Creating BIRD TALK

Creating BIRD TALK was the culmination of a life-long passion for watching and drawing birds.

 

From an early age I was exposed to birds in an intense way. My grandparents were ornithologists (scientists who studied birds) and lived in an old farmhouse filled with a menagerie of owls, hawks, and eagles. We studied hawks on the marsh in the early mornings and raised a variety of orphaned or injured birds. Some grew strong and were released back to the wild. Others stayed for a lifetime. One bird in particular was a favorite of my grandmother's, who worked for years to breed endangered golden eagles in captivity. Each spring the eagle called sharply, and my grandmother responded by bringing sticks. Then together they built a nest. She observed her eagle so carefully; she could practically talk to it. I grew up watching this intimate relationship between ornithologist and bird, and developed a huge respect for how complex and diverse bird communication skills are.

As my grandparents worked on their research with birds of prey, I found my own area of interest. I recorded songbirds in the mornings before school so I could learn to identify them by their calls. At night, I lay in bed and listened to the screeching of rescued barn owlet, who liked to roost on the top of my grandmother’s refrigerator. One summer, when a storm took a tree snag down, I rescued several baby starlings that were nested in its trunk. I kept one of them and was tickled when it soon began to mimic the calls of my parakeet.

My parents were wildlife photographers and we watched many birds in the wild as well. In the spring before dawn, we hiked the high desert and listened to Sage Grouse boom. Their ritual performance made me laugh—I thought their puffed up chests and inflated air sacs looked like hard-boiled eggs.

But my favorite memory was canoeing alongside Western Grebes as they danced on water for their annual spring mating ritual.

As an adult I sketched the birds I watched and noted their calls and behaviors, piecing together what those calls meant. I read everything I could find about how and why birds communicate. And I wanted to create a book that explored this fascinating topic for young readers. With the illustrations for Bird Talk, I wanted to create a visual record of the exquisite forms of bird communication. What fascinates me most about bird communications isn’t just how they sing, but how they dance, strut, boom, and bob to make their meanings clear. The most rewarding part of creating Bird Talk was capturing these bird gestures with loose sketches and light color washes. What a joyful journey it’s been to grow that quiet kid who got up two hours early to watch and draw birds before school, to writing and illustrating a book about them.

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