The Quest for 800

October 8, 2023

A review by Katie Boord

Bird Tales: A Lifetime Pursuit by George C. Wood

Self-published, 2022

120 pages, hardcover

One of my favorite parts of birding with other people is hearing their stories—as birders, we all have them. The time we spent an ungodly amount of time waiting for a rarity. The time we got our car stuck in the mud. The time we finally found a bird we’d been dreaming about for years. George C. Wood has gotten a whole book out of these stories, and as a reader, I felt like I was out birding with him, traipsing through the woods as he regaled me with his past adventures.Wood also has a blog by the name of “Bird Tales”, and this book, Bird Tales: A Lifetime Pursuit, serves as a sort of compilation of blog posts in chronological order, following him as he strives to see 800 bird species in the U.S. and Canada. Each entry details a life bird and Wood’s encounter with it, delivering account after account in entertaining and easily digestible nuggets. We see Wood inch closer to his goal step by step, lifer by lifer, and we can’t help but cheer him on the whole way.

The book opens with Wood’s account of his own childhood and how he got started birding. He drops an impressive “brag card” right off the bat: he saw a California Condor at age thirteen, before they were all captured for captive breeding programs. This story, along with his memories of birding with a friend’s family in the Florida Everglades, help to set the scene for the older, more bird-obsessed Wood we follow throughout the book. A birder’s “origin story” often informs the way they bird throughout the rest of their career; we can clearly see the pure wonder and joy that Wood received from birds as a child carry through his whole life.

Early in the book, Wood expresses his fascination with birds’ ability to fly. He envies them their connections to so many places and marvels at the things we can learn about ecosystems we might never see through the birds we share with these habitats. This theme carries throughout the book as Wood talks about his experiences with (for him) far off places like Alaska and Florida but also places closer to his home in Pennsylvania. No matter where he goes, the birds anchor him to the natural wonders around him. And not only do the birds provide a connection to the places Wood visits, but these birds connect him to the people he meets there as well. I’m sure many of us can relate to bonding with others over birds, and it’s heartwarming and fulfilling to read about Wood making so many friends over his birding career.

There’s the teenage “chum guy” on a pelagic trip off the coast of San Francisco, the unexpected cowboy turned Good Samaritan who happens to be an expert on locating Yellow-legged Gulls, and a slew of birding guides who are all too willing to lend a helping (or pointing) hand. Sometimes a long, personal, logistically intricate journey like a Big Year or another large-scale birding quest can seem lonely and isolated, but Wood’s account of his journey is warm and full of a sense of community.

Of course, any realistic portrayal of such a feat must have some representation of the low points as well. Wood does the lows of birding justice just as well as the highs. In particular, his story of finally finding his nemesis bird, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, is refreshingly realistic—complete with missed flights, long drives, and torturous periods spent waiting for the bird to finally make an appearance.

Not only does Bird Tales provide an entertaining account of Wood’s personal adventures, but it conveys many interesting bird facts along the way. One of the major pluses of birding is that it can teach us so many things about the natural world, both directly and indirectly. Wood does the same for us by relating his unique experiences of birds and the places he encounters them.

Adding to the world of birding adventures, Wood weaves in his collection of bright, full-color photographs peppered generously throughout the book. Many of the chapters include the stories behind how he snapped the photos, and his journey to 800 ABA-Area species is made even more impressive by the fact that he photographed so many of his lifers as well.

Wood creates a delightfully entertaining, personal, and yet universal world of birding in Bird Tales. Any nature lover (birder or not) can relate and be drawn to the joy and determination Wood infuses into the story of his inspiring birding journey.

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Katie Boord is a lifelong birder and writer living in Kansas City, KS. She is a recent graduate of Benedictine College and a former participant in the ABA’s Young Birder of the Year Mentoring Program. When not birding or writing, Katie can be found playing music with her band or reading piles of fantasy novels.