And Now For Something Completely Different...
As I sit at the dining room table watching Black-capped Chickadees, Common Redpolls, and the occasional nuthatch fly back and forth from the feeder, it occurs to me that I have spent almost my entire life doing this: watching birds. It began when I was young with plastic binoculars and a Golden Guide to the Birds. The fascination continued through my young adult years when family vacations took me to northern lower Michigan, and I desperately wanted to see an endangered bald eagle soaring over the dunes along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In college I became fascinated with loons in part because of where they are found ... on northern lakes, and that fascination carried over into the beginnings of my career in biology. Today, I still work with birds, but at somewhat of a remove, and to be honest all the number-crunching that accompanies that work does not come close to matching the interest I have in simply seeing and hearing them.
But as I sit here, I began to wonder what books fed my curiosity through the years, so I went to my shelves and found the ones that have stayed with me. These are not the scientific volumes, mind you, but the books that celebrate birds in general. There may be some science attached to some of them, but it's not overwhelming and the underlying fascination with the simple beauty, song, and joy of birds is what makes each of these books remarkable and why they are still on my shelf. So, if you're interested, here are my favorites.
For the kid in each of us, or the ones in our lives:
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen I was swept away by Jane Yolen's Owl Moon when I first discovered it. Though I don't particularly identify with the story of a father taking his daughter out "owling" under the full moon, I do identify with the experience of the silent winter woods, of listening to the deep, resonant conversations of owls in the darkness, and of occasionally being fortunate enough to call one in to view by mimicking the sounds. I bought a brand new copy of it so that I could one day share it with my niece, but when that time came, I bought another copy for her and kept the one I had.
Bird Watch by Jane Yolen My wife and I had just moved to Wisconsin (Lake Geneva) when I found Yolen's Bird Watch in the public library. It was winter then, and I sat by a window overlooking the lake and read the entire thing. Published three years after Owl Moon, Bird Watch is a book of poetry, about common birds - turkeys, killdeer, robins - and their simple beauty. The opening poem, "Bird Watcher," is one of my favorites.
Across the earless
face of the moon
a stretch of Vs
From the lake
laughs the last joke
of a solitary loon.
Winter silences us all.
I will miss
the trips at dawn
where I listen carefully,
only with my eyes.
The illustrations in Bird Watch (drawn by Ted Lewin) are equally as enjoyable as the poems, and the image of birds sitting on wires drawn to look like a musical chart for the poem "Song/Birds" is simple and clever.
For the young adult reader:
In Search of a Sandhill Crane by Keith Robertson I cannot remember how I came to own In Search of a Sandhill Crane by Keith Robertson. I think it may have been one of the many former library books my dad brought home from work (he was a high school history teacher). However it came to be, I have held tight to this book since then, my name, address, and phone number scrawled in my newly-learned cursive handwriting on the inside of the front cover.
Published in 1973, this is a story about 15-year-old Link Keller, who lives with his mother in New York (his father died when he was younger). One summer, when his mother's employer signs her up for a 10-week computer training course in Ohio, the family - his mother and various aunts and uncles - fret about what to do with Link while she's gone. Eventually it is decided that he will spend the summer with his Aunt Harriet, whom he's met only once but who lives in Michigan and has a cabin in the Upper Peninsula. In the midst of the planning for his trip, Link's Uncle Albert, a quiet, rather eccentric man who enjoys birds, asks if Link will find and photograph a Sandhill Crane for him. This becomes Link's challenge, along with surviving the wilds of far northern Michigan, which is probably what attracted me to the book. My young imagination was attracted to anything involving time spent in the wild (especially northern Michigan), in search of a bird, and involving canoes and packs. My older imagination still is.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich Bernd Heinrich has a talent for simple experiments that lead to astounding insights on bird behavior. He is currently a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont, and he is an internationally recognized authority on ravens, about which he has written extensively in the scientific journals but also in the popular press. The book I have, Ravens in Winter, is just one example of his sheer brilliance.
I first became interested in ravens while working as a field research assistant in Maine one summer. I was particularly awe-struck by the variety of their vocalizations. (What I thought was a bongo player in the middle of the Maine woods one day turned out to be a raven.) So it was with this interest that I read Ravens in Winter and enjoyed my first exposure to a scientist who can also write in engaging prose. Ravens in Winter is in essence a book-length scientific paper, but it is written in a style that is easy to read, such that bird enthusiasts as well as scientists can share in Heinrich's discoveries. He does things as simple as hiding a deer carcass in the snow to see how long it takes ravens to find it and how they communicate that find to others. This is a wonderful introduction to an iconic species of the north and one that holds cultural importance as well as scientific interest. The raven figures prominently in many Ojibwe and Native Alaskan stories, being both a trickster and a benevolent provider to the people.
The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose Finally, I recently came into possession of Julie Zickefoose's The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds as a result of my participation on the selection committee for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award (http://www.northland.edu/SONWA-Overview.htm). The Bluebird Effect was submitted by its publisher as a candidate for the award.
Zickefoose is an artist who specializes in biological illustration, and I am including the book in this list of my favorites based on her artwork alone. I haven't even read it yet, but the illustrations are so wonderful that I have no doubt this book will hold a place on my shelf for years to come.
Well, the feeding wave has ended. The birds darting back and forth in front of the dining room window have gone, probably into the trees to stay warm. They will be back later, just as they do every day. Until they return, I will look for them in the pages of my books.