Clellie Lynch: Enjoying birding in front of the fire

By Clellie Lynch

East Chatham, N.Y. —
The sun may rise through a brilliant, clear blue sky, but take a step outside. The oh-so-white world glistens. The temperature — for the moment, anyway — has dropped into the single digits. The winter wonderland is absolutely still, except for the constant flow of birds to the feeder. Take a walk through the woods or along the road and silence pervades.

So in the depths of the freeze, I turn to the bird books I've accumulated from those trips to new and used book stores in Lenox, in New York City, in Ware, in San Francisco, crammed and chock-a-block with many enticing titles. Bird books range from ones with beautiful pictures and little text to tomes written by ornithologists and many a personal travelogue in between. What better way to bird in the middle of winter than sitting comfortably in front of a cheery fire?

Lives of birders

"The Book of the Bird, Birds in Art," by Angus Hyland and Kendra Wilson is a small book of lovely paintings of different species of birds in varies guises and settings. The authors selected paintings by well-known artists and included short narratives for these main entries, such as "Man in Bowler Hat" by Rene Magritte, "Woman with Crow" by Pablo Picasso and "The Goldfinch" by Carlos Fabritius.

Betwixt and between the well-known are paintings by artists working today who focus on some aspect of birds. Among my favorites are Migration South by Kai and Sunny that shows swift-like birds enveloped in an airstream and Casserole by Victo Ngai depicting a stream of swallows from above as they circle a boat in the water.

For those interested in the lives of birders, "This Birding Life" by Stephen Moss is a selection of essays he wrote for the Manchester Guardian. We follow his footsteps and stand behind him with binoculars from the time he fed a tame jackdaw when he was a toddler to his travels throughout Britain and the world.

Back here in the states, Jonathan Rosen in his "The Life of the Skies, Birding at the End of Nature," relates how he discovered birding in Central Park, New York City, and became rather obsessed. Many of these very literate essays involve following Rosen's paths as well as those of the famous on their intrepid trips, such as Teddy Roosevelt's along the River of Doubt in Brazil.

The best bird is the one in front of you. Two slenderer volumes intrigue: "Birding Babylon, A Soldier's Journey from Iraq," by Jonathan Trouern-Trend and "Birding at the Bridge, In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront" by Heather Wolf. "Birding Babylon" is taken from the author's daily blog explaining his now and again birding adventures while on medic duties, sometimes dangerous, sometimes overwhelmingly lovely. It includes the 122 species he saw during his year in Iraq. "Birding at the Bridge" is the author's collection of photos she took in and around the Brooklyn waterfront with a short narrative of when and where she took them.

With "In the Company of Crows and Ravens" by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, we are immersed in all things corvid. Crows and ravens are common birds found everywhere in the world. The 46 or so species inhabit fields and forests, beaches and mountains, and have easily adapted to urban environments. Corvids flock and are quite vocal, hence are very visible in cities at garbage dumps, in parks, atop high rises, walking along the sidewalk.

The focus here is on crows, ravens, jackdaws and rooks, though Marzluff does mention the relatives: magpies, jays, nutcrackers. Man and corvid have long had a shared history. One cave painting at Lascaux, France, depicts a man with a raven's head. Crows and ravens feature in art, literature and mythology. We learn of Mark Twain's battle to write without crows stealing his pen, cigar or food; of Odin's companion ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory); of the Northwest Indian's totems; of the two in the tower of London.

Marzluff explains cultural evolution illustrating how both humans and corvids transmit culture through social learning. Their curiosity and cunning, their sociality and insightful behavior are passed along from generation to generation as shown by various writers scientific and creative. Not only is this book filled with scientific and literary details, Tony Angell's clayboard illustrations are plentiful and exquisite.

Tim Birkhead, a professor of animal behavior and the history of science at the University of Sheffield in England, has in "The Wisdom of Birds, An Illustrated History of Ornithology" written a lavish book about birds. This heavy tome offers a wealth of detail: about conception and eggs, about learning and behavior, about migration and mating, about flight and song. Each section is enhanced by illustrations of paintings and sculptures, books and charts.

Recognition for Ray

Birkhead tells us Aristotle and Pliny attempted to explain the natural world and did add many facts to science's body of knowledge, but they, too, added much that was later learned to be fiction. Everyone loves a good story. Today, of course, we are immersed in the minutiae of DNA determining true taxonomy, but where did classification begin? As soon as anyone mentions taxonomy, we think of Linnaeus.

But Birkhead looks further back, to John Ray, a man who wrote two treatises in the late 1600s. The first, "The Wisdom of God," Birkhead believes, is the beginning of field studies and the science of ecology; the second, "Ornithology" of Francis Willughby, the beginning of bird taxonomy. I've never heard of John Ray, but I check in other histories that I have and find the name and a couple of mentions, but no declarations of his being the father of Ornithology.

Ray set up a chart dividing birds into land and water birds. The second division, based on feet and beak, into carnivores and frugivores. The carnivores were divided into diurnal and nocturnal; while the fruit eaters into small, medium,and large. Well, why not? He continued with various divisions of groups of birds based on appearance. It definitely was a start to taxonomy. This is one of the many, many interesting theories presented in a very readable manner in this book.

So when temperatures are a'droppin' and the wind is a'blowin', how wonderful it is to sit and bird the world over through words and pictures!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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