Jon Young on the Language of Birds

img_20180606_194631_3631453494852.jpg

I came across What the Robin Knows while wandering through a local bookstore here in West Lafayette, Indiana. I am a west coast girl — I was raised in Southern California, and now I live near Newport, Oregon — but this summer I’m living in the Midwest for a science writing internship.

In the short weeks I have been here, I’ve seen incredible numbers of robins around as I bike back and forth from the office. I’ve also come across cardinals and blackbirds and dozens of little birds I am still learning to name. Each time I see a new bird, I head over to the bookstore and flip through their field guides to identify my latest discovery and learn something about them.

Full disclosure: At the time writing, I know nothing about birds and have never paid much attention to them. I notice them now and then, if there is a particularly unusual one, but birdwatching has never held much allure for me. But after reading Jon Young’s book, my perspective completely changed. Biking to the office is full of thrilling encounters with birds. I pay attention to the sound of birdsong around me. I feel more alert and in tune with my surroundings. I even went out and found a spot to sit and observe birds — something Young refers to as a “sit spot”, a special place of learning.

Young, a naturalist and experienced tracker trained in indigenous tradition, introduces his readers to the concept of deep bird language through an immersive, humble approach. He guides his readers like a true mentor, teaching them how to cultivate respectfulness and empathy towards wildlife through examples and anecdotes.

The way to see more wildlife when you’re outside, Young claims, is to be in tune with bird language. They are the gatekeepers of the wilderness, and you need their permission to pass through.

If you know nothing about birds, like myself, this book is a great place to start learning about bird language. Birds are the communicators of the forest. Their songs, chirps, and behaviors all indicate specific messages to the fox, the deer, the coyote, and the cougar, as well as the other birds. By communicating among themselves, they alert other wildlife about what’s going on around them and forewarn other animals of possible threats. The birds also alert wildlife to your presence.

Young’s specific example often involves Joe the hiker. Unaware of his surroundings, Joe the hiker goes strolling through the forest, his footsteps thumping, his fishing gear clanging, unwittingly setting off what Young calls a bird plow; the flight of birds provoked by Joe the hiker’s presence. By learning not to set off the birds, and to understand and respect their space, you can come much closer to them and see more wildlife — which is basically a win-win.

Young includes a powerful quote from a San Bushman that is worth repeating:

“If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be a Bushman. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation in this way.”

There is much to be learned from the behavior and language of birds. Young references relevant research and science that serves to strengthen his arguments. He introduces his reader to indigenous trackers who have studied the language of birds far longer than any scientists. He also provides audio to accompany the book, referencing different recordings so that you can follow along and learn specific sounds: http://birdlanguage.com/

Mentorship is a significant theme throughout What the Robin Knows. Young has many years of experience as a mentor to youth, teaching them about tracking and bird language. He also talks about the influences of his own mentors and those who have left a strong impression on him. Jon Young’s humility, his authenticity, and his earnest curiosity are strongly conveyed through his writing. It often feels like he is mentoring the reader when he teaches by example. While he is not afraid to own up to his mistakes or reflect on what he might have done differently, he acknowledges his vast experience and recognizes that beginning to learn bird language is a challenge.

It’s a challenge that, by the end of the book, you will be eager to embrace.

How a Childhood Book Inspired a Scientist’s Career

I reached out to Twitter and asked ornithologists what books inspired them to pursue their field of study. Among the answers was an email from Dr. Christopher M. Heckscher, an associate professor of environmental science at Delaware State University. The book that inspired him was a childhood treasure titled Traveling with the Birds by Rudyerd Boulton.

il_570xN.1475521200_pimx.jpg

Published in 1933, Traveling with the Birds was illustrated by American animal artist and National Geographic Illustrator Walter A. Weber. Weber studied art in Chicago and went on to work for the Field Museum of Natural History, which I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time last weekend. As I roamed the Hall of Birds on Saturday, I actually saw some of Weber’s work. He spent some time working for the National Park Service until eventually becoming an ornithologist for the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. He would eventually become chief nature artist for the National Geographic Society. 

A first edition copy of Traveling with the Birds in good condition sells for around US $40. It is considered a rare children’s book and illustrations by Weber are somewhat valuable, though you can find vintage prints on Etsy of many of his works. On February 18 in 1934, the New York Times wrote:

NYT

In his email, Dr. Heckscher told me how the beautiful illustrations inspired him to study birds:

The book was given to me by my father about the time he introduced me to birding. It had been an inspiration to him as well.  It was published in 1933 and I’m not sure there was ever a second printing.  I see it’s still available via some second hand booksellers. It was a large book with large beautiful paintings.

