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On Birds and Books

After a love of birds, the most commonly shared interest in the birding world is probably a love of books. Even with the rise of apps and massive internet databases, birders reliably look forward to the latest book about species identification, life histories, birding memoirs, and any number of other ornithological topics.

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I think of myself as equal parts book lover and bird lover. That’s one thing I love about the hobby: there’s no need to sacrifice one for the other. They go together. Birds and books reinforce our passion for both.

We know about spark birds. Here’s my story.

When I was twelve, my family went to Yellowstone, where I saw bison, elk, pronghorns, and moose. I fell in love with looking for big, charismatic animals. When I went home to Miami, I wanted to continue the search, but I quickly learned that South Florida lacks the interesting megafauna of the West. Instead, it’s a place of birds.

But I didn’t want to see birds. They didn’t have the same allure as the big mammals out in Yellowstone, until I noticed a shockingly bright orange and black bird in the live oak in my parents’ front lawn. I watched it forage up and down the tree until it left several minutes later. Then I went inside, found the Audubon field guide my parents had, and learned its name: spot-breasted oriole. That was the beginning.

I birded hard in middle school, less in high school, got back into it again in college while studying abroad in Costa Rica, and then dropped off again. Not having birding friends and a non-birding girlfriend were big factors for me.

Then, moved by my nostalgia for Central American rainforests, I picked up the ornithologist Alexander Skutch’s memoir-travelogue, The Imperative Call. I was hooked by the end of the foreword’s first paragraph:

Two voices summon men with a call so imperative that few who hear clearly can resist. One is the voice of religion, which bids us abandon all mundane pursuits and seek holiness, God, and life everlasting. The other is the voice of nature, which invites us to fill our spirits with its beauty and wonder and challenges us to disclose some of its closely hidden secrets. Obeying either of these voices, we may neglect nearly everything that prudent men esteem and strenuously seek: wealth, security, solid comfort, and social status. We may even abandon family, friends, and homeland to follow the call into a wilderness where perils lurk.

Skutch’s words touched me in a way that no other piece of writing ever has. I became addicted to the honesty and wisdom of his prose, his knowledge and intimacy with birds, and how he oriented his values around protecting the natural world. I read dozens of his other books, which range from memoirs and collections of essays to pure natural history to meditations on philosophy and theology. And I rediscovered my love of birds.

The Imperative Call was my spark book, or perhaps my re-spark book. It reminded me of the person I wanted to be and what my true interests were. I realigned my life so birds and books were my biggest priorities. I can’t understate how important this book was for me.

So many birders have heartwarming spark bird stories, but I’m confident nearly as many have spark book stories. If you have one, what was your spark book?

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Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre

Frank Izaguirre is a nature writer and a candidate for the Ph.D. in English Literature at West Virginia University with a special passion for the memoirs and essays of early Neotropical ornithologists. He likes his birding milestones to be palindromes, and is currently at 1001 birds.
  • Christine

    Like you, I reconnected with nature as a young adult. Terry Tempest Williams’s REFUGE was one of the first books I read at that time, in the early 1990s, and remains among the strongest influences on my thinking about the human connection to nature.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Refuge has undoubtedly helped a lot of people connect and reconnect with nature, as mentioned elsewhere on this very blog. I’ve also seen it cited before as the book that proved natural history could sustain a personal narrative, which was an important development in the nature writing genre. I have my criticisms of the book, but it’s a classic for a reason.

  • Christine

    I should mention another book, BIRDS EVERY CHILD SHOULD KNOW by Neltje Blanchan. Written more than a century ago, it remains a delightful and relevant read that is perfect for introducing children to birds. I wrote a review here: http://www.christinepetersen.com/2/post/2012/02/birds-blanchan.html

    • Frank Izaguirre

      The book sounds wonderful, and I enjoyed your review. I have a special love for what I like to call “forgotten classics,” and Birds Every Child Should Know sounds like it belongs in that category.

  • Donna Schulman

    I had been a birder for several years when I read Phoebe Snetsinger’s Birding on Borrowed Time. Phoebe’s memoir of her birding/listing obsession, finished posthumously after she died in an automobile accident on a birding trip, both inspired and haunted me. The inspiration was from a woman who just went out and did it. Birding saved her life and enhanced her existence. And, her world travels sounded like a lot of fun, mostly. But, the effect Phoebe’s birding obsession had on her relationship with her family was troubling. Not to mention the down side of traveling back then–serious illness and rape being the most serious. Olivia Gentile’s biography of Phoebe, Life List, helped me make sense of Phoebe’s life. I think of both books as my spark books. Phoebe’s “quest to see the world’s most amazing birds”, as Gentile put it, continues to inspire, but I also know that I don’t have to always put the birds first.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      I love Snetsinger’s Birding on Borrowed Time, and I agree her words are both inspirational and haunting. The way the book just ends I found especially chilling. I wish she had taken more time for introspection, as the few moments when she did slow down and reflect on her life were very interesting. I also agree that reading about the intensity of Snetsinger’s quest can serve as a cautionary tale in taking things too far. Skipping your child’s wedding to bird Colombia might be a bit much.

