A Brief Review of
The Armchair Birder:
Discovering The Secret Lives of Familiar Birds.
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.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com