When Communication Becomes Education: An Expert Birder Teaches and Inspires

August 21, 2020

A review by Caitlin Kight

How to Know the Birds: The Art and Adventure of Birding, by Ted Floyd

National Geographic, 2019

304 pages, hardcover

Note: Birding Editor Ted Floyd was not involved in creating and producing this review.

Author Ted Floyd begins his new book, How to Know the Birds, by introducing the concept of “the spark bird”: “the species that triggers a lifelong passion…a moment of epiphany, a conversion experience.” To explain my powerfully positive response to How to Know the Birds, I would like to briefly tell the story of my own spark bird—the Ovenbird, which also happens to be the focus of lesson 100, p. 152, of Floyd’s book.

I was seven or eight years old, accompanying my father on a guided hike in Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park. We were two of maybe a dozen community members being shepherded around by a trained naturalist who, in between pointing out plants like touch-me-nots and sassafras trees, would occasionally stop to identify birds by ear. I had always loved wildlife, and birds in particular, but it had never before occurred to me that I might be able to learn all their names—and, furthermore, to be able to assign those names using sound alone. This skill seemed to me to be magical, and I have rarely felt such excitement and gratitude as I did the day that, in just a few minutes, an expert took the time to pass on to me his ability to identify Ovenbirds (teacher TEACHER TEACHER—in hindsight, a very topical mnemonic!) by song alone. It is no exaggeration to say that single act changed my perspective on the world and influenced me to become a biologist and birdwatcher for life.

I’ve often thought of that experience and wished that I could praise and thank the naturalist for having such a profoundly positive impact on me. I’m unlikely to ever have a chance to do so, but thankfully I do have the opportunity to praise and thank Ted Floyd, who is clearly cut from the same cloth and whose How to Know the Birds approaches ornithological education with the enthusiasm, positivity, kindness, and support that all learners need to encourage them to take their first steps into the unfamiliar territory of as-yet-unknown knowledge. The pages of Floyd’s book conjure the same sort of magic I felt that day in the Hocking Hills, and, accordingly, reading them rekindled that same sense of wonder and excitement. I can only imagine how ecstatic that younger version of me would have felt reading this book thirty years ago.

That said, the book is not for beginners only; there is something here for everyone. This is partly because of the breadth of topics covered—ranging from the etymological logic (or lack thereof) behind species’ scientific names (e.g., lesson 28) to the reason why long-distance migrants tend to have darker wing-tips (e.g., lesson 61), and from erudite terms useful for succinctly describing complex animal behaviors (e.g., “nidification,” lesson 97) to “vintage” birding practices that seem touchingly quaint by today’s standards (e.g., lessons 147–149). It is also partly attributable to the fact that even the most “basic” of topics are covered not as a rote recital of facts, but more in the manner of an old friend reminiscing about a shared encounter you had long ago: You may already be familiar with the facts, but you are still gripped by the narrative and gain new insights with each re-telling.

In his Acknowledgments section, Floyd writes that the concept of How to Know the Birds emerged from discussions with his friend Susan Hitchcock, who shared an interest in creating “an idealized bird book for the present age, a manifesto for the modern bird lover.” The book is structured, as you may have noted from the citations above, not as a series of chapters, but as 200 lessons, each of which can be read individually for standalone insights, in small groups clustered around a particular theme (e.g., migration behavior, making good use of modern technology, understanding effects of humans on birds), or all in one sequence from cover to cover.

I chose the last of these approaches because I wanted to compare Floyd’s suggested progression of topics—the “journey of exploration,” as he calls it—with the course of my own ornithological learning education. Though I have encountered some of the featured species in a different order (or, indeed, not at all!), I think my general awareness of certain characteristics, how they fit together, and what they mean in the larger scheme of the ecosystem and my own life was broadly mirrored in the order of the 200 lessons provided here. This suggests to me that there is at least some core universality in how we come “to know the birds,” and that Floyd has accurately reproduced it here in the structure of his book.

