On the Wing
by Alan Tennant
Alfred A. Knopf, $25
Look out Tony Hawk, Alan Tennant is coming after you, and, if he has his way, America's newest extreme sport will be ... bird-watching!
O.K., maybe not. The truth is, Tennant--a freelance naturalist best known for such works as Snakes of North America and A Field Guide to Texas Snakes--became a daredevil by accident. Like millions of nature lovers, he often gazes up at migratory birds as they flap along their thousand-mile journeys, north to south and back again. Is it "some inner vision [of] a tucked-in cliffside ledge" that drives them, he wonders, or perhaps the "whistle of the arctic wind"? No one knows, and one day, while studying a group of peregrine falcons, Tennant gets what he considers "the grandest idea I'd ever had": Capture a peregrine, strap a radio transmitter to its tail feathers and follow it, by plane, "wherever its airborne life might lead." Lacking any of the necessary legal clearances to do this, Tennant snags a few birds on the sly, rigs them up, then sets aloft after them in a singe-engine Cessna with his sidekick, pilot George Vose.
Tennant's intention is to fill the reader with wonder at what he calls the "heroism" of these remarkable birds. He succeeds; but unintentionally (I think), he also provides a hilarious tale of slapstick and disaster. The poor guy may be the most hapless bird-chaser since Wile E. Coyote.
He starts out pursuing a peregrine across a Gulf Coast island on an ATV but sails off a sand dune and crashes. Surviving this mishap, he and Vose follow a falcon north to Canada by plane. Landing at a remote airstrip, they are nearly blasted by a shotgun-toting gal from a nearby cabin. A little later they are apprehended by Canadian Mounties and forced to pay a hefty fine for entering the country illegally. Then Tennant takes off with a seemingly idiotic bush pilot named Elvin, who botches his landing, cracks up his plane and calls Tennant a "f------ a------."
Undaunted, Tennant makes his way to the peregrines' breeding ground, north of the Arctic Circle, where ravenous mosquitoes fly up his nose and nearly suffocate him. Later he calls his Texas girlfriend to say howdy, and she understandably threatens to dump him. Distraught, he climbs aboard a snowmobile to chase a bear and gets stuck in a snowdrift.
Turning south, Tennant and Vose follow their peregrines to Latin America, where they land at another remote airstrip and are nearly shot by a gunman who, inexplicably, wears no pants. Later, they fill their plane with waterlogged fuel, and the propeller cuts out somewhere over the Belize coast, sending the adventurers into a panic. Just in time, Vose gets the engine restarted. Before turning home, Vose is stricken with Montezuma's revenge, and Tennant's girlfriend dumps him at last.
Improbable as all this buffoonery may sound, it makes for enjoyable reading. Sure, Tennant loves his birds a little too much. But anyone who has seen a migrating peregrine--swooping across the sky like some magnificent warrior-angel--will forgive him. --Charles Hirshberg