January 5 is National Bird Day, and the last day of the annual Christmas Bird Count. For three weeks, birders gather to count number of birds and bird species in their area. While the count can never be precise, it provides scientists and environmental agencies with important data on how bird populations change over time. The documentary Counting on Birds (streaming) looks at the history of the Christmas Bird Count, which was begun in 1900 by ornithologist Frank Chapman.
The data gathered during the Christmas Bird Count is of great use to scientists, but is largely gathered by amateurs, people who watch and study birds for the joy of it. Scott Weidensaul's Of a Feather (e-book, print) is a history of birding in America, from the efforts of early European immigrants to the modern popularity of the hobby. The documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect (streaming) focuses specifically on urban birdwatchers and the species that can be found in New York City. And Mark Obmascik's The Big Year (e-book, print; a 2011 film adaptation starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson is available on DVD) follows three birders on the quest to break the North American record for the most bird species observed in a single year.
Among the goals of National Bird Day is to stress the importance of conservation efforts. There are nearly 10,000 species of birds, and 10-12% of them are thought to be endangered, at risk of extinction. In The Birds of Pandemonium (e-book, e-audio, print), Michelle Raffin reports on her work at Pandemonium Aviaries, home to more than 40 species of birds, some of them among the world's rarest. On a smaller scale, the film Bluebird Man (streaming) follows one self-taught conservationist as he works to preserve Idaho's bluebirds.
Sadly, conservation efforts are not always successful, and some species do eventually go extinct. When Europeans first arrived in America, it's estimated that about one-third of all birds on the continent were passenger pigeons; the last passenger pigeon died in captivity in 1914. Joel Greenberg explains the decline of the passenger pigeon in A Feathered River Across the Sky (e-book, print), and the passenger pigeon is one of the six tales of extinction told by Christopher Cokinos in Hope is the Thing With Feathers (e-book, print).
At the end of a species' existence, there can be a long period in which we're not quite sure whether any of the species remain alive in the wild. The documentary Ghost Bird (streaming) is the story of an Arkansas town captivated by the possibility that an ivory-billed woodpecker may have been spotted in the nearby woods.
For many bird lovers, National Bird Day is a time to reflect on more personal relationships with birds. Helen Macdonald found that raising and training a hawk helped her to cope after the death of her father; she tells her story in H Is for Hawk (e-book, e-audio, print). Jeff Guidry writes about helping a seriously injured bird to recover in An Eagle Named Freedom (e-book, print).
A thirty-year relationship with the same parrot was crucial to Irene Pepperberg's research into avian intelligence; she writes about that relationship in Alex and Me (e-book, e-audio, print). The intelligence of birds is also the subject of Jennifer Ackerman's The Genius of Birds (e-book, e-audio, print), in which she reports that birds are far smarter than we usually think.
To close our celebration of National Bird Day, Peter Tate's Flights of Fancy (e-book, print) is a compilation of references to birds in myth, literature, and superstition that will leave you fully prepared whenever birds come up in conversation.
Also This Week
- January 2, 1920: Isaac Asimov was born. Asimov was a prolific author who wrote or edited more than 500 books. He is best known for his science fiction and popular science writing, but also wrote mysteries, fantasies, history, literary criticism, collections of limericks, and three volumes of memoirs. His best-known books are the seven Foundation novels, which imagines that the broad arc of history can be predicted mathematically, and follows one historian's attempt to change the future. The Foundation series is available as an e-book bundle.
- January 4, 1937: Grace Bumbry was born. Bumbry is an operatic mezzo-soprano whose career lasted from the early 1960s to the mid-1990s. She was part of the first generation of African-American singers to make a large impact on the international operatic stage. Bumbry was noted for her wide range and her strongly dramatic performances. In 2009, she was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. Two of her signature roles, the title role in Carmen and the role of Amneris in Aida, are available on streaming audio.
- January 2, 1956: Lynda Barry was born. Barry is a cartoonist and author whose weekly comic strip Ernie Peek's Comeek was published in more than 70 alternative newspapers between 1979 and 2008. Since ending the strip, Barry has written several graphic novels and illustrated novels, and teaches writing workshops. Her illustrated novel Cruddy (e-book, print) is a dark comedy about a young woman coming of age in the early 1970s.
- January 2, 1968: Cuba Gooding, Jr. was born; four days later, on January 6, John Singleton was born. Their careers would intersect in 1991 with Boyz N the Hood, Gooding's first starring movie role, and Singleton's first film as a director. Singleton received a Best Director Oscar nomination; he was the youngest director ever nominated, and the first African-American director. Gooding stars with Ice Cube and Morris Chestnut in the story of three young men growing up in South Los Angeles. Boyz N the Hood is available on DVD.