Archives For Birding


A Brief Review of

Winged Wonders:
A Celebration of Birds in Human History
Peter Watkins and Jonathan Stockland.
Paperback:  BlueBridge, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

My mom is a bird-lover and she taught me to love birds at a young age, and now living in the city, birds are one of the more pleasant wild creatures that I encounter on a daily basis. And not surprisingly, I have developed an affinity over the years for books about birds.  So, I was of course delighted when a review copy of the new book Winged Wonders: A Celebration of Birds in Human History arrived in my mailbox. This volume, authored by two birders, Peter Watkins and Jonathan Stockland, offers its readers a rich, folksy bird-focused miscellany, presented in brief, narrative snippets that could easily be read aloud in one sitting, even with the youngest of children.   Winged Wonders is nicely organized with almost all of its nineteen chapters focused on a specific type of bird (ordered alphabetically from “The Cock” through “The Wren.”  In addition, there are three general chapters that are tacked onto the end of the book, that explore the state birds of the United States, the history of illustrating birds and birdsongs.  There is much here that will be familiar to seasoned birders: poetry, anecdotes about behavior, even Scripture (It seems that every biblical passage related to the types of birds selected for this volume has been included from Peter denying Christ three times before the cock crows to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 10 that God will take care of us just as God takes care of the sparrow).  However, there also were some more obscure portions that might pique the intrigue of the veteran birder.  For me, one such passage was the chapter on the history of bird illustration; some of the artists named there (e.g., John James Audubon) were familiar but the authors do a superb job of weaving a history that provides some context for understanding the work of some of these great nature artists and their methods – they explain, for instance, that before the dawn of photography, taxidermy was an essential practice in bird illustration.   I also enjoyed the book’s exploration of why certain birds, including the dove and the pelican, have become important symbols of the Christian faith through the history of the church.

Winged Wonders is a delightful little volume, full of wisdom and wonder, a perfect book to be enjoyed by oneself or with others.   Its narrative style and the brevity of its segments make it the perfect read aloud book for families interested in birding or naturalism.


To the Cuckoo
William Wordsworth
[ As featured in Winged Wonders
(See our review above) ]

O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear;
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.

Though babbling only to the Vale
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery;

The same whom in my school-boy days
I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.

To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.

And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
That golden time again.

O blessèd Bird! the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!


“Two Essential Books
For the Birder’s Library”

A Review of
Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience.
by Jeremy Mynott
and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Birds in our Imagination and Experience
Jeremy Mynott.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds.
Christopher Perrins.
Paperback: Princeton UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Jeremy Mynott - Birdscapes

Princeton University Press has recently released two books that are essential for the library of any birder.  Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds. Mynott’s Birdscapes is a broad, sweeping collection of reflections —from a variety of sources— on birds and the practices of birding.  Mynott is a philosopher at heart and one of his main tasks here is to explore the meaning of birds in human experience.   He is particularly interested in tackling questions about the aesthetics of birds over the course of the book.  For instance, he devotes chapters to the questions:  “How does the beauty of a birdThe Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds

differ from that of a butterfly, a tree, or a landscape?”  and “can you enjoy a bird’s song just as much if you don’t know what it is?”  He also raises some pointed questions about birding as a human pursuit – e.g. “Why does the act of identification play such a large role in the experience (of birding)?  And why is that more about species than individual birds?”  or “Does our concern with lists and counting indicate something we should worry about in ourselves?” However, despite Mynott’s probing tone, this volume should not be dismissed as an obtuse, philosophical work; it is anything but that; although he is inquisitive throughout, Mynott is driven more by a child-like sense of wonder than the philosophers compulsion to analyze.  In fact, in the book’s first chapter Mynott examines the wonder of the birder and thus lays a foundation for the rest of the text.  Following in the footsteps of naturalists past and present (e.g. Liberty Hyde Bailey and Lyanda Lyn Haupt), Mynott demonstrates a keen sense that wonder is the driving force behind all the explorations of the naturalist.  In this chapter, Mynott looks to the British poet-naturalists John Clare (referencing his poem, “The Landrail” – see below) and John Keats as key examples whose writings reveal a deep wonder about the mysteries of birds.

