Blue jay

Slow Birding

Review by Gregory Nobles

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Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard
By Joan E. Strassmann
TarcherPerigee | 2022 | 335 pages

    
Slow Birding, by Joan E. StrassmannWhen I talk with people who are just beginning birding, I try to be encouraging. Think of this, I tell them: you probably already know a bunch of birds—cardinals, blue jays, robins, sparrows, chickadees, crows, maybe a couple of ducks—so you’re well on your way to a life list. Just keep it up, and you’ll find lots more!

After reading Joan Strassmann’s Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard, though, I realize that may be bad advice for beginners, or maybe the wrong approach altogether. The notion that to “know” a bird is just to be able to identify it now seems pretty inadequate, and the goal of bagging bird after bird for an ever-expanding life list seems especially shallow and self-serving. Strassmann reminds us—reminds me, certainly—to stop, go slow enough to focus, and not obsess so much about the numbers. How much better it can be, she observes, to “spend time watching a few birds for a morning instead of racing around and just counting them.”

We should know this, of course, because we’ve heard versions of it all our lives, from our third-grade teacher’s exasperated admonition to “Pay attention!” to Mary Oliver’s wiser and gentler suggestion that we “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Strassmann even gives us tips on how to do that. She’s an advocate for picking out one spot for watching, then keeping track of what happens day after day, month after month. (In this she shares a chosen location/close-observation approach with Jon Young’s 2013 book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.) “A stool, a notebook, a sketchpad, and maybe a camera become important tools,” she writes. “As I look more carefully, I see what the birds are doing.” And what they’re doing is something we can all see if we’ll just give them a longer look and ask the right questions.

Even the comparatively few familiar visitors to our feeders—the cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, and such—have fascinating things to tell us. For instance, we may have become so accustomed to one of the most ubiquitous birds in the yard, the American robin, that we take it for granted, but as Strassmann warns, “just because robins are common does not mean they are not worth our attention.” When we see them poking the ground for worms, we ought not stop with simply saying, “The early bird gets the worm.” The real question is how they do so—by sight, by smell, by sound, by vibration beneath the soil? That might seem like a project for a seventh-grade science fair, Strassmann admits, but it’s also a “legitimate scientific question,” and she gives us a fascinating account of how a couple of Canadian researchers designed an elegant experiment to answer it. In short, they buried mealworms in trays of dirt, which were divided into grids to help measure where and how the robins hit pay dirt for worms. By making ingenious adjustments to control for various sorts of sensory information, they determined that the robins first relied on careful hearing, “listening for whatever sounds worms make when moving through soil.” But once the birds figured out where the worms were, they cocked their eyes down to go for the catch, thus using a combination of sound and sight—maybe not a startling surprise, but a good answer to a basic question.

The rest of us may not have the time or training to engage in such experiments ourselves, but Strassmann tells us we can still watch, and she ends the American robin chapter—as she does all the chapters in the book—with specific suggestions about how to look and what to ask. Learn to distinguish male from female when possible, listen for their songs, keep an eye on what they do at the nest, what they eat, what they give their nestlings, and when they come and go for the season.

Learning to distinguish male from female takes us to a topic that runs throughout almost all the chapters in the book: mating behavior and the sometimes tricky issue of monogamy. Using both observation and manipulation—banding birds, moving eggs from one nest to another, taking DNA samples, and so forth—researchers have learned that many birds, both male and female, will sometimes slip in a side relationship with an out-of-pair paramour, even during a single mating season. It’s not for love, of course; seeking out an occasional mate-upgrade to produce better offspring just makes genetic sense. Still, when we give our own offspring the standard talk about “the birds and the bees,” we should know we’re not telling the whole story.

After the babies are born, though, bird parents do good work, trying to find a balance between nurturing the newborns (including those sired by different fathers) and preserving their own strength to breed again. In her chapter on the house sparrow, for example, Strassmann tells us that “female and male will prefer that the other do most of the work” of brooding the babies in the nest and going out to get the 3,000 to 4,000 insects needed to bring a single chick to fledging. They somehow work it out—a “daily negotiation,” Strassman surmises—because both parents are committed to a successful outcome. Indeed, “when the male observes he has a brood of chicks doing particularly well,” she notes, “he increases his efforts because they may be his best bet for genetic immortality.” Yes, even the house sparrow can be motivated by male pride.

Throughout this impressive and refreshing book, Strassmann finds a fine balance of her own, offering just the right combination of accessible science and engaging narrative to feed our own hunger for avian information. It’s a work we can read cover to cover, or we can dip into whatever chapter we want when we need to read about a particular species. It’s both a good read and a reference, a book that deserves close—and slow—consideration.

As Yogi Berra famously (or allegedly) said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” As Joan Strassmann makes very clear, what works for baseball certainly works for birding—especially slow birding. She wisely invites us to take a seat, maybe take some notes, take the time to think about what we see, and above all, think again about what’s going on right in our own backyard. We’ll never see the feeder the same way again.

 

 

Gregory NoblesGregory Nobles is professor emeritus of history at Georgia Tech University, and he lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and Northport, Michigan, both good birding spots. He is the author of John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman (2017) and, most recently, The Education of Betsey Stockton: An Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (2022).

Header photo by Mohan Nannapaneni, courtesy Pixabay.

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