The theme of the book was taking the reader on a journey with the birds through text and illustrations. Some birds were migrating, others moving from one place to another searching for food. The descriptions in the text were reflected in the book’s paintings.  I think what made such a big impression on me was the vibrant illustrations that conveyed movement and energy in the subject.  Ducks flying swiftly over ocean waves, a blue jay with an acorn – clearly on a mission.

It’s hard to convey the feeling but it was as if I was really moving with the birds. The book inspired awe in me at how birds were free to move such great distances living out their lives on the wing moving from one world to another. It was not a technical text, but really a book written for older children and adolescents.  I’ve been fascinated with bird behavior and migration ever since.

1

2.jpg

I’m glad that Dr. Heckscher took the time to share with me this beautiful book so that I could learn about it and share it on the blog. Children’s books are often something that leaves a long-lasting impression. Many of us can think back and imagine the beautiful illustrations of the stories we poured over, picturing the detail in our heads and imagining the book in our hands as a child. For those of us lucky enough to have kept our childhood copy, we savor the knowledge that we can continue to share it with the next generation. Childhood books are influential and important, contributing to the choices that make us who we are today.

Certainly this was the case for our scientist Dr. Heckscher, who shared in his email that he now “travels with the birds” by using geolocator and GPS tracking devices in his research. Dr. Heckscher holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University and a M.S. and PhD in Entomology and Wildlife Biology from the University of Delaware. In 2016, he received a conservation award:

“Recently, he was the first to document intratropical migration in a Nearctic-Neotropical migrant songbird. That discovery – that each individual Veery migrates between two separate wintering locations – has focused attention on the phenomenon of intratropical movement in North American breeding songbirds which had previously been unknown or otherwise overlooked.”

Thank you very much Dr. Heckscher for sharing your inspiration!

Dive into the mysterious world of grey whales with Brenda Peterson and Linda Hogan

thomas-kelley-63615-unsplash (1).jpg

Depth. Insight. Power. These are the words that come to mind while you read Sightings, a moving account of humanity’s relationship with grey whales by nature writer and journalist Brenda Peterson with Chichasaw poet Linda Hogan. Published by National Geographic, this book is an eye-opening observation of how people can learn to respect their roots, celebrate and protect whales, and the shortcomings and celebrations along the way.

“Writing this book in two voices — that of an American Indian woman and a nature writer — we hope to invite the reader to consider another culture, which happens to be nonhuman,” the authors write. “Because we in the 21st century now face many difficult decisions about the futures of both human and animal cultures, this book is a passionate dialogue about both Native and animal rights.”

POWER

Linda Hogan writes from the perspective of an American Indian woman. Her poetic language is strong and captivating, drawing the reader in with bright sensory descriptions and vivid storytelling. I enjoyed Hogan’s chapters in the book for her profound observations of the tribes she discusses, and their struggle to both embrace and reconcile with the whaling history celebrated in their culture. I don’t want to spoil the book by using specific examples because this one to consider reading, but the way Hogan tells her parts of the story effectively balances Brenda Peterson’s more scientific voice. The women tell the story of the grey whale together, and the result is a powerful account of a difficult issue — should indigenous people embrace their traditions of whaling in the 21st century? And how should they reconcile with killing whales if they are to celebrate this aspect of their past? Linda Hogan shows both sides of the issue, capturing the emotional turmoil of tribe elders without seeming biased towards one directions or another. She does exactly what a writer should do, introducing her reader to all sides of the issue and showing the circumstances as they area.

On the subject of modern-day whaling I encourage you to check out this photo diary of a whale hunt featured in Hakai, a visual illustration of a people who hunt whales to provide for their village. It really complicates the issue and is both timely in our current lives and still relevant to Sightings, which was published back in 2002. Although it’s been over a decade since the publication of Sightings, society is still struggling to address the modern-day whaling, the problems that arise, and the rights that indigenous people should have in embracing their culture and traditions.

DEPTH

Brenda Peterson, a nature writer, provides more of the natural history and science side of the story told in Sightings. Her storytelling is similar in some ways to Hogan’s, as she also does well to evoke the reader’s emotions, but her approach comes across more grounded and less abstract. Because of this, the writers balance each other out as the chapters switch back and forth between their voices. Personally, I enjoyed this novel approach because it keeps the story propelling forward and in constant momentum. In fact, if I had more time on my hands I would have finished this book very quickly — the chapters are short, the language is simple and easy to comprehend, and the writers are excellent at reeling you in. With such vivid storytelling, Sightings can be difficult to put down when you’re invested in an exciting scene, and Peterson is very good at investing her readers. Her writing is welcoming and conversational, enough so that you may not realize you’re learning about history and science as you read. She is careful not to bias her reader, but she also emphasizes her own feelings and emotions in order to give the story its characteristic depth.

