Avian Matters: Birding

This is the last post in the Avian Matters series – hurrah, for me! As for you, dear readers? Whatever will you have to look forward to now? Don’t you worry; you can always revisit the previous posts in the series, as well as take a look at the entire Dive Into Reading series I posted earlier if you missed that before.

Now if everything above the cut kind of looks and sounds a bit more like we’re talking around birding rather than introducing you to it… you’re absolutely right! That’s exactly what’s going on. It appears throughout the memoirs below that birding is not just an activity you can separate from the rest of your life like perhaps other hobbies (though arguably, you can’t really separate other hobbies from the rest of your life either, seeing as they inform your life, still), and helps to make sense of other events by putting them into perspective. I suspect it has something to do with the patience that birding inspires, as well as the sense of wonder once your eyes have been opened to what is all around you (such as the many different types of sparrow – yes, there is more than just one species of sparrow). I think Crow Planet, despite all my quibbles about it, would go wonderfully with this post, as Haupt does exhort you to become an urban naturalist and pay attention to what is around you even as you go about the concrete jungle.

Below the cut, you’ll find introductions to birding as well as a couple of field guides that tell you about birds in Ontario.

Lynn ThomsonBirding with Yeats caught me way off guard, in part because I was expecting it to be about a different Yeats and possibly birding in his poetry or in his life, but also because of how intimate the entire piece of writing is. It’s almost as though Thomson is writing a diary and trying to chronicle the events before she forgets: these chapters seem to parallel somewhat Yeats’ lists.

Lynn Thomson walks us, the reader, through her experiences with her son, Yeats, from when he was a child to when he has grown older and is looking to become more independent of her. Birding with Yeats is beautifully written reflection on both Thomson’s relationship with her son as well as their unique relationship with birds and with nature. The very activity of birding brings the two together in comfortable silence and forges a bond between them in the common love of birds and their appreciation of the awe that they inspire, while at the same time giving each of them strength throughout the trials that they encounter. While at times I’m tempted to think Thomson’s chronicling of her close relationship with her son might be a rather selective telling of the story, it is certainly very beautiful and touching.

The pace is unhurried and gentle, where even the most catastrophic of events doesn’t really make you nervous in the least because it’s as though Thomson is writing not entirely from her own perspective, which is probably why I feel that something is missing from the memoir, but it’s definitely a beautiful work that repeatedly brings us back into nature. I’m a bit disappointed that there weren’t more descriptions of the actual birding excursions themselves, and that the focus was more on the relationship between mother and son, but that’s exactly what Birding with Yeats purports to show, so it’s a bit unfair of me to say so. I did find that as it went on, the writing felt more and more like a list of things that had happened rather than an introspective reflection on events past, though. On the other hand, extra points for being local!

(It’s a bit of an adventure reading through this at times because there are short references to both Yeats and Keats, and I couldn’t switch between the two different ways of pronouncing “-eats” quickly enough before the next Yeats came up – and this one being Thomson’s son, not the celebrated poet, though Thomson notes he’s a poet in his own right.)


Tim DeeA Year on the Wing by Tim Dee covers much more than just the one year, as Dee’s retelling of his impressions of and experiences with birds month-by-month are informed by his experiences with them throughout his entire life, both personal experiences such as his many years of working with guillemots, as well as literary experiences. Beautifully written in a lyrical prose, the year passes by in a flurry of wings rather than a straightforward path from A to B. Think of a murmuration of starlings, in the way the shape of the flock changes from second to second* – that’s the sort of prose you’ll find here with Dee.

Another pure celebration of birds in all their idiosyncratic wonder, A Year on the Wing should surely convert you into a bird lover! (To be honest, I did find it a touch too flowery – though not poorly written by any means – so I can’t recommend it for everyone, but if you do enjoy reading lyrical prose, this should make your next-reads list.)

*If you want to know more about that, take a look at this Quanta magazine article.


