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The Birds of Heaven (And other favorite bird stories)

By Jon Friedman


Much of my adult life, particularly in the past three decades or so, I have come across many books about birds that I have enjoyed immensely. Even though my library is stocked with many reference books, there have been quite a few that I read not only for whatever factual gleaning was offered, but also for the sheer joy and entertainment value that certain writers powerfully convey. In this article, I will outline a few of my favorite non-reference books, and movies, that I heartily recommend to others who share a love of birds.

The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes by Peter Matthiessen. Matthiessen was (he died a few years ago) a critically acclaimed writer of non-fiction and fiction. While some of his best-sellers remain very popular books, such as The Snow Leopard and In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, my favorite from among his many published works is undoubtedly this volume. In this book, published by Macmillan in 2001, Matthiessen documents his travels around the globe in search of all the 15 species of cranes. Research and travel took over a decade to accomplish, and the resulting chapters document the life histories of each species, in loving and engrossing detail. Concerned with the endangered status of all the species and, knowing the planet was already facing an ecological crisis, he wanted the world to know, understand, and protect the world’s remaining cranes. His reverence for these birds may be unmatched in the printed word. The gorgeous full-page color plates by Canadian artist Robert Bateman perfectly capture the beauty, majesty, and elegance of these amazing birds. With his dry humor and incredible wit, Matthiessen enables the reader to understand the problems and possible solutions involved with saving the world’s tallest birds. There is good news and bad news reported here, but the reader comes away hopeful and inspired. This book is full of factual information, beautifully written; it reads like a wonderful adventure/travel story and one I consider a must-read for all birders and those readers who may be unfamiliar with this author, one of the greatest of all wildlife writers.

Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. This quirky-but-true tale is subtitled “The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand.” It describes the coming-of-age adventure travels of a high school dropout whose preoccupation with the world of birds became the overriding inspiration for most of his life. Living in Tucson and honing his birding skills throughout Southeastern Arizona, Kenn’s urge to see all the birds of North America led him to spend a year in the early seventies searching out the nearly 1000 species that inhabit the continent. He traveled over 80,000 miles, and spent less than $1000. He did odd jobs along the way when he needed his next cash infusion to enable him to get to the next destination. He washed dishes, picked fruit and did whatever was necessary to reach his goal of seeing every bird in the continent. While his initial objective was to set a new North American sighting record and thereby eclipse the Roger Tory Peterson record, in the process, he came to understand the way of the natural world and how humans interact with it. This, in turn, led him to become a serious ornithologist and a naturalist of the first order. His writing style is eminently readable, and this book has been briefly described as “Jack Kerouac meets Roger Tory Peterson – a very different and remarkable story of a young man on the road.” It is the story of Kaufman’s first “Big Year” in birding. The “Big Year” refers to the yearly event many of the most serious birders spend in the quest to see all the continent’s birds in their natural habitats. First published in 1997 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik. This book, also made into a popular movie, provides riveting reading, especially for birders. It is about the spectacularly competitive event where serious birders undertake the yearlong marathon of birdwatching. This book documents the 1998 event, with particular emphasis on three of America’s best birders as they traversed 275,000 miles, continuously crisscrossing the country in the effort to see every species, including any and all of the rarities and exotic species known to be present somewhere in North America. It tells how they braved all weather and climatic conditions, all habitats from broiling deserts to suffocating swamps and tolerated simply awful foods and motels when nothing else was available in order to prove themselves as “the best birder.” Grossly entertaining and hard to put down, this novel is based on the real event that occurs annually and gives the reader real insights into the extremes that extreme birders are willing to undertake and endure in order to reach their goal. Published in 2003 by Paw Press.

The Big Year. This is the 2011 movie inspired by Mark Obmascik’s popular book. David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me) directed Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black in this smart drama/comedy. I had earlier read the book, and loved it. So when the movie came out, it was a must-see, and I must say I was not disappointed! Rated PG, this movie proves it does not need nudity, profanity, violence, car chases, or song and dance to hold and focus your attention like any good movie should. While it is a serious story about a birding competition, viewers do not have to be birders to appreciate and be thoroughly entertained by this quirky, yet serious comedy. Birders will, however, get that extra little punch of the insider jokes by being familiar with many of the birds mentioned and photographed. Each of the three leading actors prove their mettle doing real drama with a comedic edge – a wonderful balancing act. Shot on location throughout the continent, the cinematography is stunningly beautiful. This movie provides the viewer with an accurate portrayal of the event itself and the participants who personalize and individualize the event. I cannot imagine anyone who sees this will not enjoy this memorable movie. And, have a few guffaws along the way!

