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Mel White's 'Angry Birds' lays out feathered facts 

click to enlarge Mel White image

Angry Birds, as everyone with an electronic device and time on his hands knows, despise those blinking pigs. They'll hurl themselves at the swine to keep them away from their eggs.

The Northern fulmar just hurls. This smallish seabird "can accurately aim a stream of stinky stomach oil at targets up to six feet away and has the ability to expel barf bombs several times before running out of ammunition."

So writes Mel White, the Little Rock writer and former editor of the Arkansas Times, in the National Geographic book "Angry Birds, 50 True Stories of the Fed Up, Feathered, and Furious" released just before Christmas.

Where some ornithological books might make readers take flight, White's wit — and a wide-eyed passion for birds that even years of study haven't jaded — make this book about avian hooliganism a great read, especially for younger readers for whom the subjects of barf and poop hold special appeal.

The book — a collaboration between game maker Rovio and National Geographic — is meant to promote Angry Birds with fun avian facts, and includes information (not written by White) in which the game's characters' "true names and personalities" are revealed, along with White's text and with lots of crazy bird pictures that National Geographic and other photographers have captured over the years. The fulmar's vomiting portrait is one; another is the shot of an Australasian magpie (a level 4 furious bird) dive-bombing a bicyclist. White has seen most of these birds — has in fact been chased by the creepiest-looking bird on the planet, the masked lapwing (level 2, testy) — in his 25-year freelance career with National Geographic Books, National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic magazine, work that recommended him to the editor working with Rovio. An article he wrote for National Geographic last July about the goshawk, a bird so aggressive, White said, that Attila the Hun had its image on his helmet, showed him to be familiar with the angry ways of birds. The book, White said, "was right up my alley. It wasn't super hard to do." The hardest part was cutting the essays to the 200 or so word limit. He learned a lot along the way.

For example: The male ruff (Philomachus pugnax, or pugnacious battle-lover), their long feathers puffed up around their necks and foreheads, jabs and pecks furiously at other males when wooing on the lek (their mating grounds). That's the norm. But a few males, their colors duller, pretend to be females — they even let the aggressive males mate with them — so they can sneak in some heterosexual love-making without having to fight. (The book omitted the homosexual trysting, but now you know.)

Besides his run-in with the lapwing — he was trying to photograph a female on the nest, in a park in Australia, when its mate charged him — White's been personally confronted by a bluejay. He was returning a fledgling to a nest when a jay flew at his head, piercing his forehead with his beak. An inch lower, he would have lost an eye (and been in good company, he said, with bird photographer Eric Hosking, who lost an eye on the job and whose memoir is titled "An Eye for a Bird").

So yes, birds have a temper, especially when they are "hopped up on hormones," White said. Even the sweet yellow warbler (it sings "sweet, sweet, I'm so sweet!") has a taste for murder: When it detects a cowbird egg in its nest (the cowbird doesn't make a nest of her own; she lays them in other birds' nests, often to the detriment of that mother's own chicks) it suffocates it, by building up the walls of its nest and making a new floor over the egg. White notes that the hero in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" does the same thing — seals up his enemy alive in a tomb.

Talk about a blind rage — greater honeyguide hatchlings, which, like cowbirds, are parasites since their mothers lay them in other birds' nests and which are born equipped with sharp hooks at the ends of their bills, will stab their hatching nest mates to death, even before they can see.

Young male readers will no doubt crow over the habit of the fieldfare, a European songbird with the coincidentally appropriate Latin name Turdus pilaris. These birds team up to splatter their enemies with their droppings, and because a coat of poop will destroy a bird's feathers' ability to keep it warm, the enemy may die. Turdus, by the way, does not mean what it appears to mean. It is Latin for thrush, which is what the fieldfare is, as is the American Robin, Turdus migratorius.

Such is the stuff that White, the author of 15 National Geographic books and numerous articles and a contributing editor in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "Living Bird" magazine, has crammed in his head. He says he's been able to make a career writing about what he loves best, thanks to "a mother that made me a birdwatcher as a little kid."

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