4.     Which came first, your interest in poetry and writing or in birdwatching?


    Actually, this is not a simple question to answer. I grew up in rural Michigan. My mother always had bird feeders, and when I was 10 or 11 she gave me a bird book. I spent a lot of time alone roaming the fields and woods around our house. There were only a couple of houses within a mile of our house, so there were no other kids nearby, and I was shy anyway, and also an only child until I was 10. So it was just me and the woods and the fields and the birds. I was never part of a birdwatching club or anything like that. Baltimore orioles were the most exotic bird I saw, though I loved the goldfinches too, their brilliant colors and roller-coaster flight. And red-headed woodpeckers! One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading to me from a book of fairy tales a story about a woman who was turned into a red-headed woodpecker, and with the story there was a painting of the woodpecker that I loved to just look at—that combination of bold colors. The book was lost years ago, and I’d forgotten the story, but a few years ago I came across it in some research I was doing. I was ecstatic to find it.

    My interest in birds really picked up though when I moved to Utah to go to graduate school and I began seeing all these western birds I’d never seen before. So perhaps my “serious” interest in birds actually came after my interest in writing, which began in high school. Again, I have to say, I think of myself as a writer, not a birdwatcher, though I am that too I guess. Birds probably bring me more joy and peace than writing does.


5.     What advice would you give to young people looking to combine their interests in birds (or nature) with writing?


    If you’re interested in both birds and writing, you simply want to follow both of those impulses and sharpen your skills with each. There are certainly plenty of things available now—birding trips with expert guides, audio guides in addition to visual guides, workshops—that can improve your knowledge of birds and make you a better birder. As for writing, there are plenty of writing courses, at the college level at least, that can make you a better writer. To me, the writing is much harder. You have to be really serious about it and work at it. I’ve been doing it for quite awhile now, and though I think I’ve become a better writer it never gets easy.


6.     How did you come across the idea for both books? What was your motivation for writing them?


    I’ve already said some things here that relate to how I came across the idea for Birdsong, so I’ll talk about A Parrot Without a Name. It was really a stroke of luck. I wrote an article for a magazine about Victor Emanuel (of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours), and at some point Victor told me I should write a travel piece about the Explorer’s Inn in Peru, and that if I wanted to do that I should call a guy named Ted Parker and ask him about the place because he spent a lot of time there. A few months went by, and then one night I called Ted and said Victor had recommended I talk to him about the Explorer’s Inn. Ted said it was an incredible place, a lodge with some basic amenities tucked away in the wilds of Peru. He went on at length about the bird life there, and then, in passing, just happened to mention that he also used the place as a kind of base for the studies he was involved with for Louisiana State University. He talked about John O’Neill and told me they had discovered a number of new species of birds in Peru in recent years—and he kept on talking, digressing to a new subject. I said, “Wait a minute. Did you say there were new species of birds still being discovered?” “Oh yeah,” he told me. “Almost one a year.”

    My mouth was still hanging open. I thought that all the birds of the world were already known and named. I quickly redirected the conversation to the discoveries, and Ted talked for a long time about it. And then he said I should call John O’Neill if I wanted to know more because John was responsible for a kind of renaissance in the ornithological exploration of South America. I called John, talked for awhile with him, then asked if I could come to visit him and Ted in Baton Rouge and learn more about what they were doing and perhaps write a long article about it. After one evening in Baton Rouge listening to John and Ted tell amazing stories about exploring Peru, I knew I had a subject for a book. I begged them to let me come along on a trip, which turned in to three trips actually. It changed my life. 

As for motivation, with A Parrot Without a Name it was simple. I couldn’t believe that no one else had written about this yet—that new birds were still being discovered in South America, mainly Peru. And I just thought it was a remarkable story that had to be told. There needed to be a record of it. I was also aware that early naturalists often wrote their own accounts of their travels, but that seemed to stop in the early 20th century, and there wasn’t anything that I could find that provided an account of a modern expedition to an unexplored part of the planet. And, of course, it was just plain exciting to go along, the kind of thing kids dream about but never get to do.

    As for Birdsong, again it was a subject that few people had written about, and there was so much being discovered. The whole discipline—studying the vocalizations of birds—was relatively new as a science, but was also something that has fascinated people for centuries. There was no way to really study it until the portable tape recorder was invented in the mid-20th century and along with that the audio spectograph so that sound could be displayed as something visual that scientists could study for its nuances, for things that our hearing isn’t good enough to pick up. And, as I mentioned, in the back of my mind I always had the feeling that I was doing this for Ted Parker who would have loved to see a book that showed how important birdsong was to our understanding of birds.


Return tomorrow for part 3