This is a guest post from writer Bryony Angell of Seattle, WA.
BOOK REVIEW: Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest by Julie Zickefoose (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), 352 pp. Hardcover, $28.00. Images courtesy the author/illustrator’s website (click each of them to view larger).
The new book Baby Birds is both an art book and a memoir; additionally a dedication (but not a how-to) to wildlife rehabilitation. More than anything it is a showcase to the breadth and sensitivity in words and watercolor renderings of the talent of its author Julie Zickefoose. Zickefoose is foremost a writer, author and artist, and her rehabilitation efforts are fueled by her love for her subjects–birds–and the association that her fans make accordingly.
I know first hand what expectation her public have for someone like her: I grew up with a dad whose fame locally associated him with injured birds and their rescue. My sister and I grew up with owls and hawks in the house; victims of hunters or window strikes or nest purging of some kind. By the time I remembered their faces the fledglings were well on their way to flying the coop; the kind of attention Zickefoose pays to her baby birds was not what I observed as a youngster in my parents’ house. But I appreciate that wildlife rehab is not for the faint of heart nor the amateur.
My own effort at rearing a baby chestnut-backed chickadee failed. I was in college at the time, and my dad passed the bird on to me. It was naked like a plucked chicken, tiny, yet responsive to me like an infant. “Keep it warm above all else,” said my dad. I carried it on my person for two days in a shoebox stuffed with kitchen towels, feeding it suet and crushed nuts. At a dinner of fellow students, two beautiful Swiss girls with preoccupied American suiters, I was the odd one out with my shoebox containing a fragile blind hatchling. I left early.
My hatchling died in the night. But I understood then the tremendous work involved in care for such tiny creatures with specific needs.
I admire Zickefoose’s incredible record of success with the delicate birds she has documented. The time and care–let alone the attention to detail in painting these birds that she manages–astounds me. Who would consider painting naked Ruby-throated Hummingbirds daily? Aren’t they rather ugly as their pin feathers are coming in? Describing the feeding by the parent, one worries for the welfare of the nestling. Zickefoose writes, “The mother brings up nectar and and insects from her crop as the chick makes a rapid pumping motion with its head, entirely engulfing its mother’s ¾-inch-long bill.” Couldn’t a puncture happen?
Baby Birds is an homage to the fragility of Spring’s duty; the new life every year is not assured of survival. Zickefoose, an optimist and passionate advocate of wildlife and wild places, understands her role as caretaker and documentor, historian and storyteller on behalf of the birds she cares for. She does not stray into anthropomorphism or sentimental projection in her work, though she treats each patient with the care and sensitivity of an individual. Her chapters include the story behind her obtaining each bird, natural history of the species, as well as the change in care as she refrains from handling the birds as they grow older, so that they will remain wild.
Zickefoose is the first artist to document baby birds with such concentration in print. Her many talents produce this beautifully written and illustrated book that spans multiple genres and appeals to readers for different reasons. Each chapter has the tension of the unknown–will the birds survive and fledge? Considering they are in the hands of this talented and thoughtful artist and author, the reader can rely on, if not a happy ending, the absolute utmost in effort to assure one.
Bryony Angell is a Seattle-based magazine writer. She also blogs about being an urban gal who loves wild birds at www.bryonyangell.com.