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Reading About Birds

By 49thShelf
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I like birds well enough. I love that they're in the world. But while I don't go far out of my way to see them, I do make a point of reading books about people who do, because of the way that birding is about patience, paying attention, following one's passions—and these are lessons for us all. The first few books on the list are books I love, and others are books that look excellent.
Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder
Why it's on the list ...
Zarankin's memoir is a life in birding, a rich and generous, joyous books. It's basically a guide to being a person in the world.
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Birds Art Life
Excerpt

One winter, not so long ago, I met a musician who loved birds. This musician, who was then in his mid-thirties, had found he could not always cope with the pressures and disappoint­ments of being an artist in a big city. He liked banging away on his piano like Fats Waller but performing and promoting himself made him feel anxious and de­pressed. Very occasionally his depression served him well and allowed him to write lonesome songs of love but most of the time it just ate at him. When he fell in love with birds and began to photograph them, his anxieties dissipated. The sound of birdsong reminded him to look outwards at the world.
 
That was the winter that started early. It snowed end­lessly. I remember a radio host saying: “Global warming? Ha!” It was also the winter I found myself with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked as it should. I watched those around me who were still successfully carrying on, organizing meals and careers and children. I wanted to be reminded. I had lost the beat.
 
My father had recently suffered two strokes. Twice—when the leaves were still on the trees—he had fallen and been unable to get up. The second fall had been particularly frightening, accompanied by a dangerously high fever brought on by sepsis, and I wasn’t sure he would live. The MRI showed microbleeds, stemming from tiny ruptured blood vessels in my father’s brain.
The same MRI also revealed an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. An “incidental finding,” according to the neurologist, who explained, to our concerned faces, his decision to withhold surgery because of my father’s age.
 
During those autumn months, when my father’s situation was most uncertain, I felt at a loss for words. I did not speak about the beeping of monitors in generic hospital rooms and the rhythmic rattle of orderlies pushing soiled linen basins through the corridors. I did not deliver my thoughts on the cruelty of bed shortages (two days on a gurney in a corridor, a thin blanket to cover his hairless calves and pale feet), the smell of hospital food courts and the strange appeal of waiting room couches—slick vinyl, celery green, and deceptively soft. I did not speak of the relief of coming home late at night to a silent house and filling a tub with water, slipping under the bubbles and closing my eyes, the quiet soapy comfort of being cleaned instead of cleaning, of being a woman condi­tioned to soothe others, now soothed. I did not speak about the sense of incipient loss. I did not know how to think about illness that moved slowly and erratically but that could fell a person in an instant.

I experienced this wordlessness in my life but also on the page. In the moments I found to write, I often fell asleep. The act of wrangling words into sentences into paragraphs into stories made me weary. It seemed an overly complicated, dubious effort. My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly.
 
Even though the worst of the crisis passed quickly, I was afraid to go off duty. I feared that if I looked away, I would not be prepared for the loss to come and it would flatten me. I had inherited from my father (a former war reporter/professional pessimist) the belief that an expectancy of the worst could provide in its own way a ring of protection. We followed the creed of preventive anxiety.
 
It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as anticipatory grief, the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepi­datory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.
 
I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness. My received images of grief came from art school and included portraits of keening women, mourners with heads bowed, hands to faces, weeping by candlelight. But anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting, monitoring all directions continually. Like the women who, according to legend, once paced the railed rooftop platforms of nineteenth-century North American coastal houses, watching the sea for incom­ing ships, hence earning those lookouts the name widow’s walk. I was on the lookout, scouring the horizon from every angle, for doom.

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Why it's on the list ...
Maclear's much celebrated memoir lives up to the hype. A gorgeous, artful book.
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A Siege of Bitterns

A Siege of Bitterns

A Birder Murder Mystery
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
I LOVE this series of novels about super birder Domenic Jejeune, a Canadian police inspector who works and birds on the East Coast of England. A SIEGE OF BITTERNS is the first instalment and a great place to start, but the whole series is excellent.
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Birding with Yeats

Birding with Yeats

A Mother's Memoir
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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Why it's on the list ...
This book has stayed with me for years, and every time I have asked my child, "What do you see?" and being genuinely interested in the answer, I am stealing a page from Lynn Thomson's memoir of birds and parenting her rara avis child.
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Ruby's Birds

Ruby's Birds

by Mya Thompson
illustrated by Claudia Dávila
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Why it's on the list ...
A publication of the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and illustrated by CanLit superstar Claudia Dávila, this picture book is a legit delight.
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Happiness is a Rare Bird

Happiness is a Rare Bird

Living the Birding Life
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

There is nothing better than the sight of a rare bird. Whether sitting in your backyard when an errant traveller stops by, or trekking to an exotic location, every encounter is a gift.

