It’s truly spring here in the Pacific Northwest, and everything is budding and blooming. The birds are noisy in the mornings, the morning chorus announcing the breeding season. Pretty soon, baby birds will be hatching, begging for food, and learning to fly. For the past two years we’ve had bird nests built on our back porch, and have been privileged to watch the parents feed and protect the nestlings. We’ve guarded the babies from neighborhood cats on fledging day as they made their way to the green belt behind our house. In the short weeks the babies were growing in the nests, we could hear their cheeping getting louder as they grew larger. But we didn’t want to disturb the nests to peek in and see what they looked like. They remained a mystery to us.
Julie Zickefoose has had many experiences with baby birds, serving as a wild bird rehabilitator at her home in Ohio. Luckily for us, she has taken the opportunity over the past several years to paint baby birds brought to her to care for, as well as birds that nested on her property. She has collected these paintings and stories into a book that just came out this week: Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest. The stories are right from her journal, depicting the babies as they grew and developed, comparing and contrasting each species to others. Julie will go to great lengths to keep baby birds alive, and her passion for her subjects really comes through in her writing. She observes so closely, pointing out details that I never even thought about.
Julie’s artwork is fresh, completed quickly while birds wriggled in her hands or on her watercolor paper under a heat lamp. As an experienced artist, she knows how to capture the spirit of the bird, evaluating which important details to include. She has compiled all the drawings for a single bird’s development into one large spread, so readers can marvel at how much the birds change each day, and how quickly they go from squirming, pale “bags of guts” to fully feathered adolescents ready to fledge. Her journal entries expose a secret world that most of us can only wonder about. She even documented a few interesting facts that had not been recorded in the scientific literature.
One of the birds Zickefoose painted from babyhood to fledging was hummingbirds. A friend had photographed a nest of babies daily for several days until the babies were eaten by jays. Julie painted from photos the friend had taken. She also used live baby birds that she received to rehabilitate when they were about 15 days old. It turns out hummingbirds are incredibly difficult and time-consuming to care for, needing food every half hour. She nurtured the brood through the fledging period and released them to her garden, where they stuck around until it was time to migrate. Two of them then miraculously come back to the garden to greet Julie and her husband Bill the next spring. I really enjoyed reading this chapter of the book; as Julie writes, “There is wonder in all birds, but in hummingbirds there is magic.” She writes about the experience in a way that readers can really get a feel for the huge personalities of these tiny jewels.
Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest is truly a fascinating book. Full of insight, humor, and even some moments of sadness, it exposes some of the secret lives of birds. Her children, too, have been fortunate to have been raised along with all these avian babies, and Julie talks about some sweet moments with her offspring throughout the book. Her work is an inspiration to those of us who are trying to be naturalists. We might not all get a chance to observe baby birds as closely as she does, but surely there are things in our own environments that we can take the time to notice. As Zickefoose says in the hummingbird chapter, “Opportunities present themselves, and the wise naturalist grabs her chance, for such perfect circumstances for study may never align again. Serendipity is our muse and guiding force.” I am certainly grateful she took the time to observe and paint so many babies. Now when we have nesting families on our back porch, I will have more of an idea what they are doing in their hidden homes.
Julie Zickefoose has a beautiful website with information about this book and her other publications. I previously had the privilege of reviewing her book The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds about her work as a wild bird rehabilitator. (Read my review of that book here.)
Disclaimer: I received this book as an advance copy for the purposes of review. My opinions of it are my own.