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Birds Worth Knowing!

By (August 20, 2016) No Comment

IMG_2774Our book today is a pretty little gem unearthed from the bargain carts of my beloved Brattle Bookshop: the 1917 classic Birds Worth Knowing by the American author who wrote under the pen name Neltje Blanchan. This particular edition was issued in 1923 as part of the Little Nature Library put out by Doubleday, and it draws from the many bird-books its author wrote during her busy career as a popular nature-writer, bird-books like Bird Neighbors, Birds That Hunt and Are Hunted, and Birds Every Child Should Know. And as an added bonus, the whole thing is illustrated with charming bird-drawings in full color.

Neltje Blanchan’s narration in all of her books is a fruity mixture of kindly condescension and Edwardian moral certainties – it’s the kind of prose PG Wodehouse so perfectly mimicked in My Man Jeeves, when Jeeves undertakes the writing of a book very similar to Birds Worth Knowing, a treacly-cheerful children’s version of Alexander Worple’s American Birds. These books, with their complacent warblersplatitudes in which the animal kingdom is just a dumbshow reflection of the human world, once abounded in bookstores. All such books tended to be written in a lovely prose line, and Blanchan’s are in many ways the best of the type.

She tours her readers through a few dozen of the most colorful and charismatic American birds, from bluebirds and chickadees to catbirds and warblers. The whippoorwill, the woodpecker, the kingfisher, the loon, the shrike, the screech owl, the crow, the blue jay … these and many more emblematic birds are given evocative profiles, and there are verdicts as well, as in the case of the Cooper’s Hawk:

Here is no ally of the farmer, but his foe, the most bold of his robbers, a bloodthristy villain that lives by plundering poultry yards, and tearing the warm fresh from the breasts of game and song birds, one of the few members of his generally useful tribe that deserves the punishment ignorantly meted out to his innocent relatives.

hawkThis book, like all of its source books, is liberally studded with instructions as well, instructions aimed at the then-burgeoning industry of amateur bird-watching. The suburbs were growing exponentially while Blanchan’s books were selling briskly in city bookstores, so there are tips for those new semi-rural enthusiasts:

Perhaps no one thing attracts so many birds about the house as a drinking dish – large enough for a bathtub as well, for birds are not squeamish and certainly no bird delights in the sprinkling of water over his back more than a robin, often aided in his ablutions by the spattering of other bathers. But see to it that this drinking-dish is well raised above the reach of lurking cats.

And what of that most vilified of all standard American birds? Mercifully, our tree sparrowauthor has a broad mind:

When it came to a verdict on the English sparrow, after the most thorough and impartial trial any bird ever received, every thumb, alas! Was turned down. But having proven itself fittest to survive in the struggle for existence after ages of competition with the birds of the Old World, being obedient to nature’s greatest law, it will defy man’s legislation to exterminate it. Toilers in our overpopulated cities, children of the slums, see at least one bird that is not afraid to live among them the year round … Like the poor, sparrows are always with us. A forced familiarity with mischief-making members of the class has bred contempt for them, even among many bird lovers.

IMG_2781The book’s illustrations are blurry, bygone-delightful things, complete with the usual gestures at locational signals – a marsh for the marsh birds, a twilit barn in the background of a Barn Owl, riotous foliage for the bright warblers, snow falling around the chickadees – and the combined effect is the creation of a world of such innocent wonder that it’s easy to understand why Neltje Blanchan was such a popular author. Even now, finding this book a full century after it first appeared, in a world that’s no longer innocent and whose bird-books now bristle with scientific specifics, it’s easy to fall under the spell again.