Through a lifetime of experiences, Gene Walz shares the joy of the birding life in Happiness is a Rare Bird.

With quirky terms such as vagabonds, endemics, fall-out, jinx birds, and lifers, the unique birding community brings together kindred spirits to marvel at the incredible diversity of their avian subjects.

Fro …

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The Bedside Book of Birds

The Bedside Book of Birds

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover Hardcover

From The Bedside Book of Birds ~
Stevenson remembered the story of a monk who had been distracted from his copy-work by the song of a bird. He went into the garden to listen more closely, and when he returned, after what he thought were only a few minutes, he discovered that a century had gone by, that his fellow monks were dead and his ink had turned to dust. The song of the bird had given him a taste of Paradise, where an instant is as a hundred years of earthly time. Was the same true of time …

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Excerpt

Introduction

I came to the birds relatively late in life. For almost thirty-seven years I didn’t understand birdwatching. I remember how eccentric, how curious – even mysterious – I found the activity. Who were these tens of thousands of people with sensible shoes, a predilection for paramilitary raingear, and an almost risible devotion to birds?

Some collect species for their “life list” (that compilation of all the birds one has seen in a lifetime); they are chasers, for whom birding is a competitive sport. Some are scientists, and others work on nesting maps, migration monitoring or bird banding. For the majority of enthusiasts, however, birdwatching simply provides a personal and very special entrée into the natural world.

Years ago I found myself sheltering by the wheelhouse on the Cachalote, a 52-foot motorsailer cruising in the Galapagos. A metallic sea was rising beneath sullen clouds that shredded themselves against the hills of Isabella Island. Everything was grey and black, and the ship was pitching uncomfortably.

I hadn’t been expecting to see my first albatross until later, on Hood Island, where they nest. But in an abrupt clearing of the mist and driving rain, there it was, drifting low over the ragged sea. Enormous and powerful, effortless as sleep, it crossed our wake and then was gone in another squall. While some would say this sighting was merely luck, others might call it grace.

Suddenly any memory of whatever I might have learned about the albatross seemed irrelevant. It was enough to have seen it at that moment, and I was left with an enchanted sense that I had received a gift.
At its heightened moments, birdwatching can encourage a state of being close to rapture. It is an ecstasy that is said to accompany the writing of poetry; sometimes it comes when we’re listening to music.

I suspect that, if I am fortunate enough to await death naturally, dreaming in a chair by some open window, the image of that Waved Albatross, with its great pale head and eight-foot wingspan, will still be a source of gratitude and wonder to me.

When I first wrote about the Waved Albatross, the idea of compiling a selection of writing that explored the ways in which humans have engaged themselves with birds began to grow in my mind. With the zeal of a convert, I started taking note of, then collecting, and finally obsessively searching out texts that illustrated something – almost anything – about our shared response to birds.

This book is the result. It isn’t so much about birds themselves as it is about the richly varied and sometimes very intimate relationships that we have established with them during the hundreds of thousands of years that we and they have shared life on earth. It is also about the often grimmer ways in which birds have been forced to relate to us.

Humans developed as a species in a world full of birds. Despite seeing images of the great flocks of waders and marsh birds in African wetlands, or the millions of nesting Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Puffins, and various species of Gulls on northern sea-cliffs, it remains hard for us to conceive just how omnipresent birds must have been in the lives of our forebears.

Somewhere along the way we identified ourselves with them, and came to associate birds with the realm of spirits, as opposed to that of bodies and their carnal appetites.

Perhaps for this reason there’s an abundance of intriguing material about birds, from all times and all cultures. Not only do they feature in creation myths, in sagas and parables, in liturgies and in fairy tales, but poets, writers, story-tellers and artists in all ages have found them a fertile source of imagery and symbol.

In the end I decided to divide the book into nine sections – nine different habitats, if you like, where certain species are naturally gathered together.

