Publication: Quill & Quire
Review Category: Children’s & Young Adult Non-Fiction
Byline Michele Landsberg
Rights Cleared Yes
Issue Date: 2005 12
Word Count 992
Stillness is a blessing too often absent from the lives of today’s children. After a moment of stillness to tune your attention outward, quiet the inner commotion, and drink in the world through wide-open senses, you come back to yourself subtly refreshed and changed.
I saw that magic written on the face of my three-year-old grandson last summer. We were in the woods when he suddenly spotted a pileated woodpecker, that vivid, raucous, and enormous creature, land on a nearby tree and begin its wild drumming. For long moments, we stood motionless and stared. The little boy’s eyes were wide and shining, his lips slightly parted and, in his eagerness to absorb this dazzling wonder, he hardly dared breathe.
This is the true and secret allure of bird-watching, almost never mentioned in the more competitive world of “birders” who make lists and boast about numbers. I began birdwatching at the age of 12, when my family moved to an otherwise bleak new suburb with a wooded ravine nearby. Many of the moments when I spied on a warbler, a blue jay, or a white-throated sparrow, in that bush or many others over the years, are still bright in my memory. I remember the thump of my heart when I caught sight of a bird, the hush of excited observation, the stillness in which I tried to memorize every colour and flicker of my elusive target – and the image of the bird itself, busy in its private life. That often silent, intense activity of a tiny wild creature not only embodies the complex world of nature that surrounds us, but also jolts us out of our customary oblivion. Birdwatching means tuning in to the living world with quiet attentiveness.
I was deeply moved to share that first moment with my grandson. Now I’m waiting until he’s six or seven, when I can give him Robert Bateman’s ravishing Backyard Birds: An Introduction. Woven through with heartfelt but lightly invoked environmentalism, it’s a book to inspire, excite, and enlighten young readers.
Bateman, who grew up in Ontario but now lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C., is Canada’s most celebrated wildlife artist, and this book offers a glimpse into the wellspring of his art. In his introduction, Bateman tells how he fell in love with observing bird life one winter day when he was eight, and was hooked by the sight of a lively little chickadee. Tucked into a corner opposite the title page is a leaf from the 14-year-old Bateman’s sketchbook, crowded with accomplished drawings of birds, butterflies, and twigs.
Each double spread of Backyard Birds presents a full-page painting of a bird in its natural habitat (the blue jay sitting on frost-covered pine needles, the swallow perched in a barn window). Overlapping each painting is a facsimile of a lined notebook page with basic information about each species – size, voice, range, and food. On the facing page is a lively description of the bird’s most distinctive habits and characteristics. Hummingbirds can fly upside down (picture that!); the gray jay, known as the “camp robber,” may take food from your hand and save it by gluing it to a tree with sticky saliva.
In every paragraph, Bateman places himself in the shoes of young readers, suggesting how they might spot a red-tailed hawk overhead and know it by its tail shape, or how, if they’re lucky, they might hear an owl hoot from the deep woods or see a barn swallow swoop to a pond to drink on the wing. Adventure is alive in these pages.
This is no conventional bird book. Bateman pairs bird species in each double-page spread, one featured in a full-size painting, and another shown in smaller size at the bottom of the text page. Sometimes Bateman uses the pairing to show how a novice birder might distinguish between two similar sightings, such as the downy and hairy woodpeckers; sometimes he pairs a predator and prey, like the red-winged blackbird and the American crow. These thought-provoking couplings leave the reader with a sense of nature’s infinite possibilities, unlike the more static, cut-and-dried guides that are confined to identification.
Bateman’s naturalism is at its most affectionate and charming in these spirited illustrations. Equally appealing is his conversational ease in the accompanying prose, for which co-author Ian Coutts must share credit. In an unforced and uncondescending tone, Bateman conveys his keen interest and exuberant pleasure in the often surprising details of bird life.
Valuable additions to the book are the occasionally interspersed two-page descriptions of bird family life, migration patterns and senses, and notes on how to attract birds to your backyard. An epilogue talks about the important role birds play in our shared world and offers simple ways for young environmentalists to help them survive.
Throughout, the handsome art work, ample white space, decorative headings, and varied layout sustain interest and visual pleasure. The one startling flaw in this fine work is the absence of either a contents page or an index, although Bateman does offer a simple ornithological glossary at the end.
Unlike many other non-fiction works produced for young readers, this volume resonates with an authenticity of feeling and delight. There’s no pandering to the kiddies with cartoonish blandishments, juvenile jokes, and hyperactive marginalia. Bateman respects both his subject matter and his readers, many of whom will respond with a quickened interest in the natural world.
An enticing gift would be a package of the Bateman volume with one or both of Renee Schwarz’s how-to books, Birdfeeders and Birdhouses (Kids Can Press). Both books carry a range of sprightly and amusing projects for young do-it-yourselfers, with clear, step-by-step directions and drawings and photographs of the finished product. Most of the projects require the use of drills, saws, and other tools requiring adult guidance, and though not all the designs are the last word in practicality, they’re all ingenious enough to tempt handy kids to get involved.
Title Backyard Birds: An Introduction
Author Robert Bateman with Ian Coutts; Robert Bateman, illus.
Publisher Madison Press/Scholastic Canada
Page Count 48