Bird by Word: Two reviews of American Birds: A Literary Companion

As I finished reading American Birds: A Literary Companion I realized that there were two reviews I could write: the “typical American birder” review and the “atypical vegan birder” review. And that, in the end, I needed to write both reviews.

Let’s begin with the “typical American birder” review. In this review, I admire the book. It is beautifully produced and includes a wealth of poems and essays that span history as well as species. From Henry David Thoreau’s diary of encounters with bluebirds and geese and herons to Rachel Carson’s avian observations from the shoreline, to poems by Ursula K. Le Guin, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry (to name just a few). I guarantee you will find an essay or poem (probably several) that stick with you. For me, it was the essay by Rick Bass on ravens and crows and the persuasive case made by Terry Tempest Williams for admiring starlings rather than vilifying them. And the poem that stuck with me was by M.S. Merwin, in which he writes about the “unknown bird.”

The chronological structure of the book sheds light on the evolution of our relationships with birds over the years. When we read Audubon’s accounts of firing away at nearly every bird he encountered as he meandered across the country so as to more accurately render them, you can’t help but wince (especially when he writes about the now-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker). This, of course, was birdwatching back in the day. The names of these birds often reflected this close-up point of view. For example, a ring-necked duck has no apparent ring when you view the bird from shore. But you can see it if you happen to be holding the duck in your hands, which surely the namer did after having shot it. It’s one thing to admire Audubon’s paintings, it is another thing to realize that every bird you are seeing was unwillingly martyred for the portrait.

Which was why I was grateful when I arrived at the essay by Frank Chapman advising beginning birders to first visit a museum to see these animals up close rather than simply firing away at them.

There are an estimated 60 million birdwatchers in this country and, I estimate that the majority of them would, as typical American birders, love this book. And by typical I’m referring to a birder who may freely confess to a passion for birds, possibly while eating a basket of chicken wings or a turkey sandwich. Which is to say that “typical” birders, in my view, don’t view all birds (or animals for that matter) as equally deserving of protection. And, I’m afraid, neither did the editors of this book.

Which leads me to the second and more personal “vegan birder” review. As much as I wanted to love this book I couldn’t get past the fact that the one bird species that is most prevalent in this country, the chicken (Gallus domesticus), did not receive any attention of note. No essay. No poem. In the US there are 400 million chickens in cages of various sizes, suffering all-too-brief existences that barely qualify as living. Surely, this bird deserved an essay or two. And while we’re at it, how about an essay about turkeys, ducks, and geese (apart from Teddy Roosevelt’s brief mention about how he killed a few for Thanksgiving). The absence of contemporary literature about the plight of birds that humans hunt and eat represents a missed opportunity.

Just as it’s important to look back on how Audubon related to birds, it’s as important to understand how we relate to them today, in all its violence and misconceptions. One essay, one poem about the most-slaughtered bird in this country would have gone a long way to erasing this wall between fowl and food.

Perhaps the vegan birder in me expected too much from this book. I suspect most readers will be quite content with it. In American Birds: A Literary Companion the species who are written about are as telling as the species who are left unmentioned.

American Birds: A Literary Companion
Edited by Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld
Library of America