Ensuring that the knowledge contained in each lesson can be accessed and used in such a variety of ways is no mean feat. Floyd writes that he and Hitchcock “share an abiding fascination with the challenge of communicating ideas about birds and nature” (italics are mine). I often flinch when the word “communication” is used in non-scientific contexts, because it is generally deployed in a way that oversimplifies the rich process of communication as I understand it from my work researching animal communication, science communication, and education. Most scientific definitions of communication portray it as an information exchange that influences behavior and/or reduces uncertainty. What these definitions generally don’t address is the timescale over which these impacts last—often they may just be fleeting; you can communicate something effectively but still fail to have a lasting impact on your audience. A consummate communicator, however, can facilitate long-term changes associated with acquisition of knowledge and abilities, understanding of beliefs and values. These are nothing short of life-changing, and when they have been achieved, communication has become education—the lofty goal that Floyd manages with How to Know the Birds.

In other words, Floyd is not just an expert and a communicator; he is also a teacher. Trainee teachers learn early on about the importance of reflection. It is a term that has many interpretations in the field of education, among them the act of contemplating what you know, how you know it, why it is valuable to know, and when/where this knowledge can be applied—all for the purpose of figuring out how to articulate this knowledge to students who are hoping to become as knowledgeable as you are. It is a notoriously challenging task, and one that many full-time professional teachers fail to fully tackle (as I see routinely in my current work as an academic developer). However, it is something that Floyd achieves admirably in How to Know the Birds, thereby producing a book that is a beautiful example not just of how to make birdwatching accessible to the uninitiated, but also how to craft an accessible and energizing introduction to any topic.

This is another reason why the book is a compelling read for birdwatchers of all skill levels. Though I have birded for some three decades now, there are many aspects of the activity that I have never stopped to interrogate—for example, how it is that I use “massive parallel processing” (lesson 10) to make what appear to be instinctive IDs, or why it is so rewarding to revisit the same patch time and again even when it seems to offer very little variety (lesson 22). Floyd’s ability to identify and describe each of these processes and techniques shows that he is an expert birdwatcher; his ability to do so in an inclusive, welcoming, and personalizable way (e.g., lessons 151–153) shows that he is also an expert educator.

Like all true experts, Floyd recognizes the truth of that old adage, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Thus, he ends How to Know the Birds with a whole section on “What We Don’t Know.” Happily, though Floyd does thoroughly address the many controversies and challenges of living and birding in the “Anthropocene,” he does not solely devote this final section to the inevitably depressing (but increasingly necessary) discussion of how we save birds from ourselves. Instead, he maintains positive momentum by sharing the excitement inherent in facing the unknown (lesson 170) and being in a position to look for answers; further, he urges readers to think about what they value and why (lesson 192) so that, whatever the future brings, they can make logical decisions on behalf of themselves and their feathered friends.

The word “gatekeeper” is often used these days to describe an established member of a particular subculture who determines which people are allowed to join in. With this book, Floyd emphatically proves that he is the best sort of gatekeeper—one who takes the gate right off the hinges so that everyone has equal access to the wealth of knowledge and richness of experience that lies beyond. Those who think of him mainly as, to quote his author bio, “an internationally recognized birding expert and editor” will need to add one more role to that list: teacher (or, to quote the Ovenbird one last time just for emphasis, teacher TEACHER TEACHER). How to Know the Birds is a masterclass not only in, well, how to know the birds, but also how to share that knowledge, so that these wonderful animals can be appreciated for generations to come.

Thus, whether you have only just experienced your spark bird, have had a decades-long burning passion for birds, or are somewhere in between, How to Know the Birds is sure to fan the flames and leave you feeling stoked about, to quote the author, the ability of birds “to delight and surprise and amaze us.”

Recommended Citation

Kight, C. 2020. When communication becomes education: An expert birder teaches and inspires [a review of How to Know the Birds: The Art and Adventure of Birding, by T. Floyd]. Birding 53 (4): 49–50.


Caitlin Kight is Senior Academic Developer at the University of Exeter and Adjunct Fellow at the Dakshin Foundation. A science communicator with a background in avian bio-acoustics and behavioral ecology, she edits and writes for Current Conservation magazine and contributes to a variety of other natural history publications.