Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Conversation with Scott Weidensaul, Part 1

(You can listen to this conversation on my radio/podcast page here.)

Last time I talked about Scott Weidensaul’s picture book, A Warbler’s Journey. Today I get to talk TO Scott Weidensaul. He and I got together, at least virtually, a couple of weeks ago to talk about the book before it’s released May 14. At the very start of our conversation, I found myself boasting about my 1-year-old baby grandson, who says “chee-dee” when a chickadee appears at the feeder, and when I ask him what a chickadee says, he says “dee dee dee.” Scott had a similar story:

Well, my nephew’s son, who’s now eight, when he was just becoming verbal, my mother was holding him at the window and watching the feeder birds, and she started to pish, and he pished. “Pssssh psssh psssh psssh pssssh” So his first word was “Pssssh.”

Pishing is much more useful in attracting birds than saying “dee dee dee,” so now I’ll have to up Walter’s game.

Anyway, I quickly got down to the topic at hand, asking Scott how he came to write A Warbler’s Journey.

Gryphon Press had approached me—I guess some time in 2020—it was during the pandemic, early in the pandemic lock down—about doing a book about migration for kids, and we went back and forth around a couple of ideas and settled on a story, telling a story of a female Yellow Warbler migrating north from her wintering site on a shade coffee farm in the highlands of northern Nicaragua, across the Gulf of Mexico to a backyard on the US Gulf Coast and then on up to her breeding grounds along Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories in Canada.

It was an opportunity to talk about a couple of important conservation aspects of bird migration including the importance of certified shade coffee for protecting bird habitat in Latin America, and some of the work that a number of indigenous communities are doing across Canada in particular, putting really truly enormous areas of land into permanent conservation. The community in the book is modeled on a community called Łutsël K’é in the Northwest Territories. The Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation has just put something like 6 million acres of its ancestral land into a new national park called Thaidene Nëné National Park and Reserve. And so it was an opportunity to highlight that.

I love the ornithological accuracy in a book tailored for little children.

I agreed to do the book on the condition that it was scientifically accurate and we did not anthropomorphize the bird. Birds are remarkable creatures. There’s a lot more going on inside those little Tic-Tac-sized brains than we’ve ever given them credit for, but they’re not little people.

And in fact, as much as I have really enjoyed working with Emily and Dana at Gryphon Press, we did have a bit of a row over whether or not the bird should have a name. They felt very strongly that it should because, as they pointed out, there is a raft of humane education research that shows that children engage more quickly and more immediately with an animal that has a name, whether it’s a fictional animal or a real animal. But I said, “What name should it be? Should it be a Spanish name when the bird is in Nicaragua? Should it be an Anglo name when the bird is in the U.S.? Or should it be a Dene name when the bird is in the Northwest Territories?” And I think that’s when they realized that none of those names would be appropriate for a bird that lives its own life in its own world and is not a little person.

How did Scott choose the particular bird in the book?

I wanted to do something that was small, because the immensity of crossing the Gulf of Mexico is even more impressive if you’re small. We originally talked about doing a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, actually. But there are a couple of other storybooks about hummingbirds and we wanted something that stood out a little bit.

Yellow Warblers are one of the most widespread of the Neotropical songbirds. They breed across almost all of North America—there’s breeding populations all the way down to South America. The migrants breed across almost all of the U.S. and Canada. And their migration route covers almost all of the U.S. and Canada south of the Arctic. And I wanted to do a female just simply because dammit, guys get all the glory. And she’s gotta get all the way back up there AND produce eggs AND do the incubation and an awful lot of the chick care. So it just seemed appropriate. I think there’s a real subtle beauty to the female Yellow Warbler. There’s just a—I don’t know—there’s just a real delicacy to their beauty.

Next time, Scott Weidensaul tells us about the human characters in his lovely book, A Warbler’s Journey, which will be released by The Gryphon Press on May 14.