Kyo MaclearBirds Art Life by Kyo Maclear won’t teach you how to birdwatch, but it’s certainly an interesting recounting of how Maclear herself learned to fall in love with birds. That’s not really it, though – it’s more Maclear’s recollection of getting back on her feet after the death of her father, and the ways in which birdwatching featured into that with the help of a young fellow who allowed her to accompany him for a year as he went around his own birdwatching adventures. The two never really leave for the spectacular or exotic, preferring instead to seek beauty in what is plentiful, or perhaps an unexpected visitor, closer to home. I think this touches also a bit on the concept of hygge, which I’ve posted about before, but there’s something of becoming able to recognize the beauty in the small and ordinary that surround us, to recognize that they are extraordinary in their own right. (I think Sarah McLachlan gets it on the dot with Ordinary Miracle, which you can find on either of these 2 CDs we have in our collection: With Glowing Hearts & Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff vol. 2).

And if you’re a bit more into birdkeeping rather than birdwatching, here’s a great review on The King of the Birds, a picture book about Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks! We don’t own the book, but as always, ILLO is an option that is available to you.

Now we’re ready to move onto introductions to birding below, as well as a couple of field guides so you’ll be able to positively identify whatever flies your way (well… maybe not whatever flies your way, but at least some of them)! So if you’ve been wondering what that bird of prey making the rounds over your head is, or perhaps wondering what kind of seagull it is that we even have here, because we just call them seagulls, really, then look no further – I (probably) have the book for you!

Sheila BuffBirding for Beginners by Sheila Buff is made for the absolute beginner, and assumes you know close to (if not actually) nothing about birding. Buff goes through a quick intro to finding and watching birds and covers different ways of identifying birds when visuals aren’t optimal, as well as helping you get through your field guide in order to make full use of it – because it can get pretty overwhelming just looking at such a huge compendium of birds, what with all the information these guides are packed with. Despite all the information Buff covers – and it’s quite comprehensive – the book itself is small enough for you to bring with you to your first few birding adventures before you feel comfortable going out on your own. It’s not that the font is tiny or anything, but it’s a compact volume packed with practical information that you’ll find handy as you go out to find and watch for birds. There’s also a section on how to prepare for the weather as you start birding all year round, or even across the world, which I think would be quite useful for someone who has never gone birding before, and might easily be overlooked by other birding books.

Kevin T. Karlson & Dale RosseletAnother book to birding gives you a slightly different way of recognizing birds than memorizing what’s in your field guide (though there’s some of that, too): Birding by Impression tells you what exactly to pay most attention to when going through the field guide in order to ensure you’ll be able to make a positive ID even with poor visual information. Karlson & Rosselet include little quizzes throughout the book that you can try your hand at, where you have to try to identify which bird(s) are in the photo, and the birds are all photographed under poor lighting conditions. Part of the argument the authors make is that you don’t always get to spot birds in the most optimal conditions (for you), and it’s sometimes exceedingly difficult to make an ID before the bird flies or runs away. By focusing on unchanging characteristics such as behaviour, size, and structural features, you’ll be able to narrow down the list quite a bit, if not actually be able to narrow it down to one candidate, and once you add in plumage clues, it gets a lot easier to ID the bird. This is also in part because plumage can be pretty confusing to go off of, seeing as many birds regularly change their plumage, and memorizing all three (or however many there are) of the different looks they sport throughout the year or throughout their lives in order to spot the bird in the wild, while helpful, can be a bit stressful.

What I find really helpful about this reference volume is that it goes into a lot of detail about what to look out for, in addition to listing a comparison of similar species, and what those look like and how they behave. Some of these details also include migratory patterns and supplementary details (e.g. eye rings, colour contrast, etc.), and the authors also provide comparison tables for quick reference. The only thing I can immediately come up with that might be an issue with this volume is that it’s definitely not meant for taking out into the field, being of a textbook size and just shy of textbook weight, you’ll have to become familiar with the information presented in this book before heading out.

We do have a number of other birding books, including the National Geography’s Bird-Watcher’s Bible as well as Look Up! Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette Cate, which is written for children.

And the following two field guides will help you identify birds of Ontario and get you started in your birdwatching adventures around the province!


I hope you have enjoyed this series, and if you’d like to revisit some of the previous installments, here is a list of the full series:

  1. Why Must Ravens Be Conspiring to Be Unkind?
  2. Bird Sense
  3. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?
  4. Corvidae
  5. Birding

About Karen

Karen (she/hers) is a Culinary Literacies Specialist at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre library. When not in the kitchen, she can be found knitting, reading, and repeating.  |  Meet the team