Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Conversation with Scott Weidensaul, Part 2

(You can listen to this part of our conversation here.)

Every spring, I spend as much time as I can looking for warblers. I pay attention to every one I see or hear, at least long enough to identify. The warblers hardly ever notice me—they’re on a mission. 

In the same way, the human characters in Scott Weidensaul’s A Warbler’s Journey see the Yellow Warbler just briefly, and the warbler pays no attention to them. These characters are in Nicaragua, United States, and Canada. I asked Scott how he crafted the book to make them realistic:  

I’m an old white guy, and Nancy Lane, who did the beautiful illustrations for the book is also white, and we’re portraying a Latin American girl in Nicaragua, an African American grandmother and her grandson along the Gulf Coast, and a Dene family in the Northwest Territories. And so we made a point of reaching out to folks in all three of those communities to share the illustrations and share the text just to make sure we weren’t striking any false cultural notes: Jefferson Shriver, who is a shade coffee farmer in Nicaragua that I’d gotten to know a couple years ago, Juita Martinez, who’s a biologist in Louisiana and one of the founders of Black Birders Week, and Iris Catholique up in the community of Łutsël K'é up in the Northwest Territories. All of them very kindly reviewed what we had, and made suggestions, particularly on both the Gulf Coast and Northwest Territory artwork. 

I want to make a particular shout out to Nancy Lane, who did the illustrations, who was as concerned and focused on accuracy as I was, and went back, in some cases repeatedly, to alter and tweak and change artwork to get the birds right, to get the habitat right, to get aspects of community—the look of the community in the Northwest Territories and aspects of the clothing—to get them right. It ended up being a huge amount more work for her than she was anticipating when she took on this job, but the results speak for themselves. 

Scott designed a great map showing the general species range overlayed with this particular warbler’s route. I asked how he’d come up with that. 

To show that this is one bird out of tens of millions of Yellow Warblers making that trip across a million potential different routes. And in the back of the book, we include for the grownups who are reading a lot of information about what people can do to help migratory birds like Yellow Warblers—how they can participate in community science, keeping their cats inside, buying shade grown coffee if they’re coffee-drinking adults, and noting the work that those indigenous communities are doing in Canada to protect a lot of the breeding grounds for these boreal songbirds.

Scott has banded thousands of birds on the Gulf, and also over much of the Yellow Warbler’s huge breeding range. I asked him how many individual Yellow Warblers he’s held in his hands.

Oh my goodness—that’s a good question. A lot! Certainly a lot, particularly back in the days when I was doing a lot of banding along the Gulf Coast every spring. We’d get a lot of Yellow Warblers coming through with these trans-Gulf migrants. 

That’s for me probably the one part of the story in that book that is most vivid to me—the trans-Gulf migration, because I got to see that year after year after year for almost 15 years on the coast of Alabama, watching these birds that have just flown 25, 35, 40 hours non-stop across the Gulf, coming through enormous storms sometimes, and have seen what it looks like after the passage of the big storm when there’s all these little feathered bodies washing up on the beach. The birds that made it 599 and a half miles and they couldn’t make it that last half mile to shore. So understanding the really extraordinary effort that these birds must make every year, driven by instinct. And I try to get a little bit inside the head of the bird in the book, and I sort of imagine a sense of calm deliberation and determination that this is what she was meant to do. The strength of her ancestors are in her wings and she has no choice. This is what she needs to do right now, through storms and long nights and exhaustion and across thousands of miles. That’s what she’s meant for. 

I told him how I appreciated how he wrote so respectfully about the warbler, not anthropomorphizing her or giving her a cute human name.

It would not at all surprise me to find out that birds have individual  names which they recognize and which they answer, particularly if we’re talking about highly intelligent, highly social birds like corvids and parrots and caracaras. We’re finding out that caracaras are way smarter than anyone expected. I don’t know if Yellow Warblers do, but if you could prove it to me, I’m not sure I’d be entirely surprised. And so, yeah, I think respectful is a really good way of putting it. Trying to give these birds space to be the organisms that they are. 

A Warbler’s Journey, by Scott Weidensaul and illustrated by Nancy Lane, will be released on May 14, but is available for pre-order from most bookstores. I can’t wait to get my hard copy.