Books and Birds

I live in New York City so when I was invited to the first annual Tucson Book Festival to talk about The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature I jumped at the chance. After all, I could combine books and birds, which is what life is all about. (People are nice too.)

Books and birds actually have a lot in common. Books, like birds, appear to be everywhere, but it’s diversity that is an indicator of health and it’s diversity that is constantly threatened. Independent bookstores, which are disappearing, offer varied habitat; chain stores always have the same books. Mass-produced genre titles, thrillers and celebrity biographies, have their place, but with risk-averse cash-strapped publishers, they threaten to become like starlings, an invasive species that drives other creatures out of their nesting holes. Novels or literary non-fiction are like eastern bluebirds – they need nest boxes too small for starling heads. Book festivals, like birding festivals, call attention to the needs of a varied community.

Serious writers are like the California condor, which doesn’t even begin breeding until the age of six, and even then the female only lays one egg every other year.  Wonderfully, Arizona has successfully introduced the California condor into Arizona, one of its ancestral nesting grounds – though far in the north, and I’d have had to drive seven hours to see one. And now they’ve started a book festival as well.

Southeastern Arizona is one of the best places in the country to see birds, which is why it isn’t surprising they wanted a “Books for Birders” session. The environment isn’t an afterthought in a place like Tucson; it is, like water, something you think about as a sort of life blood. The mountains around Tucson are “sky islands” -- you can start in Sonoran desert and then rise through habitat after habitat, going from grassland to oak woodlands to pine-oak forests. In birding terms, you can go from cactus wrens and roadrunners to painted redstarts, hepatic tanagers and bridled chickadees in about fifteen minutes. For someone who lives surrounded by skyscrapers, the idea of an environmental high rise is exhilarating.
My one heresy, and perhaps a place where books and birds part company, is that instead of using a guidebook I used my i-phone, having just downloaded the amazing “i-Bird Explorer Plus” application. Eight hundred and ninety-one birds in my pocket, along with their calls, their range, and a “birdipedia” link to information that could never fit into a conventional guidebook, and certainly not one smaller than my wallet.

For the creator of i-Bird, Mitch Waite, the difference between the printed book and the interactive guide is the whole point: “I built i-Bird for many reasons – but mainly to put a bullet hole in the paper based book,” he writes in the “about” section of the i-guide. “Its not just that I hate killing trees. Field Guides in book form are dumb; they provide no intelligence, have tiny little pictures and are a pain to carry around.”

Those are fighting words of course. In the old days, bird watchers shot birds. Now it is birdguides they take aim at.

I do not agree that conventional bird guides are “dumb,” but Mr. Waite and his team have accomplished something extraordinary. You can rearrange the “book” alphabetically by first name, last name, by bird family, which is a roughly taxonomical arrangement.  Or you can plug in the name of a bird.  There is room for a drawing as well as for photographs of each bird, and of course you can play yourself the song. (If you are less responsible, you can also play it to the bird.) Can anyone really tell what a bird sounds like from the description twee twee ta weeteo as opposed to hearing it tumble into your ear?

A number of years ago, I wrote a book called The Talmud and the Internet, inspired by the fact that a page of Talmud, an ancient text which was originally oral, looks like a homepage on the internet where nothing is whole in itself but everything is a text box leading somewhere else. It was a way of likening the world of ancient religious impulse to the world of modern secular technological impulses, where everything is connected. I feel there is something at work with the new bird guide as well; i-Bird is both larger and smaller than a printed book. And since it is interactive and multi-sensory, it gives a wholer feel, more like the thing one is looking at – a paradox since one is looking at nature and i-Bird is all technologically facilitated. But this just amplifies a paradox already present in birdwatching, where we use binoculars, a modern technological innovation, to bring us closer to the natural world from which technology so often alienates us.

Of course i-Bird is not perfect. The images are not of uniform utility or quality, as one finds in Sibley or Peterson; it is still in some regards a work in progress, and even Mr. Waite cautions “don’t throw that book away just yet.” I certainly brought along my Sibley and Peterson as well. I also brought along Melody Kehl, a terrific Tucson-based bird guide.

With Melody, who runs “Outdoor Adventures,” I was coming full circle. My wife and I had come to Tucson ten years before and we were all set to go birding with her then, but her husband had a heart attack and she was unable to take us around. Indeed, she told me on this trip that it was while packing lunch for us ten years ago that her husband “died” in the hospital. He was revived and is now fine, though he has a renewed appreciation for the fleeting nature of life and its slow pleasures – something birdwatching, of course, is all about (unless you’re a crazy lister, in which case God help you).
Melody does everything i-Bird does (she can’t sing the bird songs, it’s true, but she can identify them and she has a car). On this trip, she drove me around, showed me the sights, identified plants and birds and topography, and packed me lunch as well. In short, she is the sort of bird guide that, like the birds, no technology can ever replace.