The Armchair Birder

Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds

By John Yow

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The Armchair Birder

264 pp., 5.5 x 8.5, 41 illus., bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-7229-1
    Published: February 2012
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-8878-0
    Published: February 2012
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8463-3
    Published: February 2012

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2009 by the University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.

John Yow, author of The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds, takes flight with his tales of everyday birds.

Q: Why birds? How did this project come to be?

A: It's hard not to look at birds, since they're everywhere, and the more you look the more you see. Once you start really looking, you realize that birds are doing the most amazing things -- like squeezing formic acid from ants onto their feathers to cleanse them of vermin -- things that prompt the question, Do they really do that? To find the answers I started reading, and once I had been reading for a while, I realized that I was gathering information a lot of backyard birders probably didn't know -- but would probably enjoy learning. In selfless acquiescence to the public good, I decided to answer that demand.

Q: What is an "armchair birder"?

A: An armchair birder is a person too lazy to get up and "go birding," which can be pretty exhausting, or a wannabe naturalist who somehow made it through school without taking any science courses, which can be pretty demanding. But really, being an armchair birder is okay. It means you're content to look at the birds that come to you, but motivated enough to take a close look. And of course, it means you're willing to read to fill in the blanks. One idea behind the book is that the natural world is close by; you don't have to go find it. Thoreau, whom I quote often, never went anywhere, but he saw everything there was to be seen.

Q: I admire your ability to pay close attention to the habits of birds in order to reveal their secret lives. What is the first step in tuning in to the birds around us?

A: The first step is getting outside your own head (or your own i-Pod or cell phone). For some of us, like me, that's easy, because what's inside of our heads is profoundly boring. Other people are endlessly fascinated by their own thoughts, feelings, relationships, and agendas, and about all we can hope for from those folks is that they do as little harm as possible.

Q: How is this book different from other birding books?

A: This is a different bird book because the concept is different. The purpose of bird "guides" is to help you identify birds you haven't seen before, and in most cases, that means helping you identify hundreds of species you will never see. That's fine. Everybody needs a bird guide. But after you've identified the species, the guidebook has done its job. My idea was to take the birds we've already identified and talk about what they're up to.

The great advantage of this concept was that it allowed me to tell stories about birds, to be anecdotal, to be funny, to quote other people's stories and observations -- in other words, to get to the interesting stuff.

Q: How did you decide which birds to include?

A: I started with the birds that come to the feeder and worked my way outwards. I included songbirds that don't come to the feeder but that live in my woods (tanagers, phoebes, etc.); non-songbirds that live in my woods (crows, hawks, owls, etc.); and birds that don't live in my woods but that I see occasionally and that are widely familiar (ospreys, eagles, sandhill cranes, etc.). My idea was that the birds we're familiar with are the ones we are likely to want to know more about. The red-whiskered bulbul, for example, is not included.

Q: Why did you decide to divide the book by seasons?

A: Because my daughter said, "You need some way to organize this mess."

Q: You fondly reference many personal bird watching experiences in the book. Have you always been drawn to birds?

A: I don't remember a time when my family didn't hang a bird feeder. Nobody was an expert by any means, but the seed was, if not planted, at least poured in the dish. Then, when my wife, daughter, and I moved to the woods a dozen years ago and started seeing birds like scarlet tanagers and indigo buntings and yellow-billed cuckoos -- well, anybody who wouldn't have gotten excited about that wouldn't have moved to the woods in the first place.

Q: What sources did you draw from in researching this book? How did you incorporate this background into your own birding experiences?

A: I relied heavily on the old masters -- people like Arthur Cleveland Bent, Edward Howe Forbush, and John James Audubon, who, it turns out, not only painted birds but wrote about them in fabulous and often hilarious detail. The important thing to me was that these guys had done for their readers what I wanted to do -- move beyond identification and into bird behavior, writing about individual birds in sufficient detail to create an interesting and memorable picture. For example, Audubon writes about having to dive into the river to escape from an injured -- and very angry -- sandhill crane and about having to call to his boatmen to come to the rescue. You don't get this stuff in the guidebooks.

Q: You include 41 drawings by John James Audubon in the book. What is their importance?

A: Audubon's illustrations are wonderful, in and of themselves, and since I make frequent reference to Audubon's writing, using his illustrations is appropriate. But I can take no credit. UNC Press assumed responsibility for providing illustrations, and what the press came up with exceeded my wildest hopes.

Q: Do you have a favorite anecdote from the book?

A: It's a book full of anecdotes, from my own observation and from my reading, and there are lots of good ones. Certainly one of my favorites was that day during nest-building season when I was in my rocker on the front porch with Moses, our long-haired golden mix, asleep at my feet. A titmouse (a more brazen bird than you might think) landed on the floor of the porch, hopped over to the dog, and plucked a bill-full of hairs out of his tail -- ideal nesting material, obviously. Moses jumped and whirled, but the bird was long gone.

Q: What is your preferred way to watch birds?

A: I look down into my aviary from my upstairs office window -- which is open if the weather permits and from which I've removed the screen. My binoculars sit on the windowsill. Five feeders (six, counting the suet thingy) hang from various shepherd's hooks and tree limbs below, and there's also a birdbath. It's not a bad perch. I've seen a Cooper's hawk kill a downy woodpecker -- and, on a smaller scale, a titmouse devour a tiger swallowtail -- the bodiless wings fluttering away in the breeze. It helps that beyond the cleared yard where the feeders hang is nothing but woods, through which deer and turkey meander. I can stare at my computer screen or look out, and I much prefer to look out. Such is the life of the armchair birder.

Q: In your opinion, do we live in an age that makes it easier or more difficult to appreciate birds and their secret lives?

A: Our age manages to do both. It makes it more difficult because with every day that passes there are substantially fewer acres in which to look at birds (or trees, or anything else not made of concrete and steel). But those same human forces make it, if not easier, at least more desirable, to get outside and take a look at what's there. Nature, as it disappears, becomes more compelling. If you'll notice, the number of bird-watchers is not exactly declining.

Q: An environmental theme runs throughout the book. Do you consider yourself an environmentalist?

A: Don't get me started. How can protecting our planet, holding on to what's left of our natural resources, not be the number one issue on any political agenda? I honestly don't understand it. Mercifully, the younger folks get it. The only question is, is there still time?

Q: Yet the book is not preachy. In fact, it's often funny. Are you funny?

A: Thanks. I hope so. Funny is good, even when you're being serious -- maybe especially when you're being serious. Doonesbury is funny, for example, and every political opinion I've held for the last 40 years has come from that strip.