Monday, August 17, 2020

The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human

 Noah Strycker is often described as a “birder at large” and he has birded around the world. In 2015 he completed a worldwide big year, seeing almost 60% (6,042) of the world’s 10,400 bird species on all seven continents.  That, along with his degree in Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences and many field trips, allows him to explore the behaviors of different bird species and how their behaviors connect with that of humans in The Thing With Feathers.

Each chapter focuses on a single species, and it should be noted, those included are often not the “rock stars of ornithology.” The chapters are divided into three sections: Body, Mind, Spirit. Strycker focuses on experiments and studies that support his ideas that “[b]ird behavior offers a mirror in which we can reflect on human behavior.”

He explores how pigeons learn to find their way home and the navigational skills of other species and why bower birds decorate their nests and appreciate their own version of art. Magpies are able to recognize themselves in mirrors and nutcrackers have amazing memories and can recall literally hundreds of locations where they have stored seeds. Especially interesting is the examination of pecking order in chickens. Vultures can distinguish taste, preferring to eat the carcasses of herbivores rather than carnivores. Without anthropomorphizing, Stryker explains these behaviors and frequently connects it to our world and helps us learn what it means to be human.

Each chapter includes a drawing of the bird being discussed. End Notes explain the sources for his research and describes themes that are based on Strycker’s own interpretations from his field experiences. Each note offers additional readings and films for those who want to further explore the described behaviors.

The book’s title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem (“Hope” is the thing with feathers) and Strycker’s writing is equally poetic and passionate. The chapters are easy to dip into and encourages readers to reflect on our own behaviors. Note that Dickinson’s poem has served as inspiration for several books with the same, or almost the same, title so be sure to check the author.

Black vulture
Black vulture (photo
by Jeanette Larson)

Monday, August 10, 2020

7 Pleasures of Birding

 Caldecott Award-winning illustrator, Matthew Cordell (Wolf in the Snow) was inspired by a series of comment mades in a documentary called "Birders: The Central Park Effect" to draw the 7 pleasures of birding. He graciously gave me permission to share his art here. I'm posting without additional comment as Cordell and Chris Cooper, who came up with the list, express the joys of birding better than I possibly could. 

All illustrations are copyright Matthew Cordell and are used with permission. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Numenia and the Hurricane

Numenia and the Hurricane: Inspired by a True Migration Story

I’ll start by saying this is a book I would have loved to have written. We were living in Rockport, TX during Hurricane Harvey. While my family and pets evacuated, many birds could not, and I learned how hard it was for birds to survive a storm. When we returned to the devastated area, it was heartbreaking to see the avian carnage. Pelicans had been slammed against the jetties and seawalls, where their carcasses decayed. Many of the migratory birds left but native birds didn't know to go and died. Thankfully, hummingbirds had not started their fall migration and were fine, although people had to step in to feed them as most plants were defoliated. For three months we didn’t see even a grackle or a dove. But slowly, the birds returned. Numenia and the Hurricane is a somewhat different hurricane story and one with a happier ending.

During a hurricane, strong winds blow birds off their path, often leading them to new places or wearing them out so that they don't have to stamina to follow their original path.

Inspired by the true story of Hope, a whimbrel being tracked by scientists, Halliday tells the harrowing tale of a lone whimbrel, separated from her sisters during their southward migration from the Arctic. Lyrical lines of text help us to feel for the poor bird as she is tossed and turned, battered by the strong winds. Readers learn that Numenia preservers for 27 hours, alone, until finally, somehow, with good natural instincts but plenty of wrong turns, she makes it to the US Virgin Islands, tired and hungry, but safe with her sisters. 

Hope with her tracking device. 
Photo Credit: Barry Truitt.

As explained in the end notes, Numeria’s story is based on a bird named Hope, caught in Tropical Storm Gert and blown way off course in 2011. Hope was tracked by researchers for several years, allowing them to marvel at the whimbrel’s stamina and fortitude during many courageous migration journeys. Like Numeria’s story, her journey was amazing but one that many birds face each year during their journey between winter and summer habitats. The Whimbrel’s range is rather limited, but they travel each year between Canada and the Eastern and Southern US coasts, as well as into the Caribbean.

Halliday’s art is visually stunning and allows the reader to feel like they are inside the hurrican bouncing along with Numenia. Interesting perspective and angles give us a birds-eye view of the danger and confusion this small bird faces. With great illustrations and text, this is a great choice for read-aloud. Halliday is an accomplished birder and naturalist and I hope this is the first of many bird books we’ll see from her.

Click on the tab for BOOKS ABOUT BIRDS for a list of all books mentioned in the blog posts.

FTC Notice: The author provided me with an electronic copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Birdwatching in the Time of Corona

Trips are limited but outdoor activities are encouraged with, of course, proper physical distancing. Birdwatching has become a favored outing as it can be managed in small groups or alone. You can even birdwatch in your backyard or neighborhood.

Bird Watcher's Digest offers several Bird Bingo! cards for different regions of the county. Spring migration is still underway so most of us should have no problem getting a straight-line BINGO!  Who's up for the challenge? (Download your region if you are not in Texas.)

