Thursday, August 18, 2011

Portrait of a birder as a young man (Urban Birder book review)

I have been a big fan of David Lindo, Britain's "Urban Birder," for about a year now, so when he mentioned on his blog that he had a book coming out in August, I couldn't wait to download it onto my Kindle. I am always interested in other people's stories, especially if they are birders, and The Urban Birder did not disappoint.

In the prologue, Lindo asks a few questions, such as: Do you love birds? Do you live in a city or town? Do you wake up most mornings wanting to go birding? Do you love it when you are surrounded by nature, wherever you are? Do you find yourself furtively searching the skies as you travel around? Do you ever bore your friends about birds?

OK, stop already, this is uncanny! We've never even met, and this man knows me inside and out! Which I guess is proof that, no matter where we live or what our backgrounds are, we birders all have quite a bit in common.

But it's what we don't have in common that makes each story special, and these parts of the book I found especially interesting. Like many birders, Lindo developed his fascination as a young child, captivated by house sparrows that he saw on the hospital grounds as his sister was coming into the world. The child of Jamaican immigrants, Lindo grew up in a working class neighborhood in London. Although he was not actively discouraged from his interest in birds and nature, it was also not something that his parents, schoolmates, or even teachers, really seemed to understand or know how to nuture.... Notwithstanding this indifference, as he grew up, he discovered field guides, binoculars, the importance of a "local patch," and also managed to entice a classmate into becoming his birding buddy! I found it especially interesting that he mentions Gerald Durrell as one of his influences...seriously, who wouldn't envy Durrell's childhood on Corfu? My Family and Other Animals has to to be one of the best books ever!

As he entered his late teens and early twenties, he began birding farther afield, going on trips to Scotland and even the Mediterranean area, and, like many of us, began to associate birding with seeking out different species in rural areas, and chasing after rarities (what the British call "twitching.")

He also describes, in a very matter of fact way, how his love of birding clashes with common stereotypes. Other black kids referred to him as a "coconut" (black on the outside, white on the inside) because of his interest in nature, and white birders seemed surprised to find a black guy so interested in birds, and frequently assumed that his white friend was the "real" birder. Although I would say that, at least here in Illinois, birders are friendlier towards each other and newcomers than some of the older folk that Lindo met in England, similar stereotypes occur here as well--namely, that being interested in nature and birds in a mainly white, middle class pursuit; and in the case of birding, I would say that at least 70% of the hard core birders I know are guys.

But the truth is that nature is everywhere around us, even in the midst of the inner city, and making people aware of that is David Lindo's mission. He discusses how surprised people are when he leads them on nature walks, never suspecting how much life is all around them. I would say that is true in central Illinois as much as it is in London.

Towards the end of the book, Lindo describes how his life takes him back to his beginnings, as he returns to London and urban birding, especially after he discovers a previously unbirded, but very rich, area known as the Wormwood Scrubs. As he birds, he discovers the unexpected, such as that these "Scrubs" are in the migration path of one of his favorite birds, the Ring Ouzel. He also, through a combination of serendipity and old-fashioned hard work, gets a chance to live his childhood dream and work for nature programs on TV, like one of his heroes, David Attenborough. (Only in a hip, well-dressed urban way!)

As I was reading about his trips and exploits, practically salivating with envy at all of the British birds that he sees (oh, to see a ring ouzel for myself...and all the different kinds of tits...and rooks!), along came his chapter about birding on trips to the USA, and how he has envied all of the North American birds that can be seen. (And yes, I have been grateful for that myself--despite the depredations to the environment, we still have a plethora of birds to enjoy here in the United States.) It was kind of weird reading about common birds here, like the least sandpiper and the American redstart, being discussed as rarities in England. (Which makes me wonder...can I introduce International Bird Swap Day? No? Why not?) Also, a couple of his stories about birding in New York City made me remember why I avoid cities as much as possible....

The take-home message of The Urban Birder is much the same of this blog: just go outside and look around, and you will be amazed by what you see. For anyone interested in appreciating nature or a birder's memoir, I would recommend this book...and not just because I like his blog!


  1. Now I just HAVE to get my hands on this book! I love books written by other birders, especially if they're not snooty. How about an International Birders' Exchange? Birders could swap houses and countries for a week. Gerald Durrell also wrote, "My Family and Other Animals", another really good book. Mom

  2. Thanks for the review, I had been wondering about this book.