Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 15, 2020

Jennifer Ackerman Week: Part I

Western Scrub-Jay

An occupational hazard of writing about birds is reading about them. I read a lot of bird books; I enjoy some of them; and I truly love a few. I seldom talk about the ones I dislike—what if I am missing some important thing that makes them better than I realized?   

Even of the books I absolutely love, I seldom review them on this blog. Bird book reviews seem different from, say, movie reviews, in that people of all kinds go to movies of all kinds. But bird books tend to be pretty narrow in focus. I can tout my favorite two field guides—National Geographic's and Kenn Kaufman’s guides.  

I recommend the former as my favorite basic all-around North American guide for people who prefer artwork, and the Kaufman guide for those who prefer photos. I believe quite seriously that everyone should have a field guide to birds in their home. I mean, when Russ and I went to the Smithsonian to see Julia Child’s kitchen, the one thing that stood out to me was that she had a field guide in there!   

But when I get a review copy of one of the superb field guides published by the Princeton University Press, every single one a real winner, I don’t write a review because the vast majority of my listeners aren’t in need of a field guide to New Guinea. Princeton’s Central America field guide is a tour de force, and when people write me asking to recommend books before a trip anywhere in Central America, I include it, but the vast majority of my listeners aren’t planning trips to Central America, and by the time they do, Princeton or another publisher may have something even better.   

Much as I love and use field guides, and even as the author of the American Birding Association’s Field Guide to Minnesota Birds, I don’t necessarily feel a deep connection to other field guide authors. As far as other types of bird books, it's a mixed bag. I absolutely love Bernd Heinrich’s work, such as Ravens in Winter, but I lost any sense of actual kinship with him when I read Winter World. Fascinating as it is to know and refer to the fact that a Golden-crowned Kinglet’s body temperature on a sub-zero degree day is 111 degrees Fahrenheit, I simply cannot relate to the way Heinrich determined this. As he wrote in Winter World:   
Yes, I killed several kinglets (after getting the appropriate state and federal permits), really only because of curiosity and a hunger for knowledge. And with regrets but no prayers.   
I read and use Heinrich's work, and respect the authority of his information, but I don’t feel connected to him.   

The one writer to whom I felt a deep connection as I first read her 2016 book The Genius of Birds is Jennifer Ackerman. She doesn’t overstate her case even as she traveled all over the planet talking to the researchers studying the intelligence of various species. She also doesn’t resort to anthropomorphism even as she draws comparisons to the similarities between us and wild species.   

When The Genius of Birds came out, I bought it because of the topic. As I read it, I was SO enjoying everything about it and thinking how much I’d love to meet her—she seemed on exactly the same wavelength as me!—and then I came to page 133, where she’d been talking about Western Scrub-Jays holding what the researchers compared to funerals for fallen flock mates.  

I’d reported on that on For the Birds back in 2012 when researchers at the University of California Davis published their study of how scrub-jays react to finding a dead scrub-jay. I wrote about how when I’ve observed Blue Jays after one of their flock is taken by a hawk at Hawk Ridge, they seem to hold what reminded me of the Irish wake when my dad, a Chicago firefighter, died. Here I was reading Jennifer Ackerman’s story about those same California researchers and what they’d found, and suddenly there was MY name—she was quoting, with attribution, my words! Never in my life have I ever been reading a wonderful book and suddenly there I was being quoted! That has to be the coolest surprise I’ve ever experienced. So yep, Jennifer Ackerman definitely seems like a kindred spirit.   

She has a brand-new book out, The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think. My name doesn’t appear in this one, but it’s equally wonderful—so wonderful, in fact, that I’m calling this Jennifer Ackerman Week and will be focusing entirely on this new, fascinating book.