Friday, May 15, 2020

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio Show

In 2004 Seattle Audubon’s team began writing “compelling stories about the intriguing ways of birds.” These short, one-two minute pieces, were recorded for local public radio. In 2006, the program began to expand and is now heard on over 200 public radio stations. In Austin, it can be heard as part of some Living on Earth segments on KUTX-90.5 FM. New and older segments can also be heard on-line at 

The book, BirdNoteedited by Ellen Blackstone with illustrations by Emily Poole, is a compilation of 100 of the best stories from the radio show. Usually covering a single page, with an illustration of the bird being discussed on the facing page, each brief piece features the habits, quirks, songs, biology, and idiosyncrasies of a bird. Articles include: Is anting an avian spa treatment? How does a finch’s beak help it eat sunflower seeds? Why do some gulls have a red dot on their bills? Did you know that Red-winged blackbirds have a harem? The bright red “epaulets” warn other males to stay away from his many female companions. Roadrunners sound like a lonely puppy. And Barn swallows are natural pest control. The vignettes are informative, charming, poignant, and often humorous.

The short pieces make it easy to dip in and sample entries, but the index also allows readers to look up specific birds. This compilation, published in 2018, focuses a lot on birds of the Pacific Northwest, understandable given the origins of the program. More recent programs feature birds from all over North America, and even some worldwide birds. A feature from the program that is not able to be replicated in the book are the sounds and songs included in most episodes. These come from BirdNote’s partnership with Cornell Lab of Ornithology. On the other hand, the illustrations by Emily Poole are, of course, not seen with aural pieces and will be of special interest to artists and illustrators. Each segment is vetted by experts and the readers are professional narrators, storytellers, and DJs. Readers who are also listeners may hear these voices while reading an episode.

Get a copy for yourself and as a gift for a birding friend.

Note: This post was originally written for Travis Audubon's blog, Smoke Signals.

FTC Notice: I purchased a copy of this book for review.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Bird Cams

Bird cams are fascinating and viewers can get caught up in the drama of watching birds in their native habitats or housing. With the Covid-19 virus keeping us physically distant from each other, in most jurisdictions you can still take bird walks. But if you can't, try bird cams. You get a real "bird's eye" view (sorry) of nests, feeders, and other boxes.

Click on the link to visit each bird camera. Most are live so, of course, the bird may be away from the location. Many sites do include recorded video to enjoy if the birds are not there or it is too dark to see them. I'll add more as I find them, and please let me know if any disappear (some are hosted by businesses or individuals). Watching bird cams is very soothing although there can sometimes be drama.

Note: These are not in any particular order.

Texas Hill Country Birds live feed from Spicewood, TX.

Purple Martin Nest Cam the Purple Martin Conservation Association shows baby martins!

Owl Cam from Cornell Lab Bird Cams sponsored byWild Birds Unlimited. Watch a Barred Owl

West Texas Feeders from West Texas Avian Research sponsored by Perky Pets. Watch Hummingbirds and other birds at feeders.

Sapsucker Woods Pond Cam hosted by Cornell Lab. Watch ducks, herons, and other water birds and waders.

Northern Royal Albatross hosted by New Zealand Dept. of Conservation. Many of us will never get to see these beautiful birds in real life.

Panama Fruit Feeder Cam at Canopy Lodge sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Canopy Family, and, features various fruit eating birds in Panama.

Eagle Cam hosted by This cam focuses on a bald eagle nest is located near a trout hatchery in Decorah, Iowa

Osprey Nest sponsored by Hog Island Audubon Camp and  A pair of Osprey have been returning to this nest for years.

Cornell Feeder Watch Cam allows us to view common birds like doves and grackles feeding but also other birds passing through Sapsucker Woods.

Peregrine Falcons is focused on a nest in Rome, Italy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Nest That Wren Built

Carolina wren nestlings
(photo by Randi Sonenshine)
Following the pattern of the well-known rhyme, "The House that Jack Built," Randi Sonenshine tells the story of nesting Carolina wrens. Stanzas are filled with factual information (males help with nest building, spiders feast on mites that would threaten the nest) and gentle illustrations, ink and colored pencils on tinted paper, by Anne Hunter show eggs laid, hatchlings in the nest, Papa bringing food to the nest, and babies finally flying off on their own. A glossary defines bird terminology and a page of Wren Facts adds to the information provided in the poetry. The simple text and familiar rhythm of The Nest That Wren Built, make this a great read-aloud for kids preschool through first grade.

Inside page

This is the bark, snippets of twine,
spidery rootlets, and needles of pine
that shape the nest that Wren built.

Nest in a cardboard box
in the authors garage
(photo by Randi Sonenshine)
Carolina wrens are more colorful than most wrens and fairly easy to identify by their musical song. Males and females look very similar, although the male may be slightly larger in size. They are generally found from central Texas to the east coast, north to the Great Lakes area. The adults live in pairs most of the year and may mate for life. They usually have two broods a year, although in the South they may have three. These are very beneficial birds, dining mostly on insects, adding a small amount of seeds and fruit to their diet. Carolina wrens are not picky about their nesting sites. While they are known to nest on tree stumps, shrubs, and branches, they may build their nest in mail boxes, hanging baskets, cardboard boxes in a garage, or even outdoor lights. They usually build several nests before deciding which to use so consider building a nesting box for them.

