Book Review: Novelist Amy Tan Shares Love Of The Natural World In 'THe Backyard Bird Chronicles'

This cover image released by Knopf shows "The Backyard Bird Chronicles" by Amy Tan. (Knopf via AP)
This cover image released by Knopf shows "The Backyard Bird Chronicles" by Amy Tan. (Knopf via AP)
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Birdwatching has become a cherished pastime for many since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people stuck at home for months looked out their windows for entertainment and immersed themselves into the natural world, many of them for the first time.

Best-selling novelist Amy Tan of “The Joy Luck Club” fame is among about 45 million Americans the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has estimated are birders, with many investing seriously in their passion by purchasing birdseed and bird watching accessories.

Now, with entries from her nature journal and astonishing illustrations thanks to lessons in bird illustration, Tan has published “The Backyard Bird Chronicles” about an obsession that dates back to before the pandemic.

Tan's book is the latest to grab onto the popularity of birdwatching.

It joins “Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World," last year's memoir by Christian Cooper, who famously clashed with a white woman walking her dog in New York's Central Park. The confrontation came on May 25, 2020, the same day George Floyd was killed after a knee on his neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Coming out on May 7 is another book sure to delight amateur naturalists: “The Birds that Audubon Missed: Discovery and Desire in the American Wilderness” by Kenn Kaufman.

Kaufman, an avid birder since he was a boy, has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books, including his own Kaufman Field Guides.

In his latest, he tells of the vicious competition among naturalists and John James Audubon, who is known for his efforts in the 1800s to describe and illustrate all the birds he could find.

But amid the rivalries, fraud and plagiarism, "The Birds in America,” Audubon's seminal collection of 435 life-size prints, missed many winged creatures that were not discovered for years, including some common songbirds, hawks and sandpipers.

Tan could only identify three bird species when she first embraced birdwatching as a pastime.

The number of species she could identify steadily grew to 63 as she lured more birds to the area behind her home with a view of San Francisco Bay, dangling seed and nectar feeders from a stand and planting her rooftop garden with succulents sporting white, yellow and pink blossoms.

Her winged visitors amid the fragrant Meyer lemon trees and lavender bushes have included an American robin, mourning doves, dark-eyed Juncos, a purple finch and orange crowned sparrows.

“I’ve been spending more hours a day staring at birds than writing," she notes at one point. "How can I not? Just outside my office, four fledgling scrub jays are learning survival skills.”

"We’ve been shut down by COVID-19, required to stay home,” she wrote on March 19, 2020. “Almost everything seems like a potential transmitter of disease and death — the groceries, a door knob, another person. But not the birds. The birds are a balm.”

Like a loving mother, Tan watches in delight as fledglings learn how to get get food from her patio cage feeders, She worries whether they'll be affected by smoke from fires in California's north.

Tan eventually becomes controlled by birds, feeding them 700-800 squirmy beetle larvae a day at a cost of some $250 a month. She leaves alpaca yarn outside so an Oak Titmouse can line her nest with the soft fuzz. Tan hopes that the mealworms, tiny balls of suet and sunflower chips she leaves on the patio will ensure more fledglings reach adulthood.

As time passes, Tan becomes intentionally curious in nature, fascinated as a pair of Great Horned Owls take up residence in her backyard, depleting the rat population as they regurgitate pellets comprised of bits of indigestible bone and fur.

She learns to stay motionless for long periods, even in the cold, to silently observe.

“One must suffer for beauty, happily, for birds,” she writes.


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