Margaret Atwood Talks Bird Lore To Celebrate the ‘Bedside Book of Birds’

The reissue of this love letter to birds, by the noted author's late partner Graeme Gibson, delves into the varied intersections between human and avian lives.

For decades, authors Margaret Atwood and her late partner Graeme Gibson were a power couple of Canadian literature. Despite his wide-ranging influence, Gibson struggled to sell publishers on an unusual book he envisioned—a massive scrapbook of art and writings about birds in history and culture. “He had the idea for The Bedside Book of Birds ten years before the book actually got published,” says Atwood, the award-winning speculative fiction novelist, as well as a birder, conservationist, and poet. 

The Bedside Book of Birds, eventually released in 2005, was Gibson’s love letter to the deep relationships between humans and birds. In the compendium, birds provide hope, insight, and companionship but also portend sinister omens. Its contents span continents and centuries, from Aristotle and an Aztec eagle warrior to T.S. Eliot and Haruki Murakami. The book was a hit at the time, says Atwood, and now it's being reprinted by Penguin Random House to be released in stores on March 30

Gibson never lost his delight in birds, she says, even up to his death in 2019 at age 85. Audubon spoke to Atwood, who wrote a new forward to the book, about the story of this unusual work and the couple’s shared birding life. 

Audubon: How did this unique book come about? 

Margaret Atwood: Graeme was a convert to birdwatching when he was probably about 36, and he became very keen on it. He palled up with some expert birders and was very interested in taking groups to Cuba, which I think has 25 endemics including the Bee Hummingbird—the smallest hummingbird in the world. We did [birding trips] for a number of years, and then we became connected with BirdLife International. During this time he was also collecting. He was collecting bird images, bird stories, people's experiences with birds, and bird mythology. He had the idea for putting it into a miscellany, which was a favorite Victorian kind of book. A miscellany can include anything—a quote, an image of a statue, a tidbit of a story, a piece of folklore, scientists' writings, a travel adventure, anything. It was a process of elimination of what would go in and what had to come out. The Bedside Book of Birds could have been about five times as big as it was. 

Audubon: Yes, there’s a lot in this rich book, covering the many ways that humans interact with birds. What are some of those themes? 

Atwood: They cover the range. Not all experiences that people have had with birds have been positive, and not all of them have been positive for birds. In one place in the book, it's remarked that humanity gave the wings of birds to the angels but the claws to the devils. We have had things like Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds. Some people are afraid of birds, let's not discount that. And some birds had been seen as an element of doom. How many crows are supposed to be bad? I think it's three. And ravens have been associated with battlefields. In some cultures, they're called 'wolf birds' because they follow wolves and want some of whatever it is the wolf is going to kill—and they're smart enough to know that. Because they can’t open a carcass they will actually help wolves and humans hunt. Overhead, they can see over hills, and they will do that dip thing in their wings, like ‘this way, yoohoo, this way.’ 

Audubon: In the new forward you've written with this reissue, you mention that you and Graeme dressed up as the Norse god Odin’s pair of ravens for a costume party. I love that. 

Atwood: Graeme picked Thought, and I picked Memory. He didn’t have a good memory, whereas I did. 

Audubon: Some of the excerpts in the book are not entirely surprising—the Bible, Darwin, Greek mythology—but others are much lesser known. I was interested to see the mix of words and art that show how both Western and non-Western cultures relate to birds. How did he do research? 

Atwood: We did a lot of traveling in those years. And some of the places were very big on bird imagery. Indeed, there was often folklore and mythology back through the years, and that's one of the things I'm also interested in. Of course, when we were traveling and when we were doing bird things, we would ask people wherever we were: ‘Got any good bird stories?’

Audubon: In the book, Graeme discusses the idea that birdwatchers can sometimes get lost in the act of checking a bird off their list, or even symbolically possessing a bird, as in the use of the birding phrase, “what birds did you get?’

Atwood: Yes, though it’s better than shooting them which is how people used to collect birds.

Audubon: How did you two approach birding then?

Atwood: We did do a trip list for places that we were going, especially if we were with a group of people. But we didn't do a life list. He was always more interested in watching the birds’ behavior than in checking it off the list. But we understand the collecting thing, too—it’s like stamp collecting in a way. It’s a different kind of pleasure.

Audubon: Have you been doing more birdwatching in this last pandemic year? 

Atwood: I’ve been doing a lot of walking, but not specifically with that in view. When you’re birding, I think it’s better to be with other people who are doing the same thing. But I hope to be able to be with some like-minded people, possibly in May. We threw together a Pelee Island Bird Observatory and Pelee Island Heritage Center Springsong event online last year, and we're doing the same this year. It will be May 8

Audubon: With the pandemic, this reissue is being published in a very different moment than it was originally. Do you think the book will hit differently now?  

Atwood: Well everything is hitting in a different way. I think we've seen a big uptick in people's appreciation for natural space. Natural spaces have been places that people could go into—and that weren't their cellar—where they could have some breathing space.

Audubon: In The Bedside Book of Birds, I was particularly moved by one piece, "Birds of the Western Front," from a writer named Saki, who died in World War I. He was writing about how the lives of birds went on amid all the death and destruction of the war. It reminded me a little bit of this year—how I think people have taken some solace in the lives of birds despite all the death and destruction now.

Atwood: Yes—not only are birds beautiful and cheerful, but they're ongoing. Like in the famous World War I poem In Flanders Fieldone of the things that people who were in the trenches noticed was that the meadowlarks were still doing their thing despite all of the carnage that was going on around them. 

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.