things on the clearance shelf at Half-Price Books (great used-book chain where I often consider getting a job just so I can lay my hands on the best books before they hit the shelves — and Scribbler gets them!). I was thrilled to see it, like running into a dearly remembered friend from second grade. I LOVED this book, which is one of a series of four recounting the oddities and eccentricities of birds, insects, fish and animals. This is where I first encountered the bower bird, the platypus and the hog-nose snake, and I credit these engaging books with fueling my ambition, sadly unrealized, to become a zoologist (that and Wild Kingdom).
Anyway, the thing that I’m amazed to discover is that Arthur Hornblow Jr., who co-wrote the series with his (third) wife Leonora, was some old-time Hollywood dude who was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar four freaking times (including Gaslight and Witness for the Prosecution). According to legend, he gave Billy Wilder his first job, he was married to one of my all-time favorite actresses Myrna Loy, and he named Veronica Lake (prior to that she was Constance Ockelman — even with that curtain of platinum hair, don’t think she would have cut it as a noir star with that handle). To top it off, he loaned his own name to C.S. Forester for the Horatio Hornblower books. How much wonderfulness can be stuffed into a single biography?
I know all that is kind of irrelevant, but maybe not, since the guy obviously had a great sense of story, which is apparent in almost all of the little narratives accompanying each bird, each of which also gets a catchy title: the cuckoo is “The Fooler,” the herring gull is “The Beach Cleaner”; the hornbill is “The Hide-away Bird’: the mynah is “The Marvelous Mimic” and the shrike is “The Lone Bandit.”
Nobody likes a shrike — probably not even other shrikes. He is a small bird with a hooked beak. He has a band of black feathers around his eyes. This makes him look like a bandit. He acts like a bandit too.
It goes on to describe how shrikes will hang up their slain pray (which include other shrikes) on barbed-wire fences like a butcher stringing up a carcass. Oooh, creepy. I mean, how cinematic an image is that? A better name for the shrike might be the Hannibal Lecter of the Ornithological Kingdom.
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