The Bluebird Effect
by Julie Zickefoose
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
355 pages, $28–hardcover
Here is a book whose graceful prose, charming illustrations, and exceptional design fully deserve every bit and byte of the praise that has been poured over it since its publication earlier this year. Julie Zickefoose’s writing is neat to the point of occasional elegance, and in the paintings, field sketches, and drawings that accompany her text, Zickefoose displays the full range of her graphic talent, from the witty to the touching, by way of many pictures that are, simply put, beautiful. Melissa Lotfy’s design makes it almost as much a pleasure to hold the book as to read it: I wish more bird books were square.
I expect birders to notice such things. But remarkably, The Bluebird Effect has broken out of ornitho-circles to be lauded just as loud in the popular press as well, from the Sunday papers to the book blog of a television talk show host so famous that she can get by with only one name. And
all agree. This is a bird book for everyone, and (if I may be so crass) the spectacular sales figures at amazon.com suggest that that is precisely who’s reading it.
But one thing bothers me. Amid all this acclaim, well merited as it is, one vital question seems to have gone unasked by even the stillest and smallest voice. Yes, it’s a good book. But what is it about?
One of the sacred strands in the story of North American birding is the one that leads from the shotgun to the spotting scope. When we tell ourselves our history, we start with the Audubonian slaughter of the innocents, tarry briefly over Jonathan Dwight’s bird-in-the-hand bookplate, and rejoice in the oft-told triumph of Ludlow Griscom’s opera glass over firearmed skepticism. Birding, over the two centuries since Alexander Wilson roamed Cape May blasting away at everything feathered, has progressed—or at least so our narrative would have it—from an act of pursuit and possession to a discipline of observation and admiration. We’ve transcended the primitive materialism that needs to grasp everything and we’ve matured into a cooler, more abstract, more intellectual culture that can find satisfaction in contemplation.
History doesn’t always proceed in a straight line, and progression isn’t always progress. The dialectical pendulum is swinging back at astonishing speed, and the past decade or so has seen a relaxation, even an incipient rejection, of the hands-off puritanism that guided our interactions with birds and other wild creatures in the days when I was a new birder. Historically and culturally, the American birding community has taken up again the childish ways we once so proudly put away.
If you happen to be among the more than one billion of earth’s human inhabitants who use Facebook, take an hour to run through your “friends” and their photos. Among mine, at least, images of birders quietly birding are significantly outnumbered by pictures of beaming souls clutching, touching, holding, cuddling, and grabbing birds. The mist net and the bal chatri trap have gone from researchers’ tools to hobbyists’ toys. Falconry is back in style, and the fashion industry’s slope back into feathers is growing slipperier every day.
The two dozen largely discrete essays that make up The Bluebird Effect are grouped by season, from “Spring Songbirds” to “Winter Musings”—a familiar organizational principle handed down from the very beginnings of nature writing. More subtle is the second chronological structure that Zickefoose layers on top of the calendrical. When the book begins, the author is “very young, barely able to reach over the woven wire fence” of a rural petting zoo; it ends, some decades later, with the death of Charlie, the Chestnut-fronted Macaw who Zickefoose feared might outlive her. There is, as the author herself notes, something of the memoir about this book, and we follow her from her days as a student and field worker into the years when painting, writing, and raising her own family have come to constitute what is to all appearances an immensely full and richly rewarding life.
But the book is still not about Zickefoose, and not even about the birds that populate the stories in each of the 25 chapters. It is instead about the meeting of the two; it is about intervention, the intentional, often literally hands-on interference in the lives and deaths of wild animals. The “bluebird effect,” the author explains, summarizes “the unknown consequences”—on birds and on people—“of a seemingly irrelevant action.” If a butterfly’s wing can raise a hurricane, then even so harmless and inadvertent an act as startling a hunting hawk may change the course of life for the hawk, for its prey, and for the human whose waving arms cost the raptor its meal.
This bluebird effect gives the book not only its title but also its third, most important, and perhaps unintended structural layer. Zickefoose’s stories proceed through the seasons of the calendar and through the years of her life, and they also move steadily along a scale of ever more intimate intervention into the lives of the birds, forcing the reader to confront important questions about the place of humans in nature—and about when enough is enough.
