Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, June 19, 2020

Jennifer Ackerman Week, Part V: Love and Parenting

Ring-necked Pheasant

I’ve been blathering and writing about birds since I was in my 20s way back in the mid-70s. I took a couple of ornithology classes and a graduate-level animal behavior course starting in 1975, right when I was starting birding, so my wide-eyed wonderment seeing eye-popping delights that I’d never even imagined before was folded into my studying taxonomy and scientific names, morphology and physiology, and other such technical and ostensibly dry aspects to birds.   

Watching real-life Ring-necked Pheasants strutting about while studying how the gizzard fits in with avian digestion added to my appreciation of an extraordinary bird even as it satisfied my lifelong curiosity about that packet of innards included with store-bought turkeys and chickens. Seeing my first Bald Eagle and Kirtland’s Warbler in June 1976 gave me a greater appreciation for endangered species than the first Earth Day had—seeing and hearing these vulnerable birds in the flesh deepened my commitment to protecting them far more than just reading about pesticides and habitat requirements. Learning the local Madison, Wisconsin, Baltimore Oriole songs in 1976 and then hearing the different tunes migrants sang as they came through in 1977 gave me a more visceral understanding of bird dialects than book learning alone could have, but without that book learning, I’d have not understood what I was hearing.   

Baltimore Oriole

Because I learned all this as an adult, I vividly remember how confusing everything about birds was and how thrilling it was to start figuring it out, which I think is why I’m good at answering other people’s questions about birds. That’s why my first assignment when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2008 was to write The Bird Watching Answer Book. It’s also why, in 1996 when I was writing Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids, intended for parents, teachers, Scout leaders, and naturalists, I included a whole chapter of basic information about bird bodies, so those adults would have enough understanding themselves to feel comfortable when kids asked them questions.  

Over the years, I’ve heard many of the same questions over and over and been struck by how very many people ask me about bird sex. I suppose it’s related to our expression “the birds and the bees”— bird songs and displays are rooted in courtship culminating in sex, and bird eggs are a universal symbol of fertility and reproduction. I’ll never forget, back in the 1980s after I’d given a presentation at a nursing home, a tiny woman in a wheelchair raised her hand. When I called on her, she said in a quavering voice, “I’ve been wondering something for 87 years. How do birds… how do they… well, you know. How do they … do it?” When I wrote Sharing the Wonder, I made sure to include the answer to that, which in a roundabout way is why a local librarian started calling me “the Dr. Ruth of Ornithology.”   

Those universal questions about bird reproduction, and the fascinating strategies different birds have for raising their young, were the entire focus of my 2015 book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds and my forthcoming book, The Love Lives of Birds.  

I write and talk about some things over and over—people are gobsmacked to learn that ducks, unlike virtually all birds, not only have a penis-like organ, but that it can be over half the length of the bird’s whole body. A very few species, such as swifts, can mate in flight. In some species, males and females are both extremely promiscuous, including species in which mates seem absolutely devoted to each other, such as bluebirds. Only a handful of species, including swans, cranes, and Florida Scrub-Jays, are absolutely faithful.  

All that is simply to say, I’ve spent decades observing, researching, writing, and talking about bird sex and bird parenting, so I looked forward with special anticipation to the sections titled "Love" and "Parenting" in Jennifer Ackerman’s new book, The Bird Way. And she didn’t disappoint!    

Ackerman traveled around the world to visit some of the ornithologists breaking new ground in our understanding of birds, and seeing their subjects firsthand. I sometimes talk about the bizarre nesting habits of megapodes—Australian Brushturkeys and Malleefowl. The males build ginormous mounds into which females lay their eggs and leave. The males tend to the mounds, for months while the embryonic chicks are incubated by the composting process, the temperature closely monitored by the father. When the chicks finally hatch, buried deep down, they must spend their first few days in the dark, digging their way up and out. When they finally reach the surface, they run off and raise themselves—if their father notices them at all, he literally kicks them off his mound. I’ve read about this over and over. Jennifer Ackerman actually got to see some of it happen.   

I’d be envious of her firsthand observations of these and such other amazing species as fairy wrens and Australian Magpies and Japanese Red-crowned Cranes, that I'll never see in my life, if she hadn’t been so vivid in her writing—it feels like I shared some of her experiences.  

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think was a delightful read from start to finish. I’m sure it’ll make the New York Times bestseller list as her splendid The Genius of Birds did. And unlike a lot of books, it’ll belong there.  



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