Let’s Hear It for the Birds

Museum Victoria Image Collection

Jonathan Rosen is not your typical birdwatcher. He’s not a fanatic “lister,” someone whose main goal is to add to his tally of sightings; he makes his home in Manhattan; and he’s just as interested in the behavior of birders as he is in that of birds. Rosen’s ode to birdwatching, The Life of the Skies (published in February by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux), deftly combines personal narrative with literary analysis, the history of science, and environmental politics. Here, however, we asked this most poetic of birders for his best practical advice.

One of your book’s motifs is the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker. What other birds do you dream of seeing someday?
I’d like to see a rhea—the huge, flightless bird that Darwin hunted in Argentina, waving a rope with metal balls over his head, then flinging it to trip the creature. (He succeeded only in tripping his horse.) I would also like to see a bird of paradise, the exquisite birds of New Guinea and Indonesia that the renowned 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace called his “great-est discovery yet made,” even though he’d already figured out, simultaneously with Darwin, the origin of the species! Closer to home, I want to see a cerulean warbler. Every spring someone sees one in Central Park, just a few blocks from my apartment. But it’s never been me, and I’ve developed a mystical yearning for this tiny blue bird.

You describe people’s jetting “from birding hot spot to birding hot spot.” What are some of the best?
Part of the pleasure of this pastime is packing your binoculars and looking up the local park or nature reserve wherever you go. Central Park is actually one of the great East Coast locations for migratory birds—when you arrive, ask anyone with binoculars where to go. From there, migrate south: There’s Cape May, New Jersey; the Everglades, Corkscrew Swamp, and Sanibel Island in Florida; and Texas’s Big Bend and coastal areas. In southeastern Arizona I’m partial to Madera Canyon. This is just a handful. I’ve left out so many—Point Reyes in northern California, Point Pelee in Ontario, and a whole lot in between.

Guidebooks you’d recommend?
The Peterson books are indispensable, especially if you are just starting out. They have “diagnostic arrows” pointing to each bird’s distinguishing features. I’m a big fan of David Sibley’s guides: The artwork is beautiful and he also uses arrows. I would round out the collection with the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. But I urge people to find the one they like; sometimes it has as much to do with how the book fits in your pocket as anything else.

What binoculars do you use?
I have a pair of Leicas that I love—magnification 8x42—and though it’s true that you should buy the best optics you can afford, it is also true, as they say about sports, that it’s not about the shoes. Some of the great early-20th-century birders used borrowed opera glasses.

Your favorite mnemonic device for remembering a birdcall?
I’d like to have an olive-sided flycatcher, a goldfinch, and a boat-tailed grackle in the same tree: The flycatcher says “quick, three beers,” the goldfinch says “potato chip,” and the grackle says “check check check.”