How to Know the Birds by Ted Floyd
The yellow-breasted chat had just arrived on my birding stomping grounds, calling out incessantly in an interesting conversation I wasn’t invited to, when I flipped to a chapter dedicated to this species in Ted Floyd’s How to Know the Birds and, truly and and with stylistic aplomb, got to know my chat.
In late fall, this chapter notes, the chat is as quiet as the dead. But, “Chats on the breeding grounds are the loudest birds in town,” Floyd writes. “They sing all day long. They sing all night long. Their songs are bizarre and surreal, an odd mix of flutelike whistles and laster tag outbursts, simultaneously sad and clownish, equal parts deranged and endearing.” Ah ha! That’s my bird!
Floyd is a guidebook author and the editor of Birding magazine. He is also a prolific birder; he has gone birding and submitted a checklist of species he saw or heard for more than 4,500 consecutive days. That’s more than 12 years of daily bird watching with no sick days, no holidays, no days off to write a cleverly composed nonfiction book.
In How to Know the Birds, Floyd infuses this zeal for (mostly) North American avifauna with a jaunty writing style that will be at once fresh but familiar to fans of nature writing.
The first thing I did when the book arrived on my doorstep was flip through to check out the format. After an introduction, How to Know the Birds covers one species per page (in print, which is how I read it). Though there’s a bird-by-bird index in the back, this not meant to be an encyclopedic tome that sits on your shelf for reference. There’s a narrative here, a method to the ordering of the birds that explores deeper issues. Moving from species to species, Floyd is taking readers on their own migration, from learning the hows and whys of species differentiation to how bird enthusiasts make crucial contributions to science; from molting to song to parenting; from unbelievable journeys across continents and oceans to how humans have changed birds’ lives.
As Floyd drives these wide-ranging topics along, he sometimes leaves little cliffhangers in many chapters. But wait—we’ll get to that later. I found this maddening at times—tell me now!—but I began to trust that he would, indeed, get to it soon. The learning is layered in, and the method is Socratic: Here is the science, here is the story, and more answers often lead to more questions, but the important and interesting thing is that we’ve opened the door to further inquiry.
Even within the narrative and among the wait-for-it moments, some chapters are perfectly encapsulated short stories unto themselves. The chapter entitled Magpie Funerals is particularly satisfying as a standalone story. Floyd reverently recreates the ritual black-billed magpies perform for their fallen, then explains that though it took a long time for Western science to document self-awareness in magpies, indigenous people have long understood (as evidenced in how they named them) the intelligence, and even emotional intelligence, of corvids, the brilliant family of birds that includes magpies, jays and crows.
In the final pages, covering owls and waterfowl, Floyd discusses some of the ethical and moral questions of birding. This is perhaps designed to address birders and the specific consequences of going out and watching birds, and they’re important considerations. But as I read, heavier echoes from earlier chapters about the broad effects of climate change reverberated through these sections at the book’s end—it’s not just that by getting too close, we disturb birds, it’s that our species is disturbing everything. The book is How to Know the Birds, but the real question, if we love birds, is how to know our own species and ourselves.