Q-and-A With Bernd Heinrich About "One Wild Bird at a Time"

"As a child I had Jacob, a pet crow," Bernd Heinrich writes in the introduction of his wonderful new book, One Wild Bird at a Time: Portrait of Individual Lives. "I roamed the woods hunting his food—frogs, field mice, caterpillars, beetles, and grasshoppers—and feeding him by hand. But wild birds remained out of reach."

Not for long. In the ensuing decades, Bernd came to know the wild world as few others have. He has long been recognized as one of the planet's foremost naturalists, field biologists and nature writers, and he ought to be further recognized for the superb illustrations and paintings he has done of the birds, mammals, plants and insects he has studied. Bernd has written best-selling books on ravens and owls (among other subjects) and has devoted portions of other books to the migration, winter survival techniques and other behavior of a wide range of wild birds.

His years of closely observing birds (especially in Maine, where he has spent much of his life) has led Bernd to write this different sort of book—not a guide to identifying species but a look at the behavior of individual birds he has watched. "In this book I hope to celebrate individuals as they presented themselves during my encounters with them in the wild," he writes. And so he devotes chapters to individuals from 17 species, from crows to evening grosbeaks and chickadees to woodpeckers.  

Each chapter looks at particular behavior—often a mystery to be solved—and brings the reader into Bernd's patient, exacting world of observing and analyzing. This is the scientist at work, sharing his insights, his constant questioning (why did that happen?) and his youthful (at age 76) enthusiasm for learning. If you want to explore birds and nature, nowhere will you find a more likable and insightful companion than Bernd Heinrich. 

Bernd at his cabin in western Maine right after he received his hot-off-the-presses first copy of the book.

We've been fortunate enough to get to know Bernd quite well. He has given talks at The Naturalist's Notebook, where we've long highlighted his work, and we've often visited him at his wood-stove-heated cabin in western Maine. In 2012 we did a Q-and-A with him, which you can read here: http://www.thenaturalistsnotebook.com/our-blog/a-q-and-a-with-bernd-heinrich  

Recently, before One Wild Bird at a Time came out, we emailed Bernd several questions about the book and the birds in it. He happily answered them.  

Q: Let's give the audience a mental image of you as you answer the questions. 

Bernd: Well, I've just eaten a bunch of popcorn fresh off the stove, and I'm now finishing it off with a glass of red wine. I'd been at the cabin window all too long when there was daylight, and then went through two tankfuls of gas on my Stiehl, sawing up wood for next winter into stove-lengths. 

Q: What inspired you to write about individual wild birds?

Bernd:  Nothing as such. It's just that the birds inspired me. When watching one thing you see another you never thought of. These birds just happened—I saw something quirky and got interested.

QAre birds more individualistic than we typically think?

Bernd: I don't think they are necessarily quirky individually as such, except from circumstances. Thus, when I see something interesting in one bird, I see it as interesting. Period. It could apply to all if they had been in similar circumstances.

Q: For the book did you choose birds that had engaged in behavior not considered typical of their species?

Bernd: In a way yes, and no. For example, I knew sapsuckers are famous for trying to find the loudest drumming place. Well, I happened to see one discover a super drum. He was just back from migration and he went nuts. I knew this was an opportunity to see accentuated why in the h--- these woodpeckers put so much emphasis on noisy drumming. What does it get them? It was an education.

Q:  Do we know whether birds within a flock recognize many other individuals?

Bernd: We don't know. But we do know birds (depends which ones) recognize each other as individuals. Can't make any rules about this. Depends on kinds, numbers, circumstances.

Q: What's the most surprising bird behavior you write about in the book? Did you eventually figure it out?

Bernd: That tree swallow males perched and chirped all the while that the female builds the nest, at a spot the male seems to show her, and then when she starts to lay eggs he starts to bring her feathers—but mostly white ones. Figure it out? Not sure, but so far it looks to me that it has to do with a counter-strategy to foil other females that try to dump off their eggs into nests that are not theirs. Long story.

Q: Do you remember the first bird that caught your attention as a kid?

Bernd: It was kinglets in winter who were very tame and I was trying to catch them by hand. It was my pet crow. It was finding the nest of a winter wren hidden in the roots of a blow-down. All so secretive—unknown, alien, yet I could identify with them. Being a bird hunter later helped, too, because you can't hunt very well unless you get into the mind of the prey.

Q: What made you fall in love with birds as animals to study?

Bernd: Mostly the tame ones I have known as individuals. That said, I think it's almost impossible [for someone growing up] now—there are too many distractions, and no kid would have the attention span for it, given that they have no opportunity for immersion. Being a spectator helps you to know the game, but you don't live it.

Q: How do you observe a bird and take note of what you've seen? Do you have piles of old notebooks filled with past observations?

Bernd: Yes. But I wished I were more organized. My notes are pretty random. I never know beforehand which thread is going to lead anywhere. So I have many at any one time. The upside is that once in a while something that would otherwise have been totally ignored turns out to be interesting.

Q: What tips would you give an average person about watching and learning about birds?

Bernd: It is all about contact and context. I like to be out and see, hear, etc. But the context to match it up with comes from seeing birds even more, and with other previous experiences (including reading). 

Q: For years you've drawn and painted beautiful, realistic images of birds and other animals and plants you've observed. How did you get started doing that? How does it complement your work as a scientist?

Bernd: Too big to answer here, except to say that to see beauty is to try to preserve it. And that is visually by drawing/painting. The other beauty of meaning comes from study. Both require effort, and no effort is invested until there is passion.

Q: Do you have a favorite bird? 

Bernd: No, I really do not have a favorite bird or kind of bird. The whole beauty is in each as its own. Each in its own way.

Q:  Do you enjoy the book-writing process? What's your writing method?

Bernd: Yes. I get a great kick out of seeing a big picture emerge out of a small sketch. One invariably leads on to another. If it were too regimented I'd get tired of it. If it were too free-wheeling I'd never get anywhere. The writing follows from neat findings, perceived beauty, from information that needs to be organized in order to see "the picture." The pen/pencil in hand part is strictly secondary—far less that  one-tenth of the process/effort. When I have something to write about the writing flows spontaneously, effortlessly, and requires little discipline. When it requires too much discipline that usually means I've got to get to work!

Q: This is your 20th book. Do you have a 21st book in mind yet?

Bernd: Yes, the beauty of running.

We should add for those who aren't aware of his athletic career that Bernd has been a runner since high school and in 1983 set an American record in ultramarathoning by running nearly 157 miles in 24 hours. (He did that on a track, a testament to his mental as well as physical toughness.) His book Why We Run is a classic that combines natural history with athletic insight. Put that on your reading list if you're interested in running, nature or both.

Many thanks, Bernd!