      I wasn’t as big a fan of Gentile’s book, which I read first. But I agree that reading the two of them helps add extra meaning to both books.

  • This is a great topic. My spark book was a Reader’s Digest book called “Birds: Their Life, Their Ways, Their World”. It was a big coffee table book that illustrated all of the bird families (as they existed in 1980-something). I must have checked that thing out of the local library a hundred times over several years.

    Funnily, I actually picked up a copy of it as part of a donation to a museum I worked at several years ago. A woman had donated the books in her deceased mother’s library and I grabbed a copy. I wrote about it at my own blog here: http://thedrinkingbirdblog.com/2012/03/09/the-books-that-make-us-birders/

    So now I have my own copy, and I never have to take it back to the library. The 8 year old me is thrilled.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Coffee table books are good ones too. I think my parents had a big one on wetlands that I really loved. I’m still a coffee book junkie: I really like a few I have on extinct birds, and the new Birds of Paradise one is great also.

  • yoericd

    I don’t think I really have a spark book, but I do have a “re-spark” book, much in the same way that Frank described. It would have to be Donald Kroodsma’s ‘Singing Life of Birds’. I’d already been birding for more than a decade before I read it, but that book fundamentally altered the way I bird and what my real point of interest is in birding itself. It wasn’t until I read that book that I was able to connect my lifelong love of music with birdsong, which seems in odd in retrospect that it took me so long. But Kroodsma fixed that for me. He also taught me that any bird holds a vast treasure trove of mystery and intrigue in their lives and behaviors (including American Robins!) if you’re willing to pay attention, which is something I’d not really done enough of beforehand.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      I really need to read that book. I thought Kroodsma’s essay in Birders Don’t Wear White was excellent, and I enjoyed reading about him secondhand in Don Stap’s Birdsong: A Natural History. The Singing Life of Birds even won the John Burroughs Award!

  • Patrick B.

    Mine is definitely the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds – the one with the “pleather” cover, probably a 1980 publishing. My dad used it as a field guide and he had checked off the birds he had seen. I used to just love going through that book and I memorized a lot of the photos. It’s a terrible field guide in a lot of ways, but I adored it. When I first started birding as an adult, I got a new version of that thinking it was the best thing out there.

    • Same here, Patrick! I had that guide as a child and loved pouring through the pictures. It has to be one of the worst field guides ever, but I still can’t help but look on that book with a smile.

    • I had that one too! Back then the only options for field guides where the pleather-bound Audubon guide and Robbins’ Golden Guide. How far we’ve come!

  • Jeanne

    My spark book is Birds of the World from the Golden Library of Knowledge, given to me by my parents way back when I was in single digits. We’ve been together ever since.

  • My spark book was the Sibley Guide. I’d been into in birds and nature as a child, but then lost interest. After college, an unforeseen purchase of the Sibley Guide got me thinking about birds again. And I’m still surprised by all that has led to!

    Here’s the complete story – http://www.birderslibrary.com/other/how-the-sibley-guide-made-me-a-birder.htm

  • Mary DeLia

    I didn’t really have a “spark” book, but there was a book that helped form who I am as a birder and how I connect with the natural world, On Watching Birds by Dr.Lawrence Kilheim. When I first got interested in birding, far too few years ago, I found this old dusty book on a bottom shelf at my local library. His philosophy of “watch everything” has stayed with me.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      That’s another one I really want to read! And it’s another John Burroughs Award winner.

  • Ted Floyd

    Hey, y’all. I know there’s a conversation raging right now about the countability of Chiffchaffs, but my e-muse compels me comment on this one. First off, great topic, great coverage by Frank, and great comments.

    I haveta say, the idea of a “spark book” was, initially anyhow, frustrating to me, in the same way that the idea of a “spark bird” was for so many years frustrating to me. Eventually, though, I came to realize that my spark bird was an opossum:

    http://blog.aba.org/2012/03/ted-floyd-my-favorite-bird.html

    As I pondered Frank’s post, I realized that my “spark book” wasn’t a book, and not even a single entity. Rather, it was the following: vol. 46, no. 9 (1982) of the Bulletin of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, the “Bird of the Month” column in Virginia Wildlife, and the Ron Byrom-produced and -narrated telephone rare bird alert sponsored by ASWP.

