A Biography of an ABA Founder

December 4, 2023

A review by Carrie Laben

Joseph W. Taylor: Born to Bird, by Ann Taylor

ImagoPress, 2023

290 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15357

If you ask a nonbirder to name a famous birder, they will probably say Audubon, perhaps Peterson if they are bookish, and then run out of steam. Birders themselves can do better of course—the names Kaufmann, Snetsinger, Sibley, and many more are likely to come up. But there are dozens, maybe hundreds of others who have influenced the world we bird in, quietly, locally, or behind the scenes. Though they are remembered by those closest to them, they are largely unknown to those outside their circles.In Joseph W. Taylor: Born to Bird, Ann Taylor tackles one such subject: her father, Joseph W. (“Joe”) Taylor. Joe’s birding career, starting in his childhood in the 1920s and lasting nearly until his death in 1992, spanned decades when both the sport of birding and the science of bird conservation made massive advances. He witnessed them all and participated in many. He helped found the American Birding Association and served as president of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for more than a quarter of a century. Joe was also a prolific traveler and lister; he was the first individual to see more than 700 species in the ABA Area—a feat he replicated several times as the official AOU list was alternately lumped and split.Writing about a parent can be a tricky business, whether one’s feelings are fond or hard. Born to Bird is neither a memoir of Ann’s relationship with her father (which seems to land more on the fond side) nor a straightforward biography, though it contains traces of both. It’s more of a scrapbook, combining large sections of Joe’s own words—trip notes, mainly, along with columns he wrote for the Rochester, New York, Democrat and Chronicle—with the recollections of those who knew him. It starts with a brief rundown of his ancestry and birth and ends with the numerous eulogies after his death, but in between these sections, the book is organized as much by theme as chronologically.

One of the best aspects of this approach is that it offers a wealth of historical detail for those curious about how birding has evolved. For example, Joe was an early aficionado of the now legendary Attu Island, at the time an essential destination for a competitive North American lister. Attu was where he spotted his 700th bird, the Gray-spotted Flycatcher, in the ABA Area as it was defined at the time. Tales of those first explorations of the island’s potential are oddly nostalgic even for a reader who’s never been there. Recollections—both his own and those of others—from his time at Hawk Mountain show how the organization adapted and regrouped into a broad-based research and education organization, once its initial mission to stop the indiscriminate shooting of raptors was accomplished. And the Democrat and Chronicle pieces hark back to a better time in print journalism when even small communities had truly local papers with truly local content that helped link readers to their immediate environment.

Of course, no true picture of the past is all positive. There are some elements of Joe’s writing that may make modern birders wince. No one with an informed outlook could today be as paternalistic as Joe was about the Alaskan Indigenous communities he encountered in his travels. And birders from the age of our global climate emergency are likely to cast a jaundiced eye at the description of an abortive Big Day attempt involving the copious use of a private jet to zigzag back and forth across multiple states.

Speaking of the private jet, Ann doesn’t shy from the fact that her father’s life in birding was facilitated by tremendous social and economic privilege in addition to his personal drive and observational skills. Joe had a family connection to the upper echelons of the Bausch & Lomb corporation, then headquartered in Rochester (another Joseph, Joseph F. Taylor, was president of the company in the 1950s), and worked there himself for a time, which allowed him to retire early and with considerable resources. He also had an admirably supportive family—Ann and her husband went along on many of Joe’s later journeys, and his wife Helen, the author’s mother, is a character almost as central as Joe himself in this book. Joe’s journey from a hobbyist perspective to one focused on conservation and preservation is a throughline that might have been clearer in a more traditional book or one with clearer markings of time, but the elements are there.

There are also the inevitable melancholy moments when the Taylors encounter birds that no birder will ever see again. Notably, Joe and Helen were among the last people to have reported the curlew Numenius borealis from the Gulf Coast of Texas. Even eerier is Joe’s writing about the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, of which he talks with affection and, what at the time, must have seemed like well-warranted optimism. After all, with such extensive efforts being taken to preserve the little bird, what could go wrong?

In the end, this book is the story of Joseph W. Taylor, but it isn’t just the story of Joe. It’s a portrait of the way birding builds community and creates purpose for those who practice it. It’s an archive of on-the-ground events and impressions from times past. It’s a chunk of history offered to us by someone who knew and loved the man.

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Carrie Laben is the Shirley Jackson Award-winning author of the novel, A Hawk in the Woods. Their work has appeared in such venues as The Dark, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, and Outlook Springs, and has been supported by MacDowell, the Anne LaBastille Memorial Residency, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. They hold an MFA from the University of Montana and live in Queens. Their website is www.carrielaben.com.