Continue Reading…


“The Landrail”
John Clare

How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain

Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt
We know tis something but it neer
Will blab the secret out

If heard in close or meadow plots
It flies if we pursue
But follows if we notice not
The close and meadow through

Boys know the note of many a bird
In their birdnesting bounds
But when the landrails noise is heard
They wonder at the sounds

They look in every tuft of grass
Thats in their rambles met
They peep in every bush they pass
And none the wiser get

And still they hear the craiking sound
And still they wonder why
It surely cant be under ground
Nor is it in the sky

And yet tis heard in every vale
An undiscovered song
And makes a pleasant wonder tale
For all the summer long

The shepherd whistles through his hands
And starts with many a whoop
His busy dog across the lands
In hopes to fright it up

Tis still a minutes length or more
Till dogs are off and gone
Then sings and louder than before
But keeps the secret on

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy guest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest

In simple holes that birds will rake
When dusting on the ground
They drop their eggs of curious make
Deep blotched and nearly round

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow hay

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness, –
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain –
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?


“Toward an Urban Naturalism”

A Review of
Crow Planet:
Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

 Reviewed by Chris Smith.


Crow Planet:
Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
Hardback: Little, Brown Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

As many of you will know, I have for some time now been exploring and reflecting on what an urban naturalism might look like.   Thus, I was very excited to find Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s new book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, in which she too ponders what it might be like to be a naturalist in the city.  As a means to probe the depths of this question, Haupt has chosen the crow, a bird whose presence in almost any environment, even ones that have been highly humanized, is a reminder of the reality that “no matter how urban or suburban, … no matter how drastically removed we as a culture and as individuals may have become from any sense of wilderness or wildness or the splendid exuberance of nature, we will nevertheless be thrust, however unwittingly, into the presence of a native wild creature on a near-daily basis” (11).  Haupt takes this ubiquitous presence of the crow as a sign of hope that humanity will not destroy the tenacious complexity of wild life.

    Over the course of the book, Haupt names and describes essential facets of an urban naturalism and does so using stories from her own experience of watching crows.  First and foremost, the presence of crows is an energizing one, spurring even the most ecologically-sensitive of us out of a hopeless lethargy.  They remind us that even in the grittiest of cities we are a part of nature and we must seek to reconcile the whole of our lives with wild life in all its manifold forms, wherever we are.  Noting our tendency to sentimentalize Nature and ignore the “ravenous uses of natural resources” in our everyday lives, Haupt writes: “When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency.  If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter” (35).  Continue Reading…


A Brief Review of

The Armchair Birder:
Discovering The Secret Lives of Familiar Birds
John Yow.

Hardback: UNC Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

By Chris Smith.


John Yow’s new book THE ARMCHAIR BIRDER: DISCOVERING THE SECRET LIVES OF FAMILIAR BIRDS, despite the marketing hype in its promise of “secret lives,” is an excellent literary introduction to forty-two of the most common North American birds.  While admittedly not a field guide, Yow’s writing draws heavily from the classic literature of birding – e.g., the works of Audubon and Arthur Bent’s twenty-one volume Life Histories of North American Birds, among others – as well as his own birding experience.  The classic tradition of naturalism emphasizes the role of reading and study in the exploration of nature (and L.L. Haupt reiterates the significance of study in her book on urban naturalism, Crow Planet, reviewed above), and for the ornithologically-inclined naturalist, this book serves well to open up an ever-expanding world of study that would nicely complement one’s field studies.  Yow gets to the heart of the wonder that energizes the birder in his brief introduction:


[The birds] I’ve concentrated on here are widely familiar, and chances are good that you can already identify most if not all of them.  But, if you’re like me, identifying them is the beginning, not the end of the journey.  If you’re like me, knowing what they look like just whets your appetite for knowing what they’re up to. (x)

The book is divided into four seasonal sections, each containing birds whose presence is prominent during that season, and each bird’s chapter is illustrated with a grayscale version of an Audubon painting of that bird.


Since I was reading Crow Planet at the same time as The Armchair Birder, I was eager to see how Yow portrayed the crow.  Although his treatment of the crow is laden with many of the negative tones with which crows are typically addressed (plundering farmers’ crops, raiding the nests of game birds, etc.), he does end on a positive note citing both Audubon and Thoreau in praise of the crow’s tenacity – one of the traits of course that Haupt finds most meaningful.

    Yow’s writing is colorful and engaging throughout; for instance, he conjures the analogy between Woodstock and a description of a goldfinch “music festival” as described in 1904 by naturalist John Burroughs in The Life Histories.  Yes, The Armchair Birder is indeed fine birding literature, drawing upon and extending a rich tradition of birding literature, making it culturally relevant for the twenty-first century.



Liberty Hyde Bailey.

Yellow-bird and yellow-bird, you and I
Were friends and good friends in the days gone by—
We teetered away so high up and high
Upward and downward out under the sky.
Ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee, ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee
The meadows and meadows for you and for me.

