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Looking for new ways to appreciate nature? 2 new birding books may help


Just as spring begins to show its annual gifts of rejuvenation — and as we celebrate Earth Day — two new books offer reflections on ways that watching birds can renew our joy in nature, and maybe even transform our lives.

In Birding to Change the World, environmental justice educator Trish O'Kane recounts lessons from birds that have galvanized her teaching and activism in Wisconsin and Vermont. And, hitting shelves Tuesday, novelist Amy Tan in The Backyard Bird Chronicles tightens the focus in describing and drawing the array of birds that visit her yard in California.

The author of The Joy Luck Club, The Valley of Amazement and other novels, Tan makes a glorious success of this venture into non-fiction. The book consists of journal entries from 2017 through 2022 that recount her observations of the behavior of oak titmice, golden crowned sparrows, California scrub jays, Anna's hummingbirds and other birds, coupled with her drawings of them. The entire package is enchanting, all the more so because Tan peppers the pages with questions about what she is seeing.

One day, from inside her house, Tan noticed a female house finch flying back and forth just outside the glass door, while looking directly at her. One feeder was full of seeds, and the bird sat there but did not eat. Another feeder nearby, devoted to highly favored sunflower seeds, was empty. "Could this bird possibly be signaling that I should refill its favorite feeder?" Tan wondered. She did refill it, and the finch "immediately went to the feeder and ate and ate and ate."

I love Tan's curiosity and openness to possibilities about birds, who are much smarter than often credited. (In keeping with this good message of hers, all the better to avoid "it" when referring to a bird individual, especially when the bird's sex is known.)

Another day, an unfamiliar bird showed up. Tan scrutinized the bird's markings and worked through the process of identification. "I went giddy in the brain," she remembers. "It was an American Tree Sparrow. But how could that be?" These birds are unexpected in California. Would the bird try to rejoin other American tree sparrows? Could the bird become disoriented and die?

"With both fiction and birds," Tan writes, "I think about existence, the span of life, from conception to birth to survival to death to remembrance by others."

When she began this project, Tan could recognize precisely three birds in her yard. Now, the count is 63 species. I deeply share her joy at this later-in-life learning curve: In 2023, I counted 43 bird species in our little patch of land in southeastern Virginia.

Tan's playful humor strays into outright anthropomorphism at times: "I want tourist junk food!" declares a baby crow she has drawn. This fanciful tone only brings extra warmth to a magnificently written and illustrated volume.

Author Trish O'Kane is entranced with American woodcocks. These birds resemble "a football with wings" and walk awkwardly on land. They rely heavily on earthworms as a diet mainstay. Their main call, termed peenting, is a "strange buzzing that sounds like a giant insect being squashed." In the air, they fly in intricate spirals.

Woodcocks, American bitterns, sandhill cranes, Canada geese, and catbirds are just some of the 134 bird species that inhabit Warner Park in Madison, Wisconsin, in addition to numerous species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Yet every July 4th beginning in the 1990s — long before O'Kane arrived in Madison to begin graduate school — the park had hosted a conflagration of fireworks and noise called Rhythm and Booms.

At this event, attended by 100,000 people, cannons were fired and five tons of fireworks exploded. Birds are known to feel "panic and even pain" from such thunderous noise; some abandon nests or even die of fright. Heavy metal residues from the fireworks soaked the park's soil.

This tradition outraged O'Kane, as did plans to further develop the park beyond its existing sports fields. With a background in environmental justice and investigative journalism, O'Kane recognized that Warner Park was at even extra risk because it bordered low-income neighborhoods; white folks in power weren't much concerned with nature opportunities for people of color. She oriented her dissertation around questions of social justice: Why couldn't a park in a lower-income neighborhood also be a protected place for wildlife?

O'Kane carried out interdisciplinary research; collaborated with local nature lovers to form an activist group called Wild Warner; and educated students from middle school to college age about the park. (A laudable endeavor, though I can't comprehend why O'Kane supported the process of teaching kids to fish since many fishes, like birds, have intricate social lives.)

Tirelessly working together, a team of park lovers brought evidence forward to local authorities about the ongoing harms to the park, including violations to the Clean Water Act and poisoning of the birds' environment — highlighting the delightful woodcocks who were eating the park's toxin-laced earthworms. The authorities listened: Rhythm and Booms was moved out of the park and damaged areas of the park were restored to prairie.

O'Kane's story is richer in scope than I can convey here. It begins in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina and ends in Vermont, where she teaches today. Her book is a beautiful love letter to local activism and especially to the birds who teach her so much. Canada geese, for example, "provided a perfect organizing and leadership model." As the geese flock in the air, they "synchronize their flapping and switch position constantly... It seems geese have found the solution to activist burnout."

Tan and O'Kane invite us to see the beauty of birds in our world and to act for their well-being. We need their voices in this spring's chorus.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. Her latest book is Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild. Find her on X, formerly Twitter @bjkingape

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 22, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that The Backyard Bird Chronicles was Amy Tan's first foray into non-fiction. The story has been updated here.
Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.