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Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

Currently reading

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ann J. Lane
Wizard and Glass
Stephen King, Dave McKean
River of Blue Fire
Tad Williams
Richard Ford
Progress: 36/420 pages

The Birds of Pandemonium / Michelle Raffin

The Birds of Pandemonium - Michele Raffin

Each morning at first light, Michele Raffin steps outside into the bewitching bird music that heralds another day at Pandemonium Aviaries. A full symphony that swells from the most vocal of more than 350 avian throats representing more than 40 species. “It knocks me out, every day,” she says.

Pandemonium, the home and bird sanctuary that Raffin shares with some of  the world’s most remarkable birds, is a conservation organization dedicated to saving and breeding birds at the edge of extinction, with the goal of eventually releasing them into the wild. In The Birds of Pandemonium, she lets us into her world--and theirs. Birds fall in love, mourn, rejoice, and sacrifice; they have a sense of humor, invent, plot, and cope. They can teach us volumes about the interrelationships of humans and animals.

Their amazing stories make up the heart of this book. There’s Sweetie, a tiny quail with an outsize personality; the inspiring Oscar, a disabled Lady Gouldian finch who can’t fly but finds a brilliant way to climb to the highest perches of his aviary to roost. The ecstatic reunion of a disabled Victoria crowned pigeon, Wing, and her brother, Coffee, is as wondrous as the silent kinship that develops between Amadeus, a one-legged turaco, and an autistic young visitor.

As we come to know the individual birds, we also come to understand how much is at stake for many of these species. One of the aviary’s greatest success stories is breeding the gorgeous green-naped pheasant pigeon, whose home in the New Guinea rainforest is being decimated. Thanks to efforts at Pandemonium, these birds may not share the same fate as the now-extinct dodo.

The Birds of Pandemonium is about one woman’s crusade to save precious lives, and it offers rare insights into how following a passion can transform not only oneself but also the world.


This is a charming memoir and very well written. Many of these personal account of birds (living with them or looking for them) are often kindly meant, but the authors are not equipped to write a truly engaging account. Raffin is not only an aviculturist but a communicator and it stands head and shoulders above the books of many enthusiasts.

My interest in the subject matter comes from two aspects of my life—many years as a birder, searching the wilds for birds like those Raffin is caring for, and as a volunteer, spending hours of my spring weekends dressed in a baggy white crane costume and rubber boots, exercising Whooping Crane chicks. I can personally attest to the different personalities of birds, although I didn’t find that Whooping Cranes exhibited many individual differences. They were very placid chicks, quite content to follow their odd leaders, draped in white, carrying a puppet to communicate with them and using a tape recorder of calls to make them feel comfortable. However, during my final year of this volunteer duty, I had occasion to exercise a group of three Sandhill Cranes and one Whooper. The differences between the two species were dramatic. The Sandhills soon figured out the game and would head off to do their own thing, while the Whooper and I would wander the enclosure, dutifully exercising together. I often called it my walking meditation—you had to remain silent and walk slowly, making sure that you didn’t step on the chick’s toes. Out on the rural facility where the crane breeding centre was located, it was a quiet environment beside a natural pond and I spent much of my time listening to and identifying the calls of wild birds beyond the enclosure.

Raffin explains clearly the challenges of keeping birds in captivity—they are sensitive creatures, often with very high blood pressures, which can easily be over-stimulated and suffer catastrophic deaths. They are susceptible to disease and often have very specific breeding or nesting needs. [For example, Flamingos require large flocks for successful nesting and zoos often put up mirrors in their winter quarters to visually increase the flock].

I think many of us can also relate to the incident which launched her into this world of breeding rare birds—that day that she stood on the side of a road, holding a wounded common bird, wondering what exactly to do with it. From such beginnings are great obsessions started.