Often and oft in the blue summer day
Long have I lain on the wagons of hay
And followed you bounding ’way and away
Till my soul and soul no longer could stay.
Ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee, ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee
The sky and the sky is unhampered and free.

Slowly and slow in the midsummer’s rest
In sun of the east and heats of the west
I’ve tiptoed away in wonder-bound quest
To your sky-tinged eggs and thistle-down nest.
Ka-.chèe-ka-ka-kee, ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee
There are none so ready and ready as we.

Copse-land and garden in winter and late
I sight you in crews of gray-brown and slate—
And May-month and June in prouder estate
All golden and jet with a gray-brown mate.
Ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee, ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee
I wonder and wonder what kith you may be.

Days-end and days-end and closing of gloam
Stilled heights of far sky and clouds white as foam
I lie on my back and under the dome
You twinkle your wings and drop away home.
Ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee, ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee
The night and the night and we ever are three.

Yellow-bird and yellow-bird, you and I
Still are friends and friends as the days go by
And away we gallop so high and high
From tree-top to tree-top under the sky.
Ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee, ka-chèe-ka-ka-kee
I fly and I fly to the hills and the sea.


THE NY TIMES Reviews the New Documentary

MOVIES about food used to make you want to eat.

The decade that spanned the mid-1980s to mid-1990s was particularly fruitful. It took heroic resolve to walk out of the Japanese spaghetti western “Tampopo” and not head directly to a ramen bar.

Cooks spent entire months trying to recreate “Babette’s Feast” and dreamed of rolling out pasta with Stanley Tucci in “Big Night.”

By the time Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” came out in 1994, moviegoers had come to expect food films filled with glistening dumplings, magical dessert and technically perfect kitchen scenes.

But that was then, before Wal-Mart started selling organic food and Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. Before E. coli was a constant in the food supply, before politicians tried to tax soda and before anyone gave much thought to the living conditions of chickens.

Into this world comes “Food, Inc.,” a documentary on the state of the nation’s food system that opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday.

“Food, Inc.” is part of a new generation of food films that drip with politics, not sauces. It’s eat-your-peas cinema that could make viewers not want to eat anything at all.

Read the full review:


 Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Living Bird magazine, spent decades glassing the cypress swamps and bayous of eastern Arkansas, looking for the ivory bill woodpecker—a bird presumed to be extinct. Pulitzer Prize-nominee Scott Weidensaul tramped South America, searching for the elusive cone-billed tanager. Every year, people spend thousands of dollars voyaging to Antarctica to see penguins and unusual water birds.

Hacking through jungles, freezing in Arctic seas … it seems there are no remote areas that passionate birders won’t venture to in hopes of seeing something exciting. But writer John Yow finds he can see plenty of interesting birds by journeying no farther than his back porch deck chair amid 40 acres of northwestern Georgia woods. Yow is a self-confessed “armchair birder,” which he defines as a person “too lazy to get up and ‘go birding.’ “

In his charming The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds, Yow shares folklore, life habits, and enjoyable personal anecdotes about 42 species of birds that are commonly seen in and around the backyard. As he puts it, “What I do, mostly, is hang feeders and watch the birds that come to me.” When he spies a new species, he is, as Keats says, “some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.”

Read the full review:


John Yow.

Hardcover: Univ of NC Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

“Field of Dreams”
The WaPo review of Outcasts United.

You can read this book or wait for the movie, but the book is worth the effort. This story is too textured, too filled with layers of light and dark, for Hollywood to capture its complexity.

In January of 2007, New York Times reporter Warren St. John wrote about the Fugees, a team of soccer-playing misfits from a dozen war-ravaged countries transplanted to the small Georgia town of Clarkston. The article prompted a huge response — tons of donated cash and equipment, plus a book contract for St. John and a movie deal that financed a team bus and a new school, the Fugees Academy.

The film will undoubtedly portray the Fugees’ extraordinary coach, Luma Mufleh, a native of Jordan, as a tough-but-tender soul who forges an adorable group of multi-colored young athletes into a cohesive unit and teaches them the Meaning of Life and the Joys of Diversity. And it’s all true. Watch for the scene when two players say pre-game prayers in their own languages (the Christian speaks Swahili, the Muslim Albanian).

But the book also conveys the larger context in which these kids play games and say prayers. Clarkston became a dumping group for relief agencies looking to relocate refugees from Burundi and Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. There was good public transportation and plenty of affordable housing, but throwing kids from 50 different countries into an all-white high school was crazy, “and the result was a raw and exceptionally charged experiment in getting along.”

Read the full review:

Outcasts United: A Refugee (Soccer) Team, An American Town.
Warren St. John.

Hardcover: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]