by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple
In honor of the 26th annual Great Backyard Bird Count taking place from February 17 to February 20 this year, we here at Project Write Now are celebrating birds in books. From Poe’s infamous raven to Donna Tartt’s stolen goldfinch painting, birds have long captivated poets, novelists, children’s book writers, and essayists. Here’s a list of some memorable avian characters in poetry, fiction, and memoir you can check out the next time you’re in need of feathery inspiration.
Mabel in Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk
When her father dies suddenly, MacDonald navigates her overwhelming grief by training a young goshawk named Mabel and immersing herself in falconry. Blending history, nature writing, memoir, and literary criticism, this stunning and powerful book chronicles MacDonald’s journey with Mabel. It’s about birds, yes, but also so much more.
“In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.”
Richard in Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!
In this comic novel, a disaffected college grad finds a new lease on life through her obsession with the adventure novel, Treasure Island. Inspired by the book and its principles, the protagonist decides to, among other things, adopt Richard, a particularly shrill parrot with a feather fungus and a talent for imitating television commercials.
‘What’s wrong with him,’ I said.
‘Nothing. I just mean he has a lot of personality.’
At that Richard screamed, loosening the fillings in my molars.”
The pigeons in Edward P. Jones’ “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons”
This short story chronicles the tender relationship between a father and his daughter in the years after his wife dies in childbirth. Though it is only 25 pages, it has all the emotional sweep of a novel. As the girl grows up, she becomes interested in tending to a pigeon coop, and her father tries his best to shield her from life’s harshness. As the narrative unfurls, it explores themes of home, family, community, and what it means to care for someone else.
“The forlorn sound of their flapping wings echoed in her head as she stood watching them disappear into the colors of the morning, often still holding the old broom she used to sweep out their coop.”
The menacing flocks in Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds”
In this heart-pounding short story, a quick-thinking English veteran tries to protect his family when a sudden change in weather patterns causes birds across the country to start ruthlessly attacking humans. Birds have long been a mainstay of spooky literature. (Remember the albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?”) Though “The Birds” is sometimes overshadowed by the more popular movie adapted from it by Alfred Hitchcock, du Maurier’s story deserves a place in the ranks of bird tales that give us the creeps.
“Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings.”
The birds in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments”
In this gorgeous collection of poignant personal essays about nature, Nezhukumatathil turns her keen poet’s eye to the world around her and its inhabitants, from plants to fish to mammals to… you guessed it: birds! Nezhukumatathil dedicates several chapters to avian subjects including wrens, flamingos, and even the non-flying cassowary. After checking out the bird essays, be sure to read the chapters about other wonders like corpse flowers and the “smiling” axolotl. (Seriously, look it up!)
“The secret in talking to birds is in the steadiness of each limb as you make your way into their territory, in the deliberateness of each movement and bend of tree branch and grass blade.”
All these literary birds got you wanting to go outside and check out the real thing? Maybe you’d like to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. The “GBBC” is an online citizen scientist initiative open to all. You can participate from anywhere in the world. All you need to do is sign up at birdcount.org and dedicate at least 15 minutes to watching and counting wild birds at any time during the event. Participate for one day or all four! Report your findings and help scientists who study birds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The National Audubon Society, and Birds Canada. Sign up to participate this year (or mark your calendars for next year), and get into the spirit by spotting some literary birds on your own bookshelves.
Have your own favorite book featuring birds? We’d love to hear about it. Head over to our social media and drop us your own favorite literary fliers!