Book Review: Slow Birding by Joan E Strassmann

Book Review: Slow Birding by Joan E Strassmann

The opening pages of Strassman’s Slow Birding, an argument is laid out clearly and passionately: much like the slow food movement (which encouraged the preservation of local food cultures and traditional cooking), we are in need of a slow birding movement. Instead of chasing rare species or zipping around in our cars racking up long lists, we should be focusing on deep observation of the birds that are actually in our areas. In other words, it is an ode to common backyard birds. This is a message that I’m always happy to see.

Much to my disappointment, the subtitle on the cover is a bit misleading. It reads “The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard”, but “Art and Science” should really just read “Science” and “Your Own Backyard” should really just read “the Backyards of St Louis, Missouri”. I don’t want to be overly critical of the author, who did an effective job sharing her experience as a researcher and as a resident of St. Louis. But it limits the scope of her initial mission. Very little is done for the overall mission of slow birding, something that is supposed to be a blossoming movement. Instead, we move immediately to specific species and learn about them. I get it; by hearing about the complexities of species that we see everyday, we come to appreciate them more and value nature all around us. A lot of the chapters are great at this. But if you don’t care about the stories, or better yet if you don’t actually live around the species of bird, it quickly becomes dry and uninteresting.

This happened a few times. Minnesota does not get the Great Egret or the Snow Goose. But I also learned about the House Wren or the American Coot, birds that I did not realize until now stay in Minnesota for a while during breeding season. And when it comes to the birds I know and love (Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Chickadee, etc) I was excited to appreciate their complexities more. Did it deliver on that excitement? …Kinda.

A few odd habits bog down the prose: the logistics and progression of experiments take up way too much page-space, at times Strassman repeats statements or facts several times in a chapter which seems like an editorial oversight, a lot of chapters have cheesy framing and clunky transitions, and I think a few typos or mistakes slipped through the cracks. Stassman’s clearly coming into this as less of a storyteller and more of an academic. It helps at times, but mostly hurts. The pieces of exciting science are there (blue jays moving oak forests, flickers forming a bedrock for forest biodiversity, warblers forming ongoing debates about taxonomy), but you have to dig for them some of the time.

There’s also a lot about mating. Yeah yeah, birds spend a lot of their lives having and raising children. It comes with the territory of behavioral ecology. But darn near every chapter spent a whole lot of time on the subject of infidelity. There’s also a throwaway line about “that smaller chimp that solves social conflicts with a little sexual love, including face to face mating” which feels as uncomfortable as it does unnecessary.

Enough negativity. It’s easy to handwave away the aforementioned pieces of exciting science because they’re often wrapped in flawed prose, but the information is the point of the book and it’s where Strassmann shined most. Some highlights include cowbirds and their failed parasitism in waxwing nests, the open-minded rearing of the invasive starlings, the improv skills of cardinal songs, the important conservation history of egrets, murmurations, the dangerous booming population of snow geese, and the mysterious sexual dimorphism of the Cooper’s Hawk. The prose also has its strong moments like describing the cedar waxwings as the surprising rising thoughts that one experiences during meditation. “May your life be favored with their unexpected visits.” Lines like this are the drops of sentimental affection for nature that I wanted more of.

Another interesting element of the book is its focus on citizen science. This is a key element of birdwatching: the use of the general public for mass observation and collecting a ton of anecdotal data. Strassmann is a great advocate for eBird, and for participation in the nationwide network of bird lovers that share what they see for researchers to analyze. Even the more opaque scientific research is shown as being very much in-progress: compelling questions about bird behavior remain unanswered, with people out in the fields right now doing what they can to find the answers. I have no desire to be a researcher, and it’s not the element of birding that interests me. I also am not a big fan of the author referring to researchers as the “ultimate slow birders”. However it’s impossible to read this book without developing a strong appreciation for their commitment and contributions. There’s still so much more to learn from birds, even the ones you see everyday remain mysteries to this day. So why look at every bird in the world when we’re still scratching the surface of the pigeons down your street, or the finch at your window? This is what makes slow birding as an idea so compelling, and while I wish this book had focused more on that core philosophical case, it still landed the points it needed to land.

Most importantly, it serves as a good “Birding 102”. Skipping over common beginner questions about binoculars and field guides, Strassmann expertly lays out next steps for getting into the trenches of birdwatching: finding parks, monitoring certain areas, getting involved with a local park society, using online resources and studying bird calls, etc. Every single chapter ends with concrete tips for actions the reader can take out in the world, either about their local area or about specific bird species. Not all of these tips seem equally viable, but they’re nevertheless helpful to include. It shows that the author isn’t just ranting, they’re hoping to see readers take the information and use it to grow their relationship with wildlife.

Verdict: This book has a lot of interesting information about common birds, and tips for making the most of your local wildlife. It’s harmed by some bumpy prose and dense scientific experiments, but it’s worth digging through especially if you have most of the species in your area.