Sightings is an insightful look into the mysterious history and life of grey whales. It’s both a pleasure to read and a difficult subject to grapple with. You may feel as I did, sometimes torn between the desire for humans to interact with and learn from whales, but afraid that teaching whales to be comfortable with human interaction will only make illegal whaling easier. And what about the rights of tribes who wish to return to traditional whaling, if only for celebrations? The authors approach this complex topic from all angles, ultimately showing readers the allure of the grey whale and how we should make sense of our own relationship with these majestic animals. By the end of the book, you will want to join Peterson and Hogan on one of their whale-watching adventures and see a grey whale with your own eyes. Sightings is an enchanting, and sometimes challenging, look not only at grey whales, but at ourselves as humans responsible for the protection of the ocean and its incredible and diverse life.

Featured photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Jennifer Ackerman Explores the Astonishing Intelligence of Birds

You may be surprised to learn a new definition for the old insult “bird brain”. It turns out that birds are incredibly intelligent creatures. Recently crows made headlines on the New York Times for learning to make sophisticated tools from memory. This month, a paper was published on scientists’ quest to understand bird conversation. But in 2016, when Ackerman published her book, scientists had only been toeing the boundary line of understanding avian intelligence. Now, the subject fascinates the public as much as the scientists who study it.

Ackerman’s book is well-written and well-informed. Her tone is equal parts amused and fascinated as she dialogues with ornithologists and experts. She introduces her readers to the stars of avian intelligence: New Caledonian crows, parrots, ravens, and my personal favorite, the bowerbird.  Bowerbirds are the aesthetics of the avian world. The males create ornate, decorative nests in which they seduce a potential mate. Female bowerbirds are notoriously picky. Males hand-select colorful objects they arrange to impress females. Ackerman describes this unique behavior in such a captivating way that I just had to look up pictures of bowerbird nests.

Satin-Bower-Bird-Nest.jpg

The Genius of Birds explores the rich and diverse characteristics of avian intelligence, from language and birdsong to courting behavior and homing instinct. Ackerman presents the bird not as the dumb creature it has been thought of for centuries (evoking terms such as bird brain, etc), but as a brilliant and misunderstood creature that we have yet to fully understand. She focuses on present understanding of birds in comparison to past misconceptions. Although I would have enjoyed a more thorough glimpse into history, as I enjoy science books that move from past to present, Ackerman does a great job of focusing on the present circumstances; what do we know, and what do we have left to learn?

Her book isn’t particularly moving or emotionally-provoking, but it is a thorough account of a fascinating subject. She is careful to quote scientists who warn against anthropomorphism, but it often feels as if she is bestowing her own anthropomorphic thoughts on the birds she observes. I think that this is actually an effective way for her to engage with non-scientific audiences and those who are emotionally invested in birds, but for those looking for a strictly professional and scientific glimpse into bird brains, the book may fall short in that it lacks a serious tone. That said, her writing is fun and engaging, and she puts a special emphasis on puns (for those who enjoy bird puns, you’ll find yourself giggling quite a bit).

The Genius of Birds is a New York Times bestseller for a reason – it’s educational, fascinating, and a wonderful example of engaging storytelling. It is especially wonderful for those who don’t know anything about birds but want to know more about their intelligence, behaviors, and characteristics. Ackerman’s book is charming and worth reading — and if you’re like me, by the time you’ve finished reading you’ll want to watch Planet Earth again for that cute bird with the blue face on its feathers dancing for a potential mate.

Support a local bookstore and find a copy near you!

Samantha Weinberg’s Incredible Story About an Ancient Fish Rediscovered

Weinburg_Fish

A thrilling scientific adventure about the world’s obsession with an elusive fish once thought extinct: Samantha Weinberg’s A Fish Caught in Time (2000) is simply captivating. If you have read Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass (2016) and enjoyed learning about a fascinating fish called the arowana, then you will love this historical look at the coelacanth (see-la-kanth). Voigt and Weinberg’s stories may be about obsessions with coveted fish, but the similarities end there. While Voigt approaches her story with the smart, analytical skepticism of a journalist, Weinberg indulges readers in an emotional tale ripe with adventure, romance, and awe-inspiring science. Her story will reel you in – hook, line, and sinker.

