As a baby, Joan Strassmann heard the sweet chirps of house sparrows nesting beneath the eaves. As a child, she spotted birds on hikes with her father, a German refugee and outdoor enthusiast. Once armed with her own binoculars, she was startled by the electric blue of an indigo bunting. And when she became an evolutionary behavioral ecologist, she often used birds to teach aspects of biology, though her research focused on social wasps and social amoebas.
“The questions are the same,” she points out. She has long been fascinated by how various creatures cooperate and how they recognize and treat their kin. “Great Egrets will kill their full siblings,” she points out, “so there’s lots of aggression, even within families.” But there is also tenderness and nurture, not to mention mutualism, tight reciprocal relationships across species that the strictest legal contracts do not guarantee for humans. Nature is infinitely varied.
That variety is one reason birders grow so competitive, driving from one promising site to the next to check off another species. Strassmann is thrilled when these “listers” document their observations on eBird, because “citizen scientists have transformed what we know about what birds are where and how many there are.” But she finds a deeper satisfaction in what she calls “slow birding,” and she suspects it could expand the listers’ horizons.
Bask in a sunny garden and watch the birds. Hike slowly through the woods and listen for their calls. Pull up the new, free Merlin app to find out which bird sings that song. Gradually, you will learn intimate details about the lives of these “winged dinosaurs that have given up stored fat, hollowed their bones,” to fly.
A perfectly calibrated blend of lyricism, stories about researchers’ discoveries, and straight scientific fact, Strassmann’s new book, Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard, draws a circle with a twenty-mile radius around her University City home and describes sixteen of the most common birds that fly across that circle. The writing is gorgeous.
“I think it’s important to write in a way that communicates both facts and feelings,” she remarks, adding that she wrote short stories in college, even won a prize, “then took a little forty-year hiatus.”
Birds brought her back. When she left Houston to join the faculty at Washington University (where she is the Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology), she felt a pang. She and her husband had sold their house, and she could never again sit in that backyard, watching and listening. Then she realized she could always visit the park down the street and hear all the birdsongs she listened to while she watched her kids grow up. Birds could still connect her to the past, just as their flight has always connected her to other places. And their stories, lively and complex, could animate all those birding checklists.
So Strassmann set out to describe Dark-eyed Juncos, how “their white bellies look snow-brushed, their gray backs a warm shawl for the coldest nights.” She explained the startling four sexes of the white-throated sparrow, its courtship complicated by a need to mate not only with the opposite sex but the opposite color pattern. (Females take note: the white-browed male is far more likely to be a philanderer and an indifferent father.) She wrote that Cedar Waxwings, which arrive unpredictably and sing notes too high for some to hear, “are like thoughts that arise unbidden in meditation.” That Northern Cardinals (beloved in St. Louis and the state bird for seven states) learned to thrive in big cities where there are no predators eager to eat them. That the American coot uses an environmental signal to distinguish eggs laid by somebody else. That many female songbirds, presumed monogamous because they watch over their nest so faithfully, step out regularly to mate with strangers.
Mystified by everyone’s recoil from noisy Blue Jays (no state wanted them), Strassmann acknowledges that they sometimes “shriek at each other for social reasons apparent only to themselves,” but more often police the skies, warning of a Cooper’s Hawk or a Barred Owl. “Did blue as a color of law enforcement come first from Blue Jays?” It is a custom among birders to celebrate the first bird of the new year, and last January, she was glad hers was the Blue Jay, an underrated landscape architect. By eating acorns, they dispersed the mighty oak trees, reshaping the continent as the glaciers receded.
With slightly less enthusiasm, she defends the pesky starlings, introduced here in a burst of misguided romanticism because Eugene Schieffelin thought New York needed the birds of Shakespeare. Now more than 200 million starlings live in the U.S. (though Strassmann points out that “there are more than 300 million of us, and we are much bigger.” Their saving grace is the way they gather, sometimes 30,000 of them at once, in a murmuration, the black cloud of birds spiraling and undulating in the sky like God’s own screensaver. Each starling need only keep track of six or seven near neighbors, she explains, and that lets them turn and bend optimally, creating a breathtaking pattern.
By learning such habits and traits, we can root ourselves in the land beneath these birds, better understanding this place where they choose to fly. “Birds are here because they want to be,” Strassman notes. “They can leave. Granted, we’ve taken away a lot of their habitat….”
We have also warmed it up, to the point that torrential rains and temperature changes are making even pristine habitats uninhabitable. Meanwhile, feral cats (along with housecats allowed outdoors) are killing one billion birds a year. Others smash into skyscraper windows or get mangled by the white blades of wind turbines. Our track record has barely improved since we hunted Cooper’s Hawks nearly to extinction, then poisoned them with DDT. We also came close to exterminating Great Egrets, killing six to pluck out each ounce of feathers sold to milliners so ladies could have pretty hats.
If the ladies had known more about those elegant Great Egrets, they might have coveted the hats a little less avidly.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.