Be assured, “Cat Among the Pigeons” by David Muirhead is not a boring compilation of facts and information about the creatures in Africa, but rather an erudite and always entertaining collection of anecdotes, history, and interesting tidbits about those sometimes exotic (wildebeest), sometimes not (wasp), animals.
It’s a book that will delight those who have been to Africa on safari, those who aspire to visit Africa, and those who just enjoy reading the work of a clever writer who has quite a way with words. His descriptions of the animals are always on point, but also spiced with clever observations and literary connections. Only by sharing a few examples can the true brilliance of Muirhead’s writing be appreciated.
Regarding the python’s ability to eat an animal as large as an impala or wild dog, he writes, “After such a huge meal the snake is, of course, suddenly a great deal heavier, and it can take a couple of weeks to get back to sensible proportions. In the immediate aftermath, the rotund snake is itself vulnerable, not just to fat jokes, but also to predators with a taste for stuffed snake, with a surprise side dish of marinated impala.”
Or his description of how the Cuckoo, specifically the Piet-my-vrou, or the red-chested cuckoo, goes about laying its eggs in the nest of unsuspecting birds. “For a couple of lazy bastards, a pair of Piet-my-vrous set about their duplicitous scheme with surprising thoroughness. They first scout out the neighborhood for suitable nests. When they find one, the female cuckoo lurks nearby, taking note, like a sleazy private eye, of the comings and goings of the happy resident couple.” He goes on to explain that there are other birds who also abdicate parental responsibilities, including the cowbird of Central America.
We learn about the strengths and foibles of the creatures that inhabit Africa. He doesn’t shrink from sharing the vulnerabilities of some species which are on the verge of extinction or others who have been terribly abused by humans (which are many). As a doting grandmother, I was intrigued and pleased to note that vervet monkeys, who are adorable, rely on Grandma to increase an infant’s survival, and that a close bond can develop between the pair.
It’s not all fun and games and beautiful scenery on the African continent. Muirhead also shares the dangers as well as the struggle for survival species face when, “with its seasons and cycles, droughts and deluges, the African landscape can be a bleak place…”
Read about the large animals like the marabou stork (and what it has in common with Marilyn Monroe), the African buffalo and the leopard. Read about diminutive creatures like the golden orb-web spider, honeybee and wasp. No matter what page you turn to, you will be charmed, educated and entertained by the language and the lexicon of Mr. Muirhead.
Please note: This review is based on the final paperback book provided by Catalyst Press, the publisher, for review purposes.