When Birds Are Near: Dispatches from Contemporary Writersis a collection of 26 essays that work at the intersection of environmental and literary sensibilities. Edited by Susan Fox Rogers, the volume offers wonder and companionship at a moment when our own species is grounded during a pandemic, as well as timely dispatches from an avian world under threat. The contributing authors relay birding experience through engaging narrative and intimate reflection, and the resulting compendium will be valued by naturalists and readers for decades to come.
Introducing the volume, Rogers cites inspiration from early 20th century writings of ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush. “I wanted more of these stories from the field,” she writes, “in-depth reports that revealed the birds, our relationship to them, and perhaps also some unexpected wisdom about the mess of life, or this beautiful planet we live on”—a focus she “[distills] to ‘birds plus something.’” The “somethings” here range widely—place, history, memory, grief, climate change, kinship, wonder—with each of the essayists providing insight into both the birds and our connections with them.
Gathering a range of perspectives along the way, When Birds Are Near includes essays focusing on particular species (Lucifer hummingbird, snowy owl, painted bunting, etc.) and essays casting a wider lens over bird life of a region. There are dispatches from career birding guides and ornithology professors, and from amateurs volunteering with bird counts, protecting nests, or gathering fallen birds for Project Safe Flight. Providing keen sensory perspective are essays by visual artists, including a lovely graphic essay, “Koan,” by Ursula Murray Husted. There are dispatches, too, from backyard birders, proving again that the wonder of birds is often local, though “local” can mean Florida or the Bering Sea, depending on your vantage point.
Many of the contributors reflect on the origins of their affinity with birds, leading the reader to do the same. In “Buried Birds,” poet and marine guide Elizabeth Bradfield writes:
I love sea birds because of their differences from “regular” land-based birds. Because most have long-term pair bonds, long lives, shared parenting duties, and little sexual dimorphism…. The option of a different conventionality—another way of life—first appealed to me as a young queer woman who knew that the examples she saw around her would not guide her. These different birds were beautiful. There could be a different way of thriving.
In “Death and the Rose-Breasted Grossbeak,” John R. Nelson associates particular birds with lost loved ones, even while the experience of birding offers balm for his grief:
Birding blessedly distracts…. But I never think of birding as a distraction. A distraction couldn’t offer such moments of discovery—a capuchin’s shocking air raid siren song in a remote Brazilian forest or, at home, a baby hawk flapping and hopping with ungainly resolve and rising in first flight. That spring I spent hours in our yard watching bird’s family lives.
And renowned ornithologist Donald Kroodsma’s essay “The Hour (or Two) Before Dawn,” which chronicles one morning’s work on his project to record the songs of 381 birds, is made richer by bookended reflections on having his son as traveling companion.
While the essays offer intimate reflection, they also directly address climate change and other threats to birds. In 2019, the journal Science published a study titled “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” documenting the loss of billions of birds since 1970, with increasing devastation forecasted. When Birds Are Near chronicles specific threats and reminds us what we stand to lose. In “Chasing the Ghost of the Imperial Woodpecker,” Tim Gallagher searches unsuccessfully for this species which was long before known as cuahtotomi, cumecocari, uagam, and pitoreal to the people of northwest Mexico. Gallagher concludes, “Our expedition was one of the most sobering and depressing journeys of my life.”
Such reports offer necessary account of violence to birds (and humans), yet the primary experience of this book is not despair. Instead, it repeatedly returns to wonder both for its own sake and as a means of spurring resolve. Eli J. Knapp, explaining why he takes his students on birding expeditions, quotes Thomas Moore’s maxim: “If you don’t love things in particular, you cannot love the world, because the world doesn’t exist except in individual things.” Knapp adds that “attachments to particular species lead us to larger, more global concerns. This is why, for the days I have left to teach, I will continue carting my students to places where peregrine interruptions are possible. It’s why… I’ll keep leading them down dusty, potholed roads” in search of “One Single Hummingbird.”
Illustrating attachment through attentiveness, When Birds Are Near evokes the sights, sounds, and movements of birds with the scientist’s focus and the poet’s lyricism. Rob Nixon describes how “fugitive pigments made the [spotted] owls seem continuous with the sun-flecked bark” while Christina Baal marvels how “notches in [the condor’s] worn primary feathers look longer than my forearm.” Christine Byl shows how at the limits of language we move into a bodily sense of the animal world:
To describe a crane’s call—any one of them—pushes the limits of language…. A thumbnail dragged along a taut piano string, fractioned stops and starts. All metaphors fall short. The hum of a small plane’s engine beyond the next ridge. I sit at my desk trying… and then my mouth and throat open and I croak and warble instead. That which cannot be described by the mind tries to lodge itself in the body.
These essays bring us the avian world with insight and imagination, and I found myself scouring contributor bios for further reading. Like the best birding experiences, the book is an invitation to journey further—deeper into the woods, farther up the coast, keener in observation. And it is an invitation to connection. Released during a devastating pandemic, When Birds Are Near is a welcome reminder of the kindship we find in both the pages of books and the animal world around us.
Laura Donnelly is the author of Midwest Gothic (Snyder Poetry Prize) and Watershed (Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize). Originally from Michigan, she now lives in Upstate New York and is an associate professor of creative writing at SUNY Oswego. She is the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the I-Park Foundation, and elsewhere. You can find more of her writing at www.laurakdonnelly.com.