“The thrill of quiet adventure. The constant hope of discovery. The reminder that the world is filled with wonder.” One would be hard pressed to come up with a better description of the essence of birding than this, offered by Susan Fox Rogers in her memoir Learning the Birds: A Midlife Adventure. A writing professor at Bard College in New York State’s historic Hudson Valley and a longtime kayaker and former rock climber, Rogers is no stranger to the outdoors. But while on a nature outing with her students, the exquisite yet unrecognized song of a Veery triggered her latent desire to learn the birds. In the book, Rogers intertwines her own story of becoming a birder at age 49 with classic birding literature and personal reflections on her life, getting older, and embracing her new identity as a birder. Her goal was to “get to know the birds and the world that surrounds them”—including the bird world’s language, history, and heroes.
Rogers presents her memoir in 22 finely crafted and beautifully written essays. The essay form, Rogers says, is imbued with the spirit of exploration that mirrors her own journey with the birds. In many, she focuses on an encounter with a particular species in a particular place, weaving in her musings on the writings of relevant natural history authors. In the essay, “Bicky,” for instance, Rogers chronicles her hike up Slide Mountain in New York in search of the elusive Bicknell’s Thrush while evoking the naturalist John Burroughs’ 1880s essay, “Heart of the Southern Catskills,” about his climb up the same mountain. In other pieces, we meet not only such notables as Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson, and Kenn Kaufman, but also overlooked women writers such as Florence Merriam Bailey, who in 1889 wrote the first book, Birds Through an Opera-Glass, that we would today call a field guide. A number of the essays anchored in the Hudson Valley provide a fascinating look at this beautiful, celebrated region and its birds and illustrious birders.
Making these connections to the past enables Rogers to imagine birding in times of abundance, to uncover the meaning people have found in their relationship to nature over time, and inevitably, to understand in a deeper way the harm humans have wreaked on bird populations and habitats since Afro-European settlement, whether through the millinery trade’s nearly complete decimation of herons or, in her words, “the slow drips of extinction.”
Rogers is initiated into the world of birds through the help of a mentor, an excellent birder who also becomes a love interest. Her early euphoria with birding is bound up in this relationship, and she learns a great deal about birds, birding, and herself as the pair travel together both locally and on several birding trips. Her descriptions of the birds and landscapes they explore are precise and poetic.
Rogers addresses a non-birding audience as she covers the bases involved in becoming a birder: eBird; the Christmas Bird Count; the challenge of bird identification on solo forays to unfamiliar locations; and learning myriad bird field marks, behavior, and habitat. She regularly vents her frustration with quirky, unhelpful bird names. A couple essays recount the experience of missing a particularly sought-after bird species but finding other treasures—and new inner resources—instead. After unsuccessfully searching for a flamingo in the Florida Everglades, she finds herself delighted with the antics of two rails cavorting along Snake Bight Trail. “The pursuit,” Rogers notes, “is necessarily an exercise in patience and an act of hope” that gives her the determination to keep trying.
Although new to her passion, Rogers does not regard its conventions uncritically. In the essay, “Twitching,” for example, in which she “chases” a vagrant Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Connecticut, Rogers explains her “moral dilemma” in traveling to a distant destination to see a single rare bird. She quotes Mark Cocker’s description of twitching as “self-indulgent…, frivolous and, despite being rooted in an obsession with natural history, as actually anti-environmental.” On arrival she notes that the best spot for viewing the bird was taken up by the tripods of “the brotherhood of the long lens,” and that the habitat had been damaged by the crowds. Rogers describes Big Years as “creating a giant carbon footprint to see special birds,” and in the essay, “Don’t Move,” obsession with birding mars a family Christmas visit in Paris.
Rogers does not keep a life list and prefers to use eBird mainly to learn where new birds are being reported. Rather than listing, chasing, or photography, she clearly demands a deeper, more intimate experience of the birds themselves. She comes to understand that she seeks a more personal connection with the natural landscape, one that requires her to lean into her new identity as a birder, to commit and focus. “The sureness of a bird’s life reassured me that sureness was possible,” she says, adding, “The birds served as a winged model for being who you are.”
All the personal and historical details as well as the concentration on a relatively small number of birds may make the stories of her travels to Alaska, Florida, Maine, and southeast Arizona feel a bit thin to readers hoping for grand birding adventure. Once Rogers begins to write about hitting her stride as a confident birder, however, her voice absolutely soars and her writing crystallizes around the excitement, wonder, and profound joy she finds birding. These essays, particularly “Dawn Chorus,” in which Rogers retraces a predawn outing taken by Franklin D. Roosevelt near Hyde Park with his local birding friends during World War II, are not to be missed.
Learning the Birds is a thoughtful, informative, and artful memoir. It should be of interest to birders (especially those just starting out), students of bird literature, and those with an interest in the Hudson Valley’s history and avifauna.
Emily Simon is a retired reference book editor. She volunteers with Detroit Audubon and contributes book reviews for its quarterly magazine, The Flyway, which she also helps edit. An avid birder for over 25 years, she enjoys connecting others to great books about birds, nature, conservation, and the environment.
Birding is a force for good in our society. Learning and sharing about birds translates into concern for birds and the environment, and the American Birding Association provides resources and community for all people interested in birds!