Material within the sections is more instinctively arranged. I’d like the reader, in exploring my “habitats,” to encounter the unexpected, just as one might when exploring a richly varied but unfamiliar woodland: because the trail is unpredictable and you can’t see beyond the surrounding foliage, you never know quite what to expect.

You might even discover some unanticipated aspect of self; for birds, in dream theory, are symbols for the personality of the dreamer.

Graeme Gibson

1: "Oh, the Birds..."
Birds Observed and Recorded

Swallows certainly sleep all winter. A number of them
conglobulate together, by flying round and round, and then all in a heap
throw themselves under water, and lye in the bed of a river.
—Samuel Johnson

I was coming to the end of a week scouting for a series of birding trips in Cuba’s Zapata swamp, the vast area of marshland, reed-beds and low mixed forest that surrounds the Bay of Pigs. My companions were Orlando Garrido, Cuba’s senior ornithologist, and Rogelio, an excellent forest warden and a wonderful man. At our last breakfast, with the Bay a limpid turquoise beyond a crescent beach and the air resounding with the gargling of Cuban crows, Garrido told me that Rogelio had a special surprise for us. They both grinned knowingly but neither would elaborate.

Later that morning, just off an old logging road, Garrido pointed to a tangle of sticks about twelve metres up in a nondescript tree. It was the nest of a Gundlach’s Hawk, with the white and woolly shape of a nestling on its edge. Discovered just two days earlier, it was only the fourth official nesting site found in the twentieth century.

As we circled to the other side we saw the adult’s rounded tail, then the whole bird. Watching us out of a cautious red eye, she’d frozen completely. Although her throat trembled, she didn’t even blink.
The Gundlach’s is a fine, strong bird, very much like our Cooper’s Hawk. It is an endangered species endemic to Cuba, and only a handful of other people had ever seen one on the nest. All of us, I think, were sobered; certainly we were quiet.

On the way back it occurred to me that there were undoubtedly more skins of Gundlach’s Hawk in museums around the world than there were live birds in the whole of Cuba. In the nineteenth century, most people treated birds as if they were stamps waiting to be included in a prize collection. As a result, countless thousands of birds and their eggs were collected. Considered a ­necessary part of scientific behaviour, this kind of killing was done by men as important as Audubon, who once wrote that he felt incomplete if he didn’t kill a hundred birds a day.

As one of the first bird artists to use fresh models – which he meticulously posed after threading thin wires into their bodies – Audubon would sometimes kill a dozen individuals before finding the one he wanted. Most of us are defined by the age we live in – Audubon included – and in the nineteenth century birds were routinely slaughtered in astonishing numbers. Audubon reports that in a single day forty-eight thousand Golden Plovers were gunned down near New Orleans.

On May 28, 1854, William David Thoreau, who earned some of his keep by collecting specimens for science, wrote in his diary: “The inhumanity of science concerns me, as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species. I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.”
But now, in the twenty-first century, I suspect that most birdwatchers would find it harder to identify a dead bird in the hand than a living one in flight.

When I think of the Gundlach’s Hawk, it’s the red eye I remember best, and that fluffy ball of a nestling. Despite being delighted and moved, I couldn’t help feeling we shouldn’t be there. We meant trouble for the mother and her young, and that brilliant red eye seemed to acknowledge it. We weren’t the first to alarm her, and I feared we wouldn’t be the last.

Sadly I was right: the following year I learned that her nestling had been captured, and after appropriate training in the disciplines of falconry, was being used to scare other birds away from the runways of Havana’s international airport. I felt somehow culpable, and I still do when I remember.

One of the rewards of birdwatching is the brief escape it affords from our ancient and compelling need to make Nature useful. There may even be something of Thoreau’s “true knowledge” in that evanescent taste of freedom.

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Pukaskwa

Pukaskwa

A Naturalist’s Year Surveying Birds in the Lake Superior Wilderness
edition:Paperback

Over a twelve-month period spanning 1976–77, Soren Bondrup-Nielsen conducted bird surveys in the territory that would become Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced Puck-a-saw), a tract of wilderness on the northern shore of Lake Superior. As plans to establish the new park were taking shape, Bondrup-Nielsen?together with his wife, both graduate students in the zoology department at the University of Toronto?won a contract to study its avian life. Fuelled by youthful idealism and eager for adventu …

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