    It’s not that the Bulletin, the RBA, and “Bird of the Month” sparked my interest in birding. That interest was already there. But those three forums did something else, something grander: They sparked an awareness of and a fascination with the nexus of nature and nature-watchers. 30+ years later, that’s still what I’m all about. Not birds per se. And certainly not humans per se. But scarcely an hour, and certainly not a day, goes by without my pondering some aspect or aspects of the intersection of birds and people.

    Ron Byrom is dead now, and so is Joe Grom, who edited the Bulletin. And I can’t even remember the name of the chap who penned “Bird of the Month.” [Does anybody out there know? His essay on the Marsh Wren particularly affected me. The idea of going out at midnight and listening to a marsh full of wrens. Crazy! But what can I say?–I still enjoy listening to night-singing Marsh Wrens, more than three decades later.]

    There ya have it. No spark book for me, but rather a trinity of a newsletter, magazine, and recorded telephone message.

    Honorable mention, by the way, to the 4th edition of Peterson’s Field Guide, A Sand County Almanac, and Tales of a Low-rent Birder.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      Ted, your interest with “the nexus of nature and nature-watchers” reminds me of the way I like to think of the relationship between nature and nature writing. I imagine it as a positive feedback-loop: nature inspires people to write beautiful art, which inspires other people to enjoy the beauty of nature and help protect it, which in turn inspires more art, etc.

      I think capturing the interest and beauty of nature on the page is worth it for its own sake, but thinking about the exchange that occurs between nature and nature-watchers/nature writers is important and enjoyable.

  • Katrina

    I can’t think of any book that particularly got me into birds but I can tell the story of the one that got me into collecting bird books that other people thought I didn’t need. Sometime around 1985,I found a book in Hawk Mountain’s little gift shop that was full of fascinating, exotic birds. It was either just before or just after I graduated from college and I didn’t have any money to spare but I just had to have that book full of birds I thought I’d never see. The book was A Field Guide to the Birds of Japan by The Wild Bird Society of Japan. I showed it to my father, also a birder, and he pretty much told me that I was foolish for buying such a useless book. (Owning books was never really encouraged in my family despite the fact that my parents both read a lot. That’s what the library was for.)

    Flash forward most of 20 years to my brother falling in love a marrying a woman from Tokyo. Then one day I all of a sudden I had a plane ticket to Japan and not much time to prepare. And there on my shelf was the “useless” book I’d bought all those years ago. I’m really glad it was there because it was out of print by then and used copies were selling for $80-100 if they could be found at all.

    I now have many hundreds of books about birds, many of them “useless” but other people’s standards.

    • Frank Izaguirre

      What a great story. I impulsively bought a used Birds of the West Indies online once, mostly because I liked the novelty of having a book by the original James Bond. A friend of mine later told me he was traveling to St. Thomas and he didn’t have a field guide, so I lent him James Bond and the book helped him come out with several lifebirds.

      Only problem with all this book collecting is that pretty soon my office won’t have room for me anymore.

  • M Bowman

    In 1998, I saw a scarlet tanager out the window of my cabin in the western North Carolina woods. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and it made me start looking at every bird with new interest. I had always had hummingbird feeders, but . . . So much for a “spark bird”. What got me interested in listing was Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway. I had no idea that there was any such thing as a “big year” until I read that book. Now I rarely read fiction. I do have favorite authors – Scott Weidensaul and Bernd Heinrich come to mind, but I have also read most of the other books mentioned on this blog.

  • R Filion

    My spark book is not a book; it is a list of writings from Julia Zarankin. This former professor of Russian Literature and Culture is a truly gifted writer who “unintentionally became a birder”. She lives near Toronto and writes on various blogs including her own. I first discovered her articles through Ontario Nature’s Wildlife Blog and I’ve been savouring every word she’s written ever since. Why did it create a spark for me? Because it made me realize that the excitement and fulfilment that comes with birding doesn’t just start after your life list reaches 300. It starts with bird #1. That’s where Julia brings us… to bird #1; with her unique style and refreshingly smart sense of humour, she’s able to put into words the excitement of being a beginner birder. It makes birders like me (who didn’t start birding at a young age) appreciate every minute of this new passion.

    Julia Zarankin’s blog:
    http://coyot.es/birdsandwords

    You can also read more of her excellent stories on Ontario Nature’s Wildlife Blog

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