Watching birds is one of the joys of the outdoor year (or the indoor year, given the right window placement). Emily Dickinson notes the “independent ecstasy” of their songs. And we can discern personalities in certain birds. Jays will peremptorily take over a feeding station. Chickadees perkily fly in for a seed or two or a sip of water. Sparrows seem to eat anything and make up in numbers for their drab garments. With the coming of fall we have migration. Many birds are on the move.
So it seems a good time to look at books about birds. For those who are thinking about noticing more in the bird world, Look Up! Bird Watching In Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate (Candlewick, 2013) is a good place to start. Cate tells us she is not an expert—even her binoculars don’t work quite right—she just loves watching birds. This captivating book is a combination of cartoon and prose. Beginning with “Bird-Watching Do’s and Don’ts” a graphic section starts us out with an instruction to “Do only go to places you know are safe. Do be respectful of birds, nature, and other birdwatchers.” And continues to “Don’t sit on poison ivy. Don’t tread on delicate plants.”
Slightly snarky blackbirds regularly comment on the prose, adding a touch of humor and expanding on the information in the text. Cate is clear on the reason for watching birds. First, it can be fun. And it reminds is that “No matter where you live, you are a part of the natural world, just as the birds and other creatures are.”
Cate opens the door to bird-watching for readers of all ages. “You may not have a yard, but you do have a sky.” And the book takes us through the colors of birds, the shapes of birds, the sounds of birds, offers a close look at sparrows and a discussion of bird habitat.
An interest in birds in our own neighborhoods may also spark an interest in birds who do not live where we live. Claudia McGehee’s Where Do Birds Live (University of Iowa Press, 2010) takes readers on a tour of “fourteen habitats where birds live in the summer months.” Each spread offers a page of information on a specific bird in a habitat (for example the bobolink in the Tallgrass Prairie) and an illustration that includes other residents of that habitat. Readers travel from the Tallgrass Prairie to the Western Mountain Meadow (Mountain Bluebird) to the Pacific Rainforest (Common Raven) through habitats all over the United States to end in a Midwestern Backyard, which features the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird and the backyard in the book adjoins a house that looks very much like McGehee’s house, including her cat. Readers will want to find their own region of the country but will also enjoy “traveling” to find the birds in other regions.
Phyllis: I’ve been watching the hummingbird come to the feeder in my urban backyard this summer, and a neighbor saw a goshawk one night. What do birds need? Food, water, shelter. Even in a small backyard it’s possible to offer those things, then sit back and enjoy visitors. And if you want to paint a bird, Jacques Prévert has some advice in a fictional book aptly titled, How to Paint the Portrait of A Bird, translated from the French and illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein. In spare and lyrical text Prévert tells us that we must first paint a cage with an open door and paint something inside for the bird, “something useful and beautiful, but simple.” Then take the picture outside, put it under a tree, hide, and wait “years, if necessary.” If a bird does come, wait some more while it enters the cage, then close the cage door with your brush, carefully erase the case and paint the portrait of the tree “with the prettiest branch for the bird.” Paint “the green leaves and the summer breeze…the smell of the sunshine and the flowers and the songs of the bees and the butterflies.” (It’s hard not to quote the whole, brief, lovely book.) If the bird doesn’t sing, you tried your best, but if the bird sings, sign the portrait, take it home, and hang it in your room. The last spread shows a sleeping boy and the bird flying out the window while the text tells us, “(Tomorrow you can paint another one.)” I first came across this book in the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and have since given it away multiple times to fellow writers. I can’t think of a better description, not just of painting a bird’s portrait, but also of the whole creative endeavor. Tomorrow we can always write another one.
Ostrich and Lark, by the poet Marilyn Nelson, is beautifully illustrated by the San artists of the Kuru Art Project of Botswana, people who live in the Kalarhari desert and whose hunter-gatherer way of life has been slowly displaced by development, as we learn in a note at the beginning of the book. Nelson’s proceeds from the book are donated to the Kuru Art Project. The brilliantly colored art is one reason alone to buy this book, but Nelson’s original tale is another.
Ostrich and Lark begin each day together “at first light, day in and day out.” They nibble an ongoing meal “every day, all day, over the cicada’s drone, a drizzle of buzzings…and a downpour of birdsong.” Every day Lark, too, sings, but Ostrich is silent. Sometimes at night Ostrich dreams of “singing the sky full of stars,” but everyday he is silent until, one evening, Ostrich booms TWOO-WOO-WOOOT, “like thunderstorms on the horizon…like the rainstorm that ends the dusty months of thirst, like the promise of jubilant green…Ostrich boomed Lark right off his perch.” Ostrich had found his voice, “his own beauty, his big, terrific self.” The combination of vivid words and vivid art bring me back to this book again and again.
Fictional and non-fictional, our feathered friends delight us. Put out a feeder, a bowl of water. Sit back. Wait. Who knows who might come? If a bird comes, watch it. Paint it. Write a poem about it. Boom about it in your own big, terrific voice.
And if no bird comes today, maybe tomorrow.