In Dark Times, Birds Bring Light

June 24, 2023

A review by Daniel Jonas

A Little Birdie Told Me…: A Journey to Find Hope, Happiness and the Wings to Fly by Matthew Papuchis

Fig Factor Media Publishing, 2021

344 pages, paperback

Northern Cardinals are one of the most common birds in much of the U.S. They are a frequent, maybe even daily sight for many of us. Despite the males’ bright red showy appearance and their laser-beam songs that ring through the air, this species can be overlooked. It’s not hard to imagine someone saying, “That’s just another cardinal.” Or just another robin. Just another Song Sparrow. But as Matthew Papuchis tells us in his memoir, A Little Birdie Told Me…: A Journey to Find Hope, Happiness and the Wings to Fly, it would be a mistake to ignore the common birds. An everyday bird like a cardinal can spark new passions, inspire us, and teach us lessons about life. That’s exactly what happened to Papuchis.

Matthew Papuchis didn’t set out to be a birder, but birds would end up playing a major role in his life, as the Florida resident explains throughout his book. In the spring of 2020 at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Papuchis lost his job. Suddenly his life was plunged into uncertainty. But as is in his nature, he started looking on the bright side. Suddenly he had a lot more free time than he was accustomed to, and he used it to explore his surroundings outdoors. This is when he started to notice and learn from all the wonderful bird species that had been around him the whole time. A new door was opening just as so much of the world was shutting down.

Throughout the memoir, we learn a lot about Papuchis’s life. We meet his immediate family—his wife and three kids—along with other relatives. We are introduced to coworkers, friends, other birders, and various people who are an important part in his life. But the birds themselves are also characters. Each chapter in the book describes a species or two that impacted Papuchis in some way. Throughout the chapter, he weaves birding stories into the events of his own life. We hear just as much about job searches, taking kids to practices, sports, and Disney World as we do about the birds, but that is by design. A Little Birdie Told Meisn’t just about birds. It’s about going through hard times while keeping a positive outlook on things. Birding gave Papuchis a way to escape the craziness and stress of unemployment in the midst of a global pandemic and taught him many valuable lessons that he shares throughout his memoir.

Make no mistake: We still get to experience many of the things about birding that we all love. The joy of seeing a bird you’ve never seen before, the thrill of chasing and finding a target species, the rush of encountering a rarity, the excitement of observing birds in their natural habitat and learning their identifications and behaviors—all of this is included within the stories that Papuchis shares. But the time spent walking trails and traveling to destinations allowed him to reflect on his life and gain insights about persistence, commitment, preparation, valuing mentors, pushing yourself, and much more.

Many of the species that make South Florida an amazing birding hotspot appear in the book. Painted Buntings, Roseate Spoonbills, and Crested Caracaras are just a few of the species that Papuchis encountered along his journeys. In all, he focused on more than twenty kinds of birds that he saw and photographed. But whether it’s a South Florida specialty like a Black-whiskered Vireo or a more common species like a Northern Cardinal, his enthusiasm is evident for them all.

What can a gnatcatcher teach us about focus? How can a mockingbird bring us perspective on life? A Little Birdie Told Metakes us on a ride, and with each new stop we learn something about birds and about ourselves. With optimism and humor, Papuchis shows us how birds can bring brightness to our lives even in the darkest times.

–=====–

Daniel Jonas graduated from Marshall University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology and a master’s degree in teaching. He has worked at Parkersburg High School in West Virginia for 12 years as a biology and natural history teacher, and sponsors the Parkersburg High School Nature Club. He has been birding since 2018.