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The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds
The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds
John Yow
The University of North Carolina Press, 2009
264 pp., $27.00

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Reviewed by Cindy Crosby


Birding from the Back Porch

No need for travel to exotic climes.

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Yow makes plenty of personal analogies, including one I found particularly entertaining, comparing the gluttony of cedar waxwings to his own piggishness over his mother-in-law's pot roast and mashed potatoes. Some of his writing is pure delight, as is this about chimney swifts: "Such a comfort to see the chimney swifts darting through the air around the house as we sit on the front porch these summer evenings. I'm sure they're doing a lot better job at mosquito control than our citronella candles. And such a pleasure to hear their lovely twittering as they nest and raise their young inside our chimney. When they fly in and out, their wingbeats sound like distant thunder. I've been fooled more than once into thinking maybe a storm was coming to break a summer drought."

What comes across clearly in Yow's book is the amazing diversity of common backyard birds in appearance, song, life habits, and appetite. The common crow, Yow writes, is "utterly, remarkably black" and brings with it "the chill of the graveyard at midnight." "Wasn't it a crow that helped work the witch's will in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, crows that led the onslaught in Hitchcock's The Birds?

If adaptability is worth anything, crows seem to have it in spades. Crows, despite people's almost universal hatred, are thriving, Yow says, because they can eat almost anything—junk food, roadside carrion, the eggs and young of other birds—and can live anywhere from farms to forests to garbage dumps. If a crow wants to eat something in a hard shell (clams, nuts, turtle hatchlings), it carries it up high, then drops it on a rock to break it open. Or, sometimes, crows drop it on the road and wait for passing cars to crack it open. They can store food for later usage in cache sites, where the crow digs a hole, drops the food inside, and covers it with grass or plant debris. Crows live 20 years or more, in extended families, where eight or nine members of the group work together to raise the kids.

Another fascinating essay looks at the contradictory habits of great blue herons, which are community-minded when breeding and solitary-minded when not. Their colony nesting habit is particularly unattractive. Yow observes the first-year nests "are so thinly latticed that the pair's eggs can be seen from below"; the nests are then remodeled year after year, held together by "their accumulated filth." No wonder Audubon called the rookeries "dismal retreats!" The young void excrement over the edge of the nest, followed by uneaten decaying fish pushed aside: enough to keep the most avid blue heron fan from getting too close. Yet, after the rigors of breeding season, "the great blue passes its days in quiet watchfulness." A lovely image.

The Armchair Birder is liberally illustrated with prints from John James Audubon's Birds of America, but they are disappointingly reproduced in black and white. Ah, well.

Wherever you will be this summer, Yow's book is a good reminder to break out an iced tea or cold beer, dust off the lawn chairs, and spend some time outside with a field guide and pair of binoculars close at hand. Surely no season could be better spent than in quiet meditation, observing the ever-changing tapestry of bird life in our own back yards.

Cindy Crosby is the author of By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer and a contributor to the study guide Creation Care. She is co-editor of two volumes of the Ancient Christian Devotional ( Cycles A and C).

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