Don’t know a blue jay from a chickadee, let alone how to spot a hooded warbler? That’s okay. A new birding book is for beginners and experts, alike.
The book is filled with not only descriptions and stories about North American birds, but also birding culture and tips. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Belleny about it.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: Why don’t you want to write a bird guide?
Danielle Belleny: I started the book during the pandemic, and I was a little bit bored, honestly. But also, a lot of bird guides might have used jargon or language that I guess was more geared towards birders themselves instead of a larger audience. I really wanted to get folks away from being concerned about not understanding something and being able to be in it because they’re interested.
Holsopple: The beginning of the book describes bird history, bodies, and behavior, and then you kind of move into birdwatching and birding culture. For example, you explain the tradition of enjoying a piece of pie after seeing a bird that you’ve never seen before. It’s called Lifer Pie. I’d never heard of that before. And it feels to me like you’re trying to bring people in with this book.
Belleny: For the folks that are new to birding, I want them to know that this is a hobby for them. They shouldn’t be excluded or discouraged from enjoying these birds, especially if they don’t have the facts about them. That’s part of becoming a birder: learning these things. You’ll be wrong sometimes, and that’s okay.
Even when I do bird walks or guided walks with folks, I like to sprinkle in little tidbits about my book. Especially if there’s a younger audience, like kids that are out there birding, they’ll tell me like, “Oh, I’ve never seen that bird before.” I’m like, “Oh, boy, you know what that means, right? We have to celebrate.” And typically I’ll just say you have to do a dance. And they look really excited and super into it.
Holsopple: You also write about good places to see and watch birds, maybe places you wouldn’t think of, like parking lots and cemeteries. I know you’re famous for that. Where do you recommend people watch and enjoy birds?
Belleny: You can always start just at your own place, wherever you are. That’s the great thing about birds. They’re literally everywhere. Even if you enjoy them online, that definitely is a place to start.
“There are birds everywhere. Just take a moment and slow down and just look.”
Parking lots are a great place to go. I’ve met a lot of people, and just birders in general – you find the bird that you’re always looking for right when you’re about to leave in the parking lot. So why don’t you just stay there and just start there in the first place?
Cemeteries is another one. They’re basically parks, just with little extra features and there are oftentimes not very many people there. So you have a nice time enjoying that whole place to yourself. Just think outside the box, really. Anywhere – a drainage ditch. You can just pull over to the side of the road and always be safe. But there are birds everywhere. Just take a moment and slow down and just look.
Holsopple: This is a bright, colorful book with illustrations by Stephanie Singleton. How did you choose the Birds of North America that are represented in the book and which make up most of the work?
Belleny: It was very difficult. I definitely wanted to choose birds that had some very interesting life habits, and so that’s where I started. But then I also wanted to get a good representative sample of birds based on like where they live – like sea birds or grassland birds or certain birds that live in certain places.
I wanted to get a good representation of North America itself and then also highlight what’s cool in each region so folks can get excited about something they could potentially see.
Holsopple: Is this kind of stuff that you had in your head already – that you already knew – or did you have to do a lot of research?
Belleny: I definitely had to do tons of research. And oftentimes I stopped and was just like, “Oh, that’s really bizarre. I have to put that into the book.” And often there are birds where like I just happened to hear in passing conversation that they had really interesting breeding behavior or an interesting call. I’m like, “Oh, I should swap that bird out and put it in my book.”
They even told me you can’t include all the weird ones. You’ve got to put the normal ones in there, too. So I’ve included, of course, the basics, like cardinals and things that you typically see for most of the United States or most of North America.
Holsopple: Do you have a favorite bird in the book, and why?
Belleny: Oh, yeah. Painted bunting is definitely my favorite bird. It’s very common in Texas, and a lot of folks in Texas don’t even realize we have this Crayola crayon, brightly colored bird in our backyards.
“A spark bird is basically a bird that kind of pulls you into birding…It just ignites the spark of wanting to go learn more about birds.”
It’s a great spark bird for a lot of folks. I know my parents, especially when they realized that they had them in their backyard, they basically started becoming birders. It’s just a bird that brings a lot of joy to me.
Holsopple: What’s a spark bird?
Belleny: A spark bird is basically a bird that kind of pulls you into birding or at least brings your attention to birds. It just ignites the spark of wanting to go learn more about birds.
Holsopple: The book is dedicated to your grandparents, Charles and Elizabeth Burse, who you write …”showed a young me the wonders of nature.” Can you tell me a little bit about them and why this book is dedicated to them?
Belleny: Growing up, I definitely liked hanging out outside and the front yard and the backyard of my parents’ house wasn’t cutting it for me. Thankfully, my grandparents owned some property outside of the Austin area. It’s about a 14-acre, more or less, farm, and I would just spend my summers out there hanging out with them, learning how to take care of the animals, and just exploring their property. That’s definitely where my love for nature was cultivated, from learning through them and also learning through whatever the land would tell me.
Holsopple: Were they birders?
Belleny: No, not necessarily. But my grandfather knows plenty of information about birds, even though he’s not specifically focused on birds. Even still, he knows how interested I am in birds. He’ll show me all the wrens and just talk to me about the birds that he sees pass through his property.
And of course, he uses the old nomenclature for these birds. So I’m like trying to translate, “What’s a sparrow hawk again? Oh, I think he means an American kestrel.” So we just have to work around each other and we’re able to still share a really fun experience, even though we don’t have the same words or the same knowledge about the birds.
Holsopple: What do birds and birding mean to you that you wanted to share with people?
Belleny: It’s really awesome that birding itself is a hobby that you can turn on and off whenever you want to. I think that was definitely the allure for me, and also that you can never be bored in nature. There’s always something interesting to look at in birds.
They’ve always been a symbol of freedom, I think across a lot of cultures, especially being able to have wings to fly away. To go somewhere else is a luxury, and I think a lot of us look to birds for that inspiration.
Danielle Belleny is a wildlife biologist and author of “This is a Book for People Who Love Birds.” She’s a co-organizer of Black Birders Week on Twitter.