August 2009

Colleen Mondor

features

A Flock of Books

Over the past few years it seems bird books have been enjoying a prolonged moment in the limelight. I'm not talking about perennial favorites like field guides, but rather the long list of titles devoted to birdwatching, birdwatchers or living with birds. From Birding Babylon, Sergeant Jonathan Trouern-Trend's surprising memoir of birding while serving in Iraq, to the insanity of Luke Dempsey's A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All. (See also The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik and To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, A Son and A Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel) clearly the story of people who look for birds has become as compelling, if not more so, than the animals themselves.

It is no surprise that there are a lot of nonfiction titles on birdwatching. It is after all an inexpensive, exceedingly healthy and endlessly fascinating hobby that certainly would see a resurgence in lean economic times. But birds appearing in fiction is less expected and yet birdish titles are everywhere on the literary shelves. Even though birds have little or nothing do with the novels themselves. In the past two years alone we find In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefield (featuring an ornithologist and bird artist), The Bird Catcher by Laura Jacobs (a hobbyist who is "as rare and special as the birds that fill the skies above her," and The Nightingales of Troy, a series of linked stories by Alice Fulton that doesn't seem to be about birds at all although they figure prominently on the cover. Brad Kessler's Birds in Fall is about an ornithologist grieving after her husband's death in a plane crash. It explores mythic themes and, as quoted in Booklist, asks "How is a story like a bird?" (Someone should contact Anne Lamont for the answer to that one -- see Bird by Bird for more info there.) Finally there is Lauren Groff's collection, Delicate Edible Birds whose title story is about a female war correspondent during WWII. In each of these books (and the so many others like them titled in a similar fashion), it is the idea of birds which conveys the author's meaning. Clearly we all react to birds in a basic and visceral manner and further, we want to read books that are in some slight or even metaphorical way about them.

In the broadest sense, Scott Weidensaul's Of A Feather takes readers through the entire history of American birding. While Audubon, Peterson and all the other expected great names are here, there are many other reasons why anyone interested in the subject should consider this a must-read. Weidensaul begins by addressing birds in Native American myth, acknowledging that birds figured predominantly in their history and traditional ornithology was alive and well long before Europeans arrived on American shores. He recounts Audobon's life with a lens turned deeply personal, revealing the many struggles suffered by the artist and his family, including bankruptcy, the deaths of children and the ever present worry over whether or not his dream (the future classic Birds of America) was worth it. From there he writes about dozens of other lesser-known scientists and hobbyists who all left their mark on the field from Elliott Coues who collected specimens across the west (and many numerous enemies in the course of a turbulent but fruitful career) to Martha Maxwell, a self taught taxidermist who revolutionized animal displays in spite of a career adversely affected by her gender. (She was also the first woman with a bird to bear her name, a subspecies of screech-owl she collected.)

Weidensaul recognizes that women quite famously contributed to the efforts to save birds (and end the dreadful fashion of using feathers in hats -- something they initiated). There is Florence Merriam, who he credits with writing, "in a sense the first field guide to American birds" and an entire chapter on "Angry Ladies" which features Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna Hall who led an opposition to the use of feathers and skins by the millinery trade. He also writes about Rosalie Edge who founded Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the first refuge in the world for raptors. Weidensaul keeps the names and dates coming with the turn of each page but he balances every fact with an anecdote, making the book a sort of history that is both casual and direct -- and very readable. He also plays a bit with pop culture, recalling Miss Hathaway, the spinster bird watcher in the The Beverley Hillbillies and the struggle for coolness in a hobby that does not engender a Steve McQueen-like image. But more than all of that, he comes back to the necessity to keep conservation at the forefront of any birding endeavor -- more so than racing to fill the life list. He looks "beyond the list" in fact, to the current trend which hopefully will see the return of the full swath of American ornithology: "science, sport and conservation". Birding should never be simply about a tick mark on a list of names but rather "a celebration of the creature that makes it all possible -- the small, contained miracle that is a bird."

Esther Woolfson would certainly agree with Weidensaul's conclusions, and likely impress him with her dedication to birds. In Corvus: A Life With Birds she discusses another trend among bird books: a memoir of caring for birds that can not be released into the wild. Woolfson's case is a bit more unusual than most as the birds that are part of her life (and her Shirley Jackson-ish family) are corvids: rooks, crows, magpies and ravens. With a wealth of mythic lore to support their supposedly evil tendency (damn you Edgar Allen Poe!), the corvid is not the automatic choice for pet and Woolfson makes clear that they do not see themselves as such either. One comes to terms with a corvid -- agrees to share space with him -- but does not ever find him "cute". He's too smart for that, and far too independent.

