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A Diamond in the Rough from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A review by Caitlin Kight

The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature, photos by Gerrit Vyn

Mountaineers Books, 2015

208 pages, $29.95—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14572

Undeniably gorgeous, The Living Bird feels good in the hand and catches the eye with its generous collection of striking photographs. It also features informative and compelling writing from such well-known and respected authors as Barbara Kingsolver, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, and Jared Diamond. Despite this combination of brains and beauty, the volume does not deliver the experience you might expect from a book about birds produced by one of the foremost ornithological institutions in the world.

The most significant problem with The Living Bird is its identity crisis: What is this book meant to be? Published in the centennial year of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Living Bird is intended, at least in part, to reflect on the institution’s achievements. The book’s subtitle refers to this landmark occasion, as does the very first sentence of the dust jacket blurb: “For 100 years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has researched the lives of birds, educating the public and striving for protection of species and habitat.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.19.28 PMThe jacket further promises that the book will reveal “the essence of the Lab’s work.” But there is no proper discussion of the organization until the last few pages, where it feels very much like an afterthought. There are fleeting mentions here and there, the bulk of which, however, feel crowbarred in. In Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s otherwise lyrical second chapter, for example, the story about eBird feels jarringly off-topic after the preceding 14 pages of more gentle meditation. The three—only three—profiles of lab researchers are informative and interesting, but some passages read like self-congratulatory propaganda without any direct explanation or obvious acknowledgment of the book’s celebratory purpose.

The promise held out by the subtitle is misleading in two ways. With its emphasis on “listening,” it hints that the book will focus on birdsong and audio recording, which proves not to be the case. Although the lab’s sound library is an important and well-known contribution to science, avian acoustics are discussed only fleetingly in a few passages, including the short profile of Greg Budney.

The other confusion created by the subtitle is in its invocation of “nature” as a whole, while The Living Bird focuses exclusively on wildlife of the feathered variety. Perhaps this is meant to recall the importance of birds as indicator species—a topic that is, in fact, visited more than once in the book. The word may also be intended to acknowledge that birds are often a sort of entryway to the study of nature as a whole, and subsequently to conservation. If that was the volume’s intention, it could have been better carried out by more explicitly and more consistently thematizing those ideas. The subtitle does not add clarity or focus to the main title, which itself is more poetic than informative.

Although it may seem like nitpicking, analyzing the title in such detail neatly encapsulates how unfocused the book feels throughout. The introduction states that The Living Bird “provides opportunities for both inspiration and reflection. It is an ode to birds, a celebration of everything we love about them. It is also a plea for action, a call to arms.” These things are all true, but without any overarching theme—such as the birthday of an institution that has worked on, and on behalf of, birds for the past 100 years—the reader is left struggling to find continuity in the otherwise disparate chapters, and wondering what, exactly, distinguishes this book from the many others that take up similar ideas.

BINbuttonCompounding this issue is the book’s second major problem, which is that its intended audience is not immediately obvious. It can’t be meant for people who need an introduction to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, because there is so little information about the organization itself. At the same time, the book probably isn’t aimed at lab insiders, who already understand the ecological and emotional relevance of birds, the roles of the individuals profiled, and the logistics of field research. If The Living Bird is for established birders, then both the first chapter—Scott Weidensaul’s whirlwind survey of avian behavior—and the third—John Fitzpatrick’s comments on conservation—seem out of place, since most long-time observers will already be familiar with such matters.

Perhaps, then, the book is intended for initiates to the world of birding, or even for proto-initiates who might be swayed by the contents of The Living Bird. Barbara Kingsolver’s lovely foreword—the best six pages of the book—movingly addresses the way in which birds can win people over and change their lives for the better. Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s reflective second chapter probably resonates more with someone who has already spent time observing and philosophizing in the field, but might also serve as inspiration for budding birdwatchers. Beginners are also likely to be the greatest beneficiaries of the profiles and the “In the Field” sections, which help set the stage for the world of birding. These sections also contain some of the most focused and most engaging writing in the book.

The bottom line is that, while each portion of The Living Bird is perfectly acceptable as a self-contained unit, the collection is lacking in cohesiveness and consistency: The different sections feel as though they had been written for different purposes and different audiences. This results in a frustrating and unsatisfying read.

Images, of course, can speak across boundaries, appealing to a wide range of viewers regardless of experience or expertise. The Living Bird is filled with images—many of them generously formatted for optimal viewing—and it is almost tempting to wonder if the original idea was simply to create a compendium of photographs. The images are, without question, of high quality and expertly crafted. However, even they are a bit disappointing: As crisp and colorful and eye-catching as these photographs are, they aren’t always informative or unique, and this feels like a lost opportunity.

Take, for example, the mergansers on pp. 4–5, or the eiders on pp. 174–175. The detail in these images is incredible, and the male–female contrast is interesting. But in both sets of images, the birds are just…there…sitting or floating, more or less still. The reader doesn’t really get a sense of the personalities of the individual birds or of their species as a whole.

Compare these to the grouse photo on p. 198, where the novel camera angle results in a sense of expressiveness and attitude, or to the godwit image on p. 62, where the bird has been caught in an important behavior. Gerrit Vyn clearly has a keen sense of how to raise wildlife photography beyond mere identification plates and into the realm of educational and artistic composition. One wonders why the book isn’t full of photos that consistently reflect his ability.

One of the best aspects of The Living Bird is its series of multi-photo spreads. Groups of images have been carefully selected to inform on topics as varied as the natural history of the Bar-tailed Godwit, the diversity of avian nesting behaviors, the richness of species assemblages at particular locations, and anthropogenic impacts on avian habitats. Each of these collections offers real insights—pictures really can be worth a thousand words—and, cumulatively, the montages highlight the incredible diversity of this particular class of animals.

The appeal of these photo spreads speaks to birds’ ability to hold so many of us in thrall, to inspire excitement and interest and devotion, and to spark countless scientific investigations over the years. These are the very concepts that are supposed to be at the heart of the book, and, indeed, the Lab of Ornithology’s centennial celebration. That they are best addressed in only one particular aspect of The Living Bird, rather than in each of the book’s components in turn or in what it offers as a complete package, is a pity. The reader is left with the sense that an opportunity was missed here, whether because of a lack of clear direction at the start of the project or a need for more editorial oversight once the project got under way. Whatever the cause, the result is that The Living Bird seems more like a first draft than a final product—something that could have been a real gem but remains a diamond in the rough.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.24.46 PM

– By day, Caitlin Kight is part of the communications and marketing team at the University of Exeter; by night, she is a writer and editor for several science and nature magazines. Kight is the author of Flamingo (Reaktion Books, 2015), and can be found on Twitter at @specialagentCK.

Recommended citation:

Kight, C. 2016. A Diamond in the Rough from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology [a review of The Living Bird: 100 Years of Listening to Nature, photos by Gerrit Vyn]. Birding 48 (2): 66-67

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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