Photo: By Dan Pancamo - Flickr: Carolina Wren

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Whooo-Ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story

There are more than 200 species of owls in the world and about 20 in North America.  The Great Horned Owl is the most common and probably the most beloved. Through haiku, Maria Gianferrari introduces readers to a family of owls as they find a nest (Great Horned Owls don't make their own nests; they use abandoned nests in wooded areas), lay eggs, hunt, brood, and raise their young. Gianferrari doesn't shy away from the harsher parts of nature: an egg is lost to a crow's attack and a chick has to be rescued from a hawk. But we watch as two beautiful owlets grow up and soon fly off to find their own homes.
(Photo from Creative Commons)

Told in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, haiku is an ancient and popular form for nature poetry. Gianferrari's story is lyrically told and packs in a lot of information in these sparse lines. The tale is so well told that most young readers probably won't even realize it is poetry. Some words will need defining (ex. Mama mantles is used to mean the spreading of wings and tail to cover something) but overall this will be very readable and understandable by most 2-6 graders.

Back matter provides more information on Great Horned Owls, including their big eyes, their weight and wingspan, and what they eat. References are made to excellent websites, including "Owl Pages," a great site that provides information on owls of the world and provides sound files to hear the owls.
Interior page

Dreamy illustrations by Jonathan Voss were created using sepia ink and watercolors and provide clear representations of the owls' cycle of life, habitat, and habits.

Like most owls, Great Horned Owls are primarily nocturnal so we have to listen for them after dark. They usually begin hunting at dusk, so if you are lucky you may catch sight of this swift bird looking for food to bring back to a nest. Look also on fence posts and tree limbs on the edges of open areas. Unlike many birds, Great Horned Owls nest during the winter, so look high in trees like cottonwoods for birds incubating eggs. One way to encourage owls to stick around in your neighborhood is to build owl houses for them to nest in. These can be purchased but simple plans are also available on the Internet.

PRIZEWHOOO? YOUU!  The publisher, who provided an advanced copy of the book to me for review, will give away a copy to a US resident. Leave a comment here or email your information to Maria through her website, by March 21 to be entered in a drawing. One winner will be selected.

WHOO’s Maria Gianferrari? She’s a self-proclaimed bird nerd with a special fondness for raptors. Her love affair with birds began in 7th grade science class when her teacher, Mr. Lefebvre, initiated a bird count. While walking in her neighborhood, Maria’s always on the look-out for all kinds of birds, and she loves searching winter tree tops for nests in her northern Virginia neighborhood where she lives with her German-scientist husband and German speaking daughter. This is her first book with GP Putnam’s Sons. She’s also the author of another bird book, Hawk Rising (reviewed here 6/5/2018). To learn more about Maria, please visit her website:

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Let's Discover Birds

Divided into sections by characteristics (nesters, songbirds, water dwellers, etc.) the text in Let's Discover Birds explores the sounds and physical identification of a variety of birds. Each double page spread focuses on a couple of birds. Along with brief facts ("House sparrows nest in empty buildings and birdhouses."), there is an activity, a sticker, and fun facts ("A group of larks can be called an exaltation.") or jokes. Final pages encourage kids to fill in the shapes with stickers that are included.

Most of the birds, like geese, robins, and pigeons, will be fairly easy for kids to spot around their homes or in parks. Some, like puffins and kittiwakes will require a trip to an aquarium or specific areas of North America.  The illustrations of the birds are realistic and clear with general identifications markings.

This book is part of a spin-off series from an animated film, the illustrated characters are those from Helen Oxenbury's book, Let's Go on a Bear Hunt, but the family sets out to discover birds instead of bears. Other than the human characters, I'm not sure why this is a "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" book as the text doesn't follow the pattern of that fun action activity, but Let's Discover Birds will get the kids out of the house and looking for birds.  Because this is an activity book with stickers and is designed for kids to write and color in, it won't be found in many libraries. Consider it as a gift for a budding birder.

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the publisher. I receive no compensation for reviewing the book.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Audubon Makes Prints Free to Download

Cedar Bird
(Audubon Society)
American Avocet
(Audubon Society)
I'm a little late sharing this but it is still important news. In November, 2019, The Audubon Society announced that it has made 435 prints from the legendary Birds of America available for free download in high resolution images.  The collection of  life-size prints were based off of Audubon's own illustrations. They were painted en plein air, and have long been coveted "for their exactness as well as their outstanding beauty." They are displayed on the Audubon website in alphabetical order with the original accompanying text, making them a great resource for learning about birds. A second sort allows you to find state birds included in the collection (not all state birds are available, however). It's hard to decide on just a few favorites but you will find that you spend hours looking at the plates and learning about the birds, where and how John James Audubon found them, and reading his field notes. Each image page also includes links to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds for additional information. The Cedar Waxwing, for example, was labeled as Cedar Bird by Audubon. Check it out!