As a nature cartoonist, I’ve drawn vomiting vultures, slime-secreting salamanders, and matchmaking sanderlings. It’s an unusual career—and now that I’m releasing these comics in my first anthology, Birding Is My Favorite Video Game, I’ve been asking myself, “How did I get here?”
I remember the exact moment I realized that birds were funny. I was in 5th grade at a friend’s sleepover party and was having trouble drifting off. While browsing her parents’ bookshelves for something new to read, I came across a beautifully illustrated, yet baffling book.
It was Ben, Cathryn and John Sill’s A Field Guide to Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America. I’d read many books about birds, but I’d never heard of the species in this one. Warbling Cormorant? Slightly Lesser Yellowleg? Nearsighted Bat Owl? Then it dawned on me: The book was a joke. And a brilliant one. By adding humor, the Sills had spread their love of birding to a home full of non-birders.
Humor gives science wings. It helps facts travel to new places. I’ve loved science and art for as long as I can remember; I would often observe the herons, chickadees, and goldfinches in my neighborhood and then come home to draw them. But humor was the missing piece. Armed with the realization that I could be witty, sarcastic, and scientific, I resolved to combine my twin loves using jokes as the glue.
Comics are a natural medium for sharing science. Scientists have been making sequential diagrams and illustrations for centuries—just check out Galileo’s sketches of Jupiter’s largest moons. The medium also serves as an excellent instructional tool. You’ll find assembly guides for crafts, furniture (especially the inexpensive Swedish kind), and recipes in this form. In fact, as Scott McCloud explains in “Understanding Comics,” the safety diagrams in airplane brochures are cartoons. Yes, comics could save your life.
Of course, my work won’t help you handle a catastrophic drop in cabin pressure, but it will hopefully encourage you to love and conserve wildlife. I spend a lot of time thinking about creatures that deserve more attention. For example, I love Turkey Vultures. They’re magnificent in the air (if a little wobbly), and they tidy up road kill without making a fuss. They’re also disgusting: They poop on their feet to stay cool and barf to frighten enemies. In short, they’re awesome.
When I’m writing a comic, I always include details about an animal’s behavior or ecological role. Often, bird behavior is deeply relatable. When I look at a male Wild Turkey’s display, I think of awkward high school dances. When I picture nuthatches, woodpeckers, and Brown Creepers jostling for position on a tree trunk, I imagine people bumping into each other at Black Friday sales.
For me, the Northern Pygmy Owl is one of the most relatable birds. It’s tiny, weighing only as much as eight pencils. But it’s 100% fierce. It can slay creatures larger than itself like squirrels and quail. It gives me hope: Even when I feel small, I’m strong.
After I’ve come up with a comic idea, I pore over the scientific literature. Next, I work on a script and put together a sketch in Photoshop. Cartooning isn’t the same as creating scientific illustrations: I simplify my art by highlighting the subject’s oddest traits. But I try to be as accurate as possible. That means including field marks such as the Red-tailed Hawk’s belly band or the bulbs at the tips of a butterfly’s antennae.
Bird and Moon was the title of my very first comic, a long-form tale about a lonely bird finding her place in the big city. Now, it’s the name I use for all my cartoons. They all live on birdandmoon.com, but I also post them on all kinds of social media sites. Here’s another underappreciated fact about this medium: Its compact format and concise text make it ideal for sharing online. This helps me reach new audiences—and potential vulture aficionados.
People tell me that my work helps them understand the natural world. That’s my favorite kind of feedback. My second-favorite kind is hearing from a hardworking scientist who’s found a moment of respite in my cartoons. If I can brighten an ornithologist’s day, I feel like a projectile-vomiting vulture. Truly awesome.