Book Review: Baby Birds
by Julie Zickefoose
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016
Illustrator and all-around bird enthusiast Julie Zickefoose, in her new book Baby Birds, takes readers into a place all of them must have wondered about but virtually none of them will have seen: inside the occupied nests of birds. In the pages of a gorgeous oversized volume from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Zickefoose approaches the nests of birds ranging from swifts to starlings to swallows to wrens and chickadees, extracts the newly-hatched chicks over the course of their earliest development, sketches them, and then puts them back.
It’s at first a slightly jarring process to read about; not only do most people never see the inside of a bird’s nest, but most people wouldn’t dream of reaching into one and rousting the inhabitants. As Zickefoose points out early on in her book, there’s a deep cultural disinclination:
From the moment we’re old enough to go exploring in our backyards, we’re told not to touch bird nests. “The mother bird will smell you on the babies and then she’ll abandon them, and we don’t want that.” A sort of magical protective shield springs up between child and bird. This fable, while untrue, is probably mostly good for the birds. For people, though, I’ve noticed that a drilled-in parental admonition can result in reticence about approaching birds and sometimes progresses into a full-blown phobia. Birds flying about our heads or birds in our hands can be too scary to contemplate. We may not exactly recall where or how it started, but a lot of people are skittish about handling birds. I am not one of them.
She amply demonstrates that she’s not one of them, handling one kind of baby bird after another and filling her book with sometimes jarring marginal sketches of naked, bug-eyed little creatures signally lacking in every graceful or formidable characteristic of their older selves. These margin-sketches are accompanied by her penciled notes, and her sketches extend from the graceful songbirds for whom she positions backyard nests to “invasive” brutes like the common house sparrow, which she initially scorns as a callous killer of native species. She eventually comes to feel a little involuntary fascination even for these little fiends; their chapter, like all the book’s chapters, is filled not only with first-hand observations and anecdotes but also with fluidly-written overviews:
This stocky, solid little Old World sparrow is, with the Eurasian tree sparrow, the only Passer species to have become established in the New World. There’s almost nothing house sparrows won’t eat; sputzies flying with huge pieces of white bread in their bills were a common sight in my suburban Richmond, Virginia, neighborhood when I was growing up. They take a variety of insects; I recall seeing one in flying pursuit of a frantic Chines mantis, almost as big as the sparrow. And I’ve seen them in parking lots from Arizona to Pennsylvania, hopping methodically along the fronts of cars and trucks, scavenging freshly killed insects from their grilles. Plucky and inventive, house sparrows dog human heels wherever they occur, scavenging spilled grain at elevators and chicken yards; sorting through the litter at fast-food establishments, a habit that has earned them the derisive label “Burger Kinglet.”
Zickefoose has self-imposed guidelines for how she selects the subjects of her watercolors. “I can’t study just any wild birds nest that I happen upon,” she writes. “Foremost in my mind is the Hippocratic oath: Primum non nocere (First, do no harm). To have any of these wild, free-living birds suffer or die for my art is unacceptable.” She won’t open a path to their nests that might then be used by predators, for instance; she only opens nests when she feels certain she can restore 100% of the security she’s exposed. This policy unquestionably produces great results – Baby Birds is must-own for bird fanciers – but it’s distinctly 20th century in its limitations. There’s suffering and dying, yes, but there’s also low-grade trauma (Zickefoose’s reaction if a photographer kept coming into her house uninvited, walking off with her daughter, then bringing the daughter back unharmed but well-documented a little while later? I’m guessing it wouldn’t be good) and plain annoyance. Simple nature-curiosity doesn’t outweigh any of those things, so perhaps one book like this is enough.