What makes Woolfson's memoir such enjoyable reading (even for the non-bird-obsessed) is that she is funny and knows it's rather crazy to have a magpie, crow, starling or most significantly a rook named "Chicken," running about your house. But her affinity for birds is undeniable. After successfully building a dovecote in her backyard she found herself becoming the recipient of every ill or wounded wild bird her neighbors came across. Her family willingly embarked on this Durrell-ish adventure with her as the birds were brought in, nursed back to health and then enjoyed an often cage-free existence within the home. Woolfson shares all of the chaotic beauty of life lived this way (including the open-minded stance of one daughter who believes birds should never be caged) while also delving deeply in the rich literary and scientific history of corvids. The book is thus a unique blend of family humor and science, nature study and hilarity. Although I can not imagine having birds flying about my home with such abandon, Woolfson is happy to share hers with us providing the inside scoop on a bird many readers know but few truly understand. Teens in particular will enjoy this title and for Durrell fans it is an obvious must.

After reading about Rosalie Edge's work on Hawk Mountain, and reviewing Tim Gallagher's falconry book, I was quite intrigued to come across Rachel Dickinson's Falconer on the Edge. Dickinson is married to Gallagher, although, as she candidly admits, the notion of sharing a large portion of her life with raptors never crossed her mind. She reveals a few insights about marriage to the sport in this title but mostly she writes about Steve Chindgren, an extreme falconer whose life is framed around the sport. Although happily married and a proud father, Chindgren still leaves his home in Utah for months out of the year to travel to Wyoming with his birds and dogs to hunt. This is not a weekend adventure to him -- it is, to a large extent, everything. Dickinson is intrigued by such commitment and also the unique relationship between man and bird. Chindgren pushes himself, his dogs and his aging bird Jomo to continue the hunt even though all of them are slowing down. He wants Jomo to go out in a glorious moment -- doing what he loves best, just as he seems to long for the same ending as well. Dickinson can't be entirely sure what she is seeing as she watches Chindgren in action but she knows it is something far beyond the bounds of typical human/animal interaction. It seems simplistic to say the man and the bird are kindred spirits but they are bound beyond reason to each other and the compulsive, all-powerful need to hunt.

Anyone writing about falconry, and the relatively large subculture of participants it represents around the world, can not help but notice its deep connection to nature and the wild. Dickinson spends time in Wyoming with Chindgren and travels the oil fields to witness the impact of drilling on the sage grouse. There is an ongoing battle in the state to keep the bird off the endangered species list as that would affect drilling, which means affecting jobs. Falconers rely on sage grouse as primary prey for their birds. They walk a fine line between protecting birds that they need to thrive for their hunt. This dip into political waters should broaden the appeal of Falconer on the Edge to anyone intrigued by what goes on between levels of government that affect one animal's future in one small location on the planet. By peering so deeply into the life of this man and his sport, Dickinson finds herself studying the very nature of the American West. Chindgren himself is conflicted by what he finds while hunting with Jomo and the opinions of so many he encounters in Wyoming. "Anything they think threatens their livelihood they want to get rid of, and that's something that's passed on for generations and generations," he says. But Dickinson clearly wonders what remains of that West as she drives among the wells. And readers will ponder just what part of this new landscape is iconically western, especially if it is at the expense of an animal like the sage grouse that was here before anyone and anything else. All Chindgren wants to do is keep flying birds, and what space there is for them in the 21st century we can not know, nor can we understand just yet how important he and his birds might be to both our past and our future.

The mother of all birding books, the one for poring over and gaping at, is the rather titanic American Museum of Natural History Birds of North America. Yes, it's a doorstop and not one for throwing in the backpack while setting out on a hike. But if you want the pictures big and colorful, if you want to see birds in flight and at rest, from multiple angles, as adults and juveniles; if you want to really be able to consider all of your identification options, then this is the one for you. The authors provide descriptions that transcend color and size; from the Green Heron, "a small, solitary, and secretive bird of dense thicketed wetlands," to the Cory's Shearwater with its "slow, labored wing beats," care has been placed in the choice and rhythm of words. You do not just receive facts but beautifully written ones, along with a smattering of history, discussion of discoverers, description of voice and nesting habits and location maps. Could you find it all in a field guide or two (or perhaps several to cover all the information), well yes. But even if you could, wouldn't you still rather like it all in front of you, in all its glory, and so easy to enjoy? Yes, you must. As a treat, as an example of devotion, this unwieldy, oversized, heavier-than-heck Birds of North America is really not to be denied.

But of course, at the end of the day, the only truly indispensible birding book is the field guide and there are literally hundreds to choose from depending on region, type, information, presentation, etc. And yet finally, if you want to immerse yourself in the glory of birds, if you really want to see them on the printed page as something beautiful and elegant and in a few cases, oddly strange, then you must seek out Andrew Zuckerman's Bird. The follow-up to his equally dazzling Creature, this collection of photographs captures only the birds, absent their habitat, minus action, appearing almost like your great Aunt Gladys if Zuckerman could have persuaded them to gape at the camera with impatient expressions. It is a coffee table book which makes it sound like something to peruse while waiting for an overdue date, but it's really much more -- the best blend of craft and subject and something that brings home the message Scott Wiedensaul and all the other bird lovers have made here: this is a wondrous creature and we need to do what we can to save them. It might be trendy to put the word "bird" in a book title but the responsible thing to do -- the enlightened 21st century thing -- is to pony up your money and your time and save them. Because they are birds; and that is more than enough reason for anybody.