A review by Joy M. Kiser
Birds’ Nests of the World, by Mamoru Suzuki
Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, 2013
72 pages, $29.95—hardcover
For Japan’s beloved children’s book illustrator Mamoru Suzuki, the discovery of a bird’s nest near his home on the Izu Peninsula in 1986 was a metamorphic moment. Suzuki instantly felt a connection to the avian architect that had crafted blades of grass into such an elegant form. Just as the picture books that Suzuki had been illustrating were intended to nurture the minds of little readers, so that tenderly plaited cup of vegetation was devised to gently cradle a clutch of baby birds.
It occurred to Suzuki that if he studied birds, their nesting behaviors, and their efforts to survive, he might ultimately gain insight into his fellow human beings, their relationship with nature, and the universal quest for home.
Suzuki’s new passion led him to investigate the birds of Japan, where he secured a permit to collect nests after their inhabitants had fledged. Soon he expanded his research trips to other countries. Suzuki was mesmerized by the endless variety of nest shapes, the wide array of components and techniques employed in construction, and the plethora of colors and patterns shown by eggs. He noticed that like human cultures around the world, the feathered craftsmen adapted to their circumstances by utilizing the materials that were readily available–even incorporating bits of human trash into their nests. Suzuki determined that if humans and birds were to coexist, he must do his part by sensitizing his youthful readers to the wonders of the bird life around them and to the potentially devastating effects of pollution and habitat destruction.
Because few books had been published in Japan on the subject of birds’ nests, Suzuki resolved that he would fill the gap by writing his own, illustrated with paintings of nests from his collection.
In the 1990s, to learn more about birds’ nesting behaviors and to find subjects for his art, Suzuki began visiting the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology (WFVZ) in Camarillo, California, which houses the largest nest collection in the world. Suzuki and the captivating portraits he painted for his Bird Nest Stories, The Book of Birds’ Nests, My Bird Nest Collection, and Bird Nest Field Notes quickly won the respect and admiration of the scientific staff. Recognizing that Suzuki’s “children’s” books in fact had universal appeal, the WFVZ’s Linnea Hall and Rene Corado proposed an edition of Suzuki’s Birds’ Nests of the World for an English-speaking audience.
Birds’ Nests depicts the nests and eggs of species from the Arctic to the Antarctic. The preliminary pages include an astounding world map ornamented by more than 400 birds and their nests, followed by an ingenious chart laying out the incredible diversity of nest shapes.
The 251 larger illustrations of birds, eggs, and nests are organized by nest location: on the ground, on cliffs, on walls, on the water, in shrubs, and so on. Nests built in trees are further organized according to shape, including large platforms, bowls, cups, and hanging and woven nests. Suzuki’s paintings are sensitively observed and thoughtfully rendered, presenting each bird in a characteristic pose and condensing its behavior to its essence.
Every page here is punctuated with fascinating notes on avian behavior. For example, the Malleefowl of Australia does not sit on its eggs to incubate them. Instead, it digs a pit in the sand at the end of winter and fills it with an elaborate mound of vegetation. The spring rains cause the materials to rot, which generates heat. The female Malleefowl lays her eggs in the decomposing heap, leaving the male bird to tend the eggs: Each morning he removes sand and vegetation from the pile so that the sun does not bake the eggs, then covers them again at night when the temperature drops. When the eggs hatch, each nestling digs its way out of the mound and is henceforth on its own–the parents have no contact with their offspring.
The Rufous-breasted Spinetail of Mexico constructs a nest with two rooms connected by a tunnel; the Eurasian Penduline Tit weaves a home of wool with a false entrance to fool predators; and the American Flamingo, which nests in lakes containing caustic soda from volcanic ash, must build a little mountain of mud to raise its nest high enough to protect its offspring from being burnt.
Curl up in your favorite spot for an armchair bird walk around the world. You will be mesmerized by Sukuki’s delightful depictions–and staggered by the encyclopedic detail this charming volume delivers.
– Joy M. Kiser is the former Librarian of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and of the National Endowment for the Arts; currently she is Advancement Research Specialist at Kent State University. Kiser is the author of the award-winning America’s Other Audubon, a biography of the remarkable but forgotten 19th-century ornithologist Genevieve Jones.
Recommended citation: Kiser, J. 2013. Feathered Craftsmen [a review of Birds’ Nests of the World, by Mamoru Suzuki]. Birding 45(6):65.