August 2016

Vol. 44, No. 4

About Books: Into the Woods

Mark Lynch

One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives. Bernd Heinrich. 2016. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Into the woods, each time you go There’s more to learn, of what you know. (from the finale of the musical Into The Woods, debut 1986, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

“Birdwatching and writing are best done solitarily.” (p. 191, One Wild Bird at a Time)

This May, I discovered some nesting Evening Grosbeaks in the Berkshires. After the initial thrill of such a find, my next thought was to try to see a rather curious field mark mentioned in Bernd Heinrich’s new book. Heinrich’s writing makes us want to move beyond the mere ticking of a species name on a list, and to closely observe and get to name that bird. One Wild Bird at a Time is an invitation to become a natural historian.

In a recent interview with Bernd Heinrich, I asked him why he decided to write so many books for the general public when he is a busy research scientist. He confessed he never thought about it much. He then explained that early on in his career he realized that a lot of information that would interest general readers could be found among the technical jargon of a typical scientific paper. So he began to write short articles for magazines like Scientific American and Natural History. He soon discovered that he got more insights and ideas from writing these articles than from detailing the results of his research for other scientists. And thus the prolific writing career of one of our greatest living natural historians was born.

Through the last two and a half decades, Heinrich’s literary output has been impressive, beginning with the classic Mind of the Raven in 1994. He has written about birds and bees and death and migration, always with a unique and personal perspective. The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology was a wonderful account of his travels with his scientist father and their coming to America. He has even written about running. Heinrich is serious about running and came in first in the Golden Gate Marathon in the 1980s. His book Why We Run: A Natural History (2002) is a classic of running literature. Through all his books, he seems to return to birds as his real passion, though bees are a close second. He has been on a lifelong “quest to understand what would be gained from intimacy with wild birds.” (p. vii)

In his writing Heinrich conveys not only the joy and wonder of closely observing the natural world, but gives the reader a feeling of what it takes to be a scientist. Heinrich will observe something that piques his curiosity. Through further observation, he will form a hypothesis and then with weeks, months, or even years of observation test that hypothesis. Though much of current ornithological research is very technical and beyond the reach of the non-scientist, Heinrich’s writing shows that a lot can be learned just by systematic and careful observation, and that can be exciting.

I hope to capture something of the adventure of the chase. This book is less about research results than about the reasons I “do” research. It is aimed to be as realistic as science demands and imaginative enough to suggest possibilities that science allows. (p. ix)

One Wild Bird at a Time is a collection of short pieces, each on a different species. Almost all the action takes place around Heinrich’s cabin in the Maine woods. He steps out of his cabin, sees something he doesn’t understand, and like an ornithological Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot. A Northern Flicker begins to excavate a nest hole in his cabin wall. To most of us, this would be annoying, and we would fret over the damage to our house. Not Bernd. He realizes that once the flicker opens the hole in the cabin it will be inside the deep space between the two walls. Because there is no closed bottom to this space, once the flicker completes the excavation it will likely abandon this location. So what does Bernd do? He opens up a section of the wall inside his cabin, creates a bottom for the nest hole, and creates a removable panel in his cabin wall so he can carefully observe the nestlings. Weeks of detailed observations follow the young flickers to fledging. He carefully counts how many times the adults return to feed the young and details the weird vocalizations of the baby flickers. Classic Heinrich.

Each bird is an opportunity to learn more. A Black-capped Chickadee killed by a Northern Shrike offers Heinrich the opportunity to begin to discover how chickadees survive during the long, cold Maine winter. Hearing a Blue Jay call loudly while by itself deep in the woods begins a long investigation on jay sociality and the meaning of their calls. He finds a Broad-winged Hawk nest and begins to wonder why the hawks continually place fresh fern fronds in the nest. You realize that Heinrich has a number of projects going on simultaneously. Sometimes he finds an answer, sometimes not.

Heinrich is very much a “do it yourself” researcher, and he comes up with some creative solutions to help him in his studies. As an aid in observations of hunting Barred Owls, the reader learns that “Thread is a great tool for making a dead shrew move.” (p. 64)

Heinrich discovers that during periods when light, powdery snow lies deep on the ground, Ruffed Grouse spend a lot of time in burrows deep under the snow. He meticulously counts and analyzes the pellets the grouse leave behind in these burrows and discovers that in winter grouse have plenty to eat. But they eat the tree buds mostly at dawn or dusk and spend most of the day and night snug and safe in their snow forts. But do they use the same burrows day after day? To test this, he has to make some ersatz grouse burrows. “I made a hundred fake entrances by tossing snow onto and then yanking back a surrogate for a diving grouse (a dead bantam rooster) attached to a strong string. (p. 141)

The vision of a determined Heinrich trudging alone through the frozen winter landscape tossing a frozen chicken like a fowl yo-yo in the name of science has to make you smile. But that’s Bernd Heinrich.

Throughout One Bird at a Time, Heinrich has captured an almost poetic sense of place and time. The reader gets to intimately know Heinrich’s cabin, the woods surrounding it through the different seasons, and the bird species visitors, both common and infrequent. The book is illustrated with color and black-and-white drawings by the author. These have the look of field sketches and add to the personal tone of the book.

Through the centuries, certain books have captured the beauty and complexity of the natural world and have therefore shaped the way the public thinks about the environment. Books like The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by Gilbert White (1789) and Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates (1865) are still read today because they convey the excitement of personal discoveries in the natural world, whether in a local field or exotic rainforest. One Bird at a Time and other books by Heinrich take us back to this golden age of natural history writing, a time when a curious and determined natural historian would reveal the wonders of the natural world to a reader. In addition, One Wild Bird at a Time encourages all of us to become part of this process and to make discoveries of our own. That is one of Heinrich’s greatest legacies.

And now, sixty years later, I’m still learning by being an audience to a woodcock, and so can anyone learn by watching a starling, a sapsucker, a flicker or a house sparrow—one wild bird at a time. (p. 190)

Also Noted:

Hector Galbraith has just published Birds of Hinsdale Setbacks and Bluffs, New Hampshire. This is an e-book in the form of a 70-page pdf, which is free to download. The Hinsdale Setbacks and Bluffs are on the Connecticut River just a short drive north of Northfield, Massachusetts. Based on Galbraith’s photographs and description, this is a wonderful area to bird, particularly for migrant waterfowl. You can stand in one spot and see nesting Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons. Though his book includes records going back to the 1930s, it is only in the last few decades that this area is getting the coverage it deserves.

The book includes a complete “where to go” section, a detailed map of trails, and a history of birding in the area. The bulk of the book consists of a well-researched annotated checklist of species seen there, complete with details on frequency of occurrence. Color photographs and graphs augment the book.

This e-book is a wonderful example of the possibilities of creating a personal guide and annotated checklist to a single birding destination created for everyone to enjoy. My guess is that within five years we will see a number of other e-books about New England birding destinations inspired by Hector Galbraith’s Birds of Hinsdale Setbacks and Bluffs, New Hampshire. Nice job, Hector!

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