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the birds at my table

11 april 2018

For Christmas last year, I got a bird-feeder. Or rather: my partner bought a bird-feeder, wrapped it, presented it to me, assembled it, filled it, hung it, and keeps it clean and filled regularly. It's her garden, you see, and the less I tramp around in it, the better. Yet it really was my present. I get to see the birds who flock to it. The feeder has greatly increased and diversified the avian fauna in our back yard. Or perhaps not, but just made that diversity and abundance more visible and fearless. We'd always seen doves, blue jays, cardinals, and wrens; we now see titmice, chickadees, juncos, and a pair of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers who we've long heard in the neighborhood, but who now routinely stop in for sunflower seeds within a few meters of our patio settee.

Darryl Jones examines the deep-seated, First-World-wide fascination with feeding wild birds – in a quirky, overblown new book from Comstock (an imprint of Cornell University Press), called The Birds at My Table. Jones, an Australian ecologist, looks at every possible aspect of bird-feeding, then looks at most of them again, and then looks at them a third time. Few books (that I know of) have been written about bird-feeding, and it seems that Jones has opted to include pretty much every conceivable aspect of the phenomenon. It may be awhile before anyone prints another book on this topic, so why not aim for exhaustiveness.

Negative criticism first. The Birds at My Table is not easy to read, for several reasons. It's well-written and clear, that's not the problem. It's also informative, and it shows Jones's passion for his subject. But it is prolix, repetitive (to repeat myself), and fatally (from my perspective), it continually turns toward interview-driven techniques.

Let me digress a little. "Interview-driven" nonfiction books, as I've chosen to term them, convey information about a topic by having their authors get on a plane, fly to Saskatchewan or Zambia, meet folks who have some first-hand knowledge of the topic, and breathlessly report conversations with them. In the process, exposition that could have been delivered in the third person becomes (I reckon the idea must be) personalized, narrativized, and made vivid and immediate.

When done well, interview-driven nonfiction can actually be great writing, as in Susan Orlean's Orchid Thief. The condition for greatness is that the person interviewed (for Orlean, title character John Laroche) is compelling in his/her own right, quite apart from the orchids or whatever. When the person is some guy named Frank in a small town in Maryland who has had some typical encounters with House Finches (172), the excitement dwindles.

Now, I don't mean to be rude to Frank. You sat through my story about Red-Bellied Woodpeckers earlier, and I'm no more interesting than Frank is. Frank, I am actually pretty sure, is a guy I would like to have a beer with. What I'm not sure is whether I want to learn about bird ethology via descriptions of Frank's back yard.

Digression over. And negative criticism almost over. The biggest flaw with The Birds at My Table, apart from the interviews, is the relative tepidness of its conclusions. We feed birds a lot of food. We have started doing so rather recently. We do it because we like it. And, in a seeming paradox, the impact of bird-feeding is both huge (almost Anthropocene in its implications) and minimal (most "feeder" birds eat mostly other things, and don't really need what we feed them). "Feeding changes entire ecosystems," says Jones, but "birds almost certainly don't rely on our feeders" (271-72). Actually, that paradox is more than seeming, and I can't quite parse it.

Tepid as these conclusions are, they are qualified – and I mean that, now, more in admiration than in criticism. "Our knowledge of the effects of wild bird feeding is quite meager," says Jones (127); "I pose these particular questions because at present we simply don't know or there is no sensible answer" (266). Does winter feeding lead species to abandon migration (107)? That's a profound question, but Jones concludes that it's harder than hell to study. We just don't have a clue about a lot of these issues.

Along the way to these qualified observations, Jones looks at the history and capitalization of bird-feeding, which is now big business. (Apart from many a supermarket, hardware store, feed store, pet shop, and big-box, you can buy birdseed and feeders at scores of Wild Birds Unlimited stores across the U.S.) He looks at diseases spread at and by feeders. (Clean your feeder, scrupulously, is perhaps the most important of his messages.) He tells stories of how bird-feeding has conserved vanishing New Zealand species like the Kākāpō. He studies what's known of the cultural shift from feeding birds who seemed on the edge of starvation in hard winters, to the practice of feeding birds year-round (turning them into what writer Jim Sterba called, in the Wall Street Journal, "welfare wildlife" – sounds like the Wall Street Journal, all right).

And so, even if you read The Birds at My Table diagonally and skip the interviews, you won't regret picking it up, if you have even a slight interest in our feathered friends. You may even be inspired to get a bird-feeder.

Jones, Darryl. The Birds at My Table: Why we feed wild birds and why it matters. Ithaca: Comstock [Cornell], 2018. QL 676.5 .J66