top of page

Q&A with Naturalist/Natural Historian Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery is the New York Times best-selling author of “Soul of an Octopus” and “The Good, Good Pig, ” which was nominated for a National Book Award. She recently published "The Hummingbird's Gift." Ms. Montgomery is an early proponent of cognitive ethology (a branch of ethology - the study of animal behavior - concerned with the influence of conscious awareness and intention on the behavior of an animal), and anthromorphism (attributing human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to animals).

DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOUR FIRST ENGAGING ENCOUNTER WITH NATURE WAS AS A KID? No, my brain was damaged when my mother choked or shook me as a small child (which I briefly mention in my memoir, HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE) which is why I remember very little from my childhood. But my parents told me that before we left Germany, where I was born (my dad was military--I was always a US citizen) they took me to the Frankfurt Zoo--and there I somehow broke free of their hands and ended up in the hippo pen. The hippos were unfazed and apparently so was I. My parents, however, were pretty upset. YOU’VE BROKEN MY HEART WITH YOUR FIRST SENTENCE! Sorry about that! I feel like I am the luckiest person on earth, though--probably a good thing I remember little from my childhood! And I don't even remember the injuries. I was told about this by my aunt. I loved both my parents and they were doing the best they could. And I turned out pretty OK in the end! DID YOUR PARENTS SHARE YOUR JOY AND PASSION FOR THE OUTDOORS? IF SO, HOW DID THEY ENCOURAGE YOU FURTHER? DID THEY HAVE A PROFESSION THAT DEALT WITH WILDLIFE OR CONSERVATION? My father loved animals. My mother had a dog she loved as a child, Flip, who was, tragically, killed by a passing car. My father was an Army General who survived the Bataan death march [where 60,000-80,000 American and Filipino POWs from Saysain Point, Bagac, Bataan and Mariveles were forcibly transferred by the Imperial Japanese Army to Camp O’Donnell, Capas, Tarlac, via San Fernando, Pampanga, where the prisoners were forced to march until they died]; my mother was a pilot, a hunter (mainly hunted squirrels which she ate in rural Arkansas) and worked for the FBI. WHAT DID YOUR MOM DO AT THE FBI, OR IS IT TOP SECRET? My mother was "just" a secretary--that's basically what women did at the Bureau back then. But it was pretty top secret, and it was a hell of a job for a woman back then. DID SHE OWN AN AIRPLANE? My mother grew up pretty poor, so didn't own her own airplane. I never flew with her piloting, or with my father, who was also a pilot. WHY DID YOU DECIDE ON THREE MAJORS AT UNIVERSITY? I just wanted to do and learn everything--and still do! Yes, this was very unusual. Not sure the school ever allowed this before. I had wanted a 4th major but they wouldn't let me.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Sy Montogomery WERE THERE ANY (LATER) NOTABLE PERSONALITIES WHO WERE ALSO STUDENTS AT THE TIME YOU ENTERED S.U.? Indeed. Howard Mansfield, author, my husband. We both worked on the Daily Orange daily school newspaper, and our staff included several who would go on to win Pulitzers [the late Mike McAlary, Maura McEnaney], earn a National Magazine Award (Walecia Konrad) and write books (among them, my husband Howard, Jim Naughton, Tim Wendel, Jacqui Salmon, Scott French, oh gosh I could go on and on....) WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE DAILY ORANGE DAILY SCHOOL NEWSPAPER THAT IT PRODUCED SUCH AWARD-WINNING AND SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS AND WRITERS? I suspect that the DO produced great writers because it attracted great writers, and then gave them opportunity and challenge. Not that many college papers were daily back then. We had News, Editorial, Feature and Sports departments, and everything was written on deadline. We learned from each other under high pressure situations. And we weren't afraid of controversy. SU was going to give the Empress Farrah Diba (the wife of the Shah of Iran) a HUMANITARIAN AWARD in 1979!! We spoke out about that and were threatened by the pro-Shah people on campus. But, OMG, can you imagine?? WHAT WAS MOST MEMORABLE ABOUT YOUR FIRST RESEARCH EXPEDITION? My first research expedition was in Borneo working with the orangutans at Tanjung Puting with Birtute Galdikas--the African expedition for this research was the next year. I was able to help care for orphaned baby orangutans. Mother orangutans do not put their babies down EVER the first two years of life, so this mean having a darling baby orangutan literally clinging to my body every minute--eating, bathing in the river, sleeping. There were some down sides to this. They pee and poop on you. Their bodies are hot against your skin, and it's already 90 degrees in the shade and 90 percent humidity. And they are frequently looking for a nipple to suck (luckily, orangutan nipples are under the armpits so they were looking in the wrong place long enough for me to take evasive action.) But the joy of being so close to these beautiful, intelligent, vulnerable and critically endangered babies, creatures so like ourselves and yet so rare and in many ways unknown, far outweighed the discomforts. HOW DID YOU GET ALONG WITH BIRUTE GALDIKAS? Birute was and I suspect is an iconoclast. Many people have found her difficult to work with. She and I got along fine. I was a guest in her camp and did things her way. WHAT IS STILL UNKNOWN ABOUT ORANGUTANS? How do they know what is fruiting where and when--they appear to know about fruits too far away for normal senses to detect. Do they remember the fruiting schedules of thousands of individual trees? Very possible. How do individual personalities of orangutans affect the lives of those around them? They are said to be solitary, and they are compared with the other apes, but they know about each other and surely each individual can profoundly affect the community, even if their communities are very widely spaced and not like our own. So many other questions!! YOUR LATEST BOOK IS ABOUT HUMMINGBIRDS, WHY HUMMINGBIRDS? I wanted to explore what makes a bird a bird. There are a number of facts about birds that are essential to understanding them, but one of the most fascinating is that, unlike other terrestrial creatures, who like us are full of heavy fluids, birds are made of air: their bones are hollow. Their bodies are filled with air sacs. Their lungs are huge. This makes them astonishingly fragile--but their fragility is the source of their superpower--flight! No group of birds illustrates both this fragility and power this better than hummingbirds: they are the lightest birds in the sky, and also the most accomplished fliers. Per body length, they are the fastest (Allen's hummingbird) as well as the longest migrants (the Rufus) and the ONLY birds that exhibit the incredible maneuverability that allows them to hover.

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT HUMMINGBIRDS THAT YOU DID NOT KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGAN YOUR RESEARCH? I knew very little other than they were gorgeous and incredibly fast! Among the astonishing facts I learned: Hummers are as fearless as they are fragile. The Aztecs though they were reincarnated warriors, so fierce are they in defending "their" flowers. Spanish explorers, seeing hummers for the first time, called them Resurrection Birds--for surely a creature that sparkled so brightly was made fresh and new each day! WHAT ARE THEIR CONSERVATION STATUS AND WHAT ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS DO THEY FACE Among the threats are pesticides that poison them and their insect food, outdoor cats, habitat encroachment, and climate change. WHAT CONSERVATION EFFORTS/INITIATIVES ARE UNDERWAY? There are quite a few--and many can be undertaken by private individuals, like Brenda. If you're lucky enough to live where hummingbirds are found (North and South America), you can make your yard a hummingbird paradise by planting attractive nectar producing flowers and keeping a compost pile full of nutritious insects. But because hummers migrate, they need their entire migratory corridor protected, which can be hundreds and hundreds of miles. WHAT IS THEIR ROLE AS POLLINATORS? They prefer tube-shaped flowers and especially like red ones (to the point that young hummers will sometimes approach women wearing bright red lipstick in an attempt to pollinate their lips!) It's estimated they pollinate 400 species.


bottom of page