Ghost Bird. This 2009 documentary movie, shot on location in a small Arkansas town and the swamps surrounding it, focuses on finding the Holy Grail of birding – the probably-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker that once populated the hard-wood swamps of the American South.

North America’s largest woodpecker, thought possibly extinct until numerous reported sightings in 2005, caused the largest search for a given species. For over three years, serious ornithologists from around the country and leading woodpecker experts from around the world trudged, sludged, and muddled through extreme weather and landscape in their relentless and intensive search for this nearly mythical bird. Hope, faith and the limits of certainty are examined and understood in this true story of man’s need to discover what may prove undiscoverable. The search was begun after a rash of reported sightings by experienced birders near the town of Brinkley, Arkansas. This rather unremarkable town gained instant fame and recognition because of the international attention it garnered as a result of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s possible rediscovery in the nearby swamps. Cottage industries, centered on the species, emerged and thrived for the three-year period. The hopes and dreams of scientists, naturalists, birders and resident locals reveal a wide range of emotions, rationales, explanations, and conclusions that form the content of the drama in this documentary movie. Try Netflix. It is also available on the internet.

A Parrot Without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth by Don Stap. This non-fiction book, published in 1990 by Macmillan Books, describes the author’s trip into unknown and unmapped jungles of eastern Peru in search of undiscovered species of birds in general and parrots, in particular. Stap, an amateur birder, accompanies two leading ornithologists from Louisiana State University. The first is John O’Neill, who identified more new species than any other ornithologist, and the second is Ted Parker, who was regarded as the foremost authority on Peruvian birds and widely considered the world’s leading expert on tropical and neo-tropical birds. Peru has over 1700 known avian species, and its rain forests are considered among the very finest birding locations in the world. Together, they led Stap on two expeditions into wilderness areas where scientists have never been before. Just reaching the study sites would have been adventure enough for a book, but Stap gives the readers excellent, detailed profiles of the two ornithologists in the field. He skillfully explains the how’s and why’s of the expedition’s goals, and gives vivid accounts of their everyday efforts during the mission. He provides the answers to complex and detailed ornithological questions in simple, straightforward, yet descriptive analysis. They did discover a new species of parrot, which was great news to the scientific community, but he also describes the crash that took Parker’s life, which was a great blow to the worldwide birding community. This book will prove very appealing to birders and readers who appreciate true adventure and discovery in the modern age.

A couple of other books I would encourage serious birders to check out are:

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, by Jonathan Weiner. Published in 1994 by Vintage Press. This Pulitzer Prize winning book is a dramatic story of groundbreaking scientific research that carries on where Darwin left off. It documents how natural selection is neither rare nor slow, that it is taking place by the hour; and reveals how and why in an elegantly written and compelling masterpiece of theory and explanation. It provides a new aspect of understanding life itself.


A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm, by Alexander Skutch. As many regular readers of my articles may already know, Alexander Skutch is my favorite ornithologist. He is a fabulously talented writer who writes about science in a manner that everyone and anyone can understand and appreciate. Although he started publishing in mid-life, he continued writing and publishing well into his nineties, until his death at 100 in 2004 at his farm/bird preserve in Costa Rica. While he wrote dozens of books and hundreds of scientific papers, this book is one of the most informal and entertaining of all. It describes searching for, finding, and purchasing a tract of land to live on, raise his family, start a farm, and operate a bird sanctuary. He was, and remains, the leading expert on the birds of Costa Rica. I found this “inside look” into his life, seen through his eyes and described with his words, absolutely fascinating and rewarding, as it is filled with invaluable insights into the man himself, his understanding of his place in the world, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world. I cannot imagine any nature lover not appreciating this particular work. Although, I must confess, there are several other Skutch books that I value and treasure nearly as much as this one. Published in 1979 by the University of California Press.


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