A Fish Caught in Time is a beautiful historical account of the rediscovery of the coelacanth, an ancient species of fish that was originally known only by its fossils. Weinberg opens her tale by sharing the startling discovery of the first living coelacanth by a young museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who spotted it aboard a trawler’s deck among other specimens he had brought her. Weinberg seamlessly weaves science into her storytelling, wrapping her readers up in her tale of scientists and fishermen desperately searching for a live coelacanth. She lets her readers learn alongside scientists as they make thrilling discoveries and observations of a fish they once believed to be extinct. Weinberg captures the drama that unfolds as the scientific world becomes obsessed with the coelacanth, endangering the fish in their hunt for the perfect specimen.nWeinberg takes us through the lives of those who were touched by the quest for the fish. The way Voigt describes how enthusiasts (and herself) became obsessed with finding a rare arowana in the wild is quite similar to Weinberg’s description of ichthyologists growing obsessed with their quest for a specimen.

Check out this super-cute illustrated history of the coelacanth, a living fossil, produced by TedEd:

Sprinkled with old black-and-white photographs, Weinberg text is lively and entertaining and filled with sobering wisdom. She is not afraid to address the issue of sexism in science during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a problem raised when scientists questioned why the Latimeria chalumnae was named after Latimer, a female scientist without a professional background. Even more controversial was the idea that the coelacanth was a missing link in the evolutionary chain: an editorial from the Manchester Guardian read “The theory of apartheid and the superiority of White over Black would take a nasty blow if…it could be shown that the common ancestor [of men] is the Coelacanth, a mere fish.” In addition to that controversy, the idea of paying native fishermen to catch coelacanths for scientists raised ethical questions.

Weinberg does not tread lightly over the controversial subjects that arise throughout her text. She dives into the history of the Comoros, an archipelago off the east coast of Africa, where many coelacanth have been found. She truthfully presents the effects of the rise of the coelacanth on Comoran culture and its influence. She describes how their society is organized and how the coelacanth benefited poor fishermen and shook the foundation of their social structure. What I liked best of all was Weinberg’s personal narrative spent aboard a Comoran fishing boat, witnessing firsthand the nighttime fishing tradition of the Comoran fishermen.

Weinberg’s book is a treasure trove of good stories that weave together the history of the coelacanth and its influence on the world.

Journalist Emily Voigt on her Quest for the World’s Most Coveted Fish

Voigt_Dragon

You won’t need to like fish to enjoy Emily Voigt’s illuminating look into the competitive – and dangerous – world of The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish. 

Voigt’s book reads like a spy novel. Her fast-paced storytelling sweeps you into a whirlwind adventure around the globe in her quest to find the wild Asian arowana, a rare and captivating fish. What begins as a journalist’s fascination with the world’s most expensive aquarium fish turns into a story seeped in nostalgia for the age of scientific exploration.

It’s easy to see why her book received the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award in 2017. Her story takes you first into the underground world of the illegal exotic animal trade in the United States, then off to meet the fish-obsessed elite in Asia, and to eventually linger among the fishermen living along the Amazon. Voigt shows us society through a fishbowl lens, altering the way we perceive our natural world and ourselves.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is the ultimate tale of scientific colonialism, an unofficial term used to explain how early explorers set out with an “in the name of science” mentality to describe, and thereby conquer, the natural world. Discoveries and subsequent naming of species became more competitive as the world progressed towards the twentieth century. Although experts have estimates, it is unclear how many species are still left to be discovered in our world today. Ichthyology is fortunate enough to be a field where there are still many discoveries yet to be made: in 2012, UNESCO reported that an average of 2,000 fish are being discovered each year.

Halfway through her book, Voigt pulls you in with the thrill of the chase. Enthused with the possibility of helping a notorious ichthyologist describe a possible new species of arowana, distinguishable by unique script-like markings on its scales, she sets out to obtain him a specimen from the wild. While many books tend to flatline in the middle, Voigt’s constant and relentless pursuit of one fish (or fish expert) after another keeps the reader engaged and makes for a quick, effortless read. By the middle, you feel like you’ve left the spy thriller behind and are now having a good conversation over dinner with the author.

Voigt’s ability to almost nonchalantly describe her incredibly dangerous and ridiculous escapades is both humorous and humble. She could have exaggerated the world of wealthy arowana owners and glorified the eccentric men who spend thousands of dollars on, well, fish. But she approaches every scene in her story with the skepticism and curiosity of an experienced journalist. Although this is her first book, it was recognized as a Best Science Book of the Year by Library Journal. 

It’s unusual for me to have no complaints about a book. Often there are minor details that bother me, remaining questions nagging my mind, or a general dislike for the author in the worst cases. But Emily Voigt delivers nothing but the best, and I liked her writing enough to hope she’ll bring us more books in the future. She’s raw and honest, which makes for a good storyteller. She admits the times it feels like she’s on a wild goose chase. The captive arowana fish do little to enchant her, despite writing an entire book about the species.

The Dragon Behind the Glass is an illuminating look into a topic many of us never knew existed. You’ll find yourself thinking about fish a little too much by the time you close the book.