I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
In his modern classics One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich has written memorably about his relationships with wild ravens and a great horned owl. In One Wild Bird at a Time, Heinrich returns to his great love: close, day-to-day observations of individual wild birds. There are countless books on bird behavior, but Heinrich argues that some of the most amazing bird behaviors fall below the radar of what most birds do in aggregate. Heinrich’s “passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science” (New York Times Book Review) lead to fascinating questions — and sometimes startling discoveries. A great crested flycatcher, while bringing food to the young in their nest, is attacked by the other flycatcher nearby. Why? A pair of Northern flickers hammering their nest-hole into the side of Heinrich’s cabin deliver the opportunity to observe the feeding competition between siblings, and to make a related discovery about nest-cleaning. One of a clutch of redstart warbler babies fledges out of the nest from twenty feet above the ground, and lands on the grass below. It can’t fly. What will happen next? Heinrich “looks closely, with his trademark ‘hands-and-knees science’ at its most engaging, [delivering] what can only be called psychological marvels of knowing” (Boston Globe). An eminent biologist shares the joys of bird-watching and how observing the anomalous behaviors of individual birds has guided his research.
If you are a back yard bird watcher who keeps a nature journal, you might well take inspiration from Bernd Heinrich. He takes it a step further than most of us would, I suspect, because of his background as a biology professor. For instance, I don’t know how many people would be willing to thaw, count, and examine grouse scat in order to prove a theory!
The writing certainly reminded me that the author has an academic background. It is not as stiff as a professional paper, but neither is it as conversational as I would prefer for such a work. Having said that, it is inspirational in the level of observation and effort that Heinrich was willing to put into his record. A birder doesn’t have to travel to the far-flung places on the map in order to have a satisfactory birding life—looking deep into the world just outside the window has its rewards. His illustrations are admirable (much superior to anything in my field notebook) although certainly not up to field guide quality, encouraging to those of us who will never be professional artists.
I would imagine that this book would have a limited audience of those who are devoted birders or nature enthusiasts, but I think such people would find it a worthwhile read. Definitely an stimulus to me to spend more time in the outdoors and in the environments right around my own city and to take more time to watch each bird and its behaviour.