The Bluebird Effect begins with the author face to face with a “large tom turkey… feathers raised into an enormous sphere, his fleshy red, white, and blue wattles and doodads fully engorged.” Slightly intimidated, she lays her hand on the bird’s head and feels a “jolt of pure empathy …. something deep and primal, a realization that … there was someone in there … I could understand.” It ends with the painful account of life with her “raunchy, awful … tattered old” macaw. Falling somewhere between these extremes—the fleeting encounter with a barnyard bird and a tortured long-term relationship with a pet parrot that Zickefoose describes as a sort of interspecies marriage—are other interventions, some as innocent as throwing feathers into the air for nesting swallows, others as invasive as repeatedly removing chickadee nestlings from their box (surely with the appropriate permits) to serve as studio models. She even engages in predator and parasite control, microwaving infested nests and taking snakes for what I hope is not a euphemistic “ride down the road” when they come too close to her favored bird neighbors.
Zickefoose is a licensed bird rehabilitator, and many of the stories in The Bluebird Effect are about that particular form of interaction with wild birds. Undaunted by even the most demanding of wards, she raises hummingbirds, swifts, starlings, and more, giving them names, getting to know them as individuals, weeping over their corpses, and serving as what she unabashedly and without any apparent irony calls “their mother.” Such interventions are always strenuous and often heartbreaking, and to my view, almost never worth the terrific efforts Zickefoose writes so movingly about; I’d much prefer to see the considerable time and the considerable money required to keep a sparrow or an oriole alive in a cage for weeks or years devoted instead to preserving habitat or finding safe indoor homes for the feral cats whose attacks land so many birds on the author’s doorstep. Zickefoose disagrees: Intervention of this type might not matter so much to the birds, but, she says, the reward for us can be “a handful of human hearts connected in joy” as a rescued and healed Red-tailed Hawk soars overhead.
The most extreme interventions between humans and birds involve death, and the most extreme manifestation of death is extinction. Zickefoose fantasizes a sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and reports the real conversations, “absorbing and strangely sad,” she has held with those few living observers who actually saw the bird in its last years. She worries about how modern endangered species management practices might handle the discovery of a relict population. The birds captured, one by one … taken into huge enclosures. Artificially inseminated. Their eggs placed in incubators … their chicks fed by lifelike puppets …. Faced with a salvation like that, the birds would surely “fly away in a long, straight line … [from] the further workings of humanity,” a reaction the author imagines with sympathy.
There’s little can be done about the great woodpecker now, condemned a century ago to near-certain non-existence by collectors and pothunters. The guns still sound, though, aimed, legally, at wild birds from the Sandhill Crane to the Mourning Dove. Zickefoose has been one of the most outspokenly effective critics of the expansion of crane hunting in North America; the author admits here that the biological arguments are not clear-cut—it is at least possible that the increasing populations of this most abundant of the world’s cranes could bear a carefully managed “harvest”—but she argues that there is more to the issue than numbers. “I believe,” she writes, “that it is desirable to hold some species sacred.” And yet, she acknowledges, others can find the sacred in precisely that ultimate intervention, in killing and consuming the same birds that for many of us “awaken the untamed places in our hearts.”
The varieties of birderly experience and interaction described here are far from the detachment and intellectual distance that characterized our sport for most of the twentieth century. Again and again, Zickefoose asks herself not what she can see but rather what she can do: When
a wren nest is too precariously perched, when a potential predator eyes a still-innocent fledgling, or when a greedy vulture gets a stomach ache, she intervenes. She picks and chooses when bestowing aid on her fellow creatures; she poisons night-herons, releases starlings into the Ohio wilds, and calls cowbirds “impostors.”
I would be surprised to see birders pick up their shotguns again, but it seems clear that watching is inexorably giving way to holding, contemplation to interaction. What that might mean for the birds is less clear, but in her lovely and important Bluebird Effect—and,
no less, in the bluebird effect—Julie Zickefoose offers an unequivocally hopeful view of what it can mean for us. “By waving our arms at one hawk … we had intervened, and we were much the richer for it.” I hope she’s right.
Bloomfield, New Jersey