Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Review: Happiness is a Rare Bird

Happiness is a Rare Bird by Gene Walz was published in 2016. Gene is a friend of VINS' executive director, Charlie Rattigan, and supports our mission to motivate people to care about the environment through education, research, and rehabilitation, and the appreciation of birds. 



Review by Katharine Britton

Successful birding requires stamina, perseverance, patience, and luck. Gene Walz possesses all these qualities, as well as the ability to write vastly entertaining essays. Happiness is a Rare Bird: Living the birding life is a compilation of his writings.

Readers will find entries on common birds (Black-capped Chickadees, Mallards, and Song Sparrows) rare birds (the Cock of the Rock, Antpittas) the author’s least favorite bird (the Common Grackle) and even one on jinx birds, the species that an avid birder spends his or her lifetime unsuccessfully pursuing. The Golden Oriole was one of Walz’s jinx birds. He once trekked for thirty minutes “through thick foliage, thorn bushes, and swampy grounds” in order to spot one. When he returned to his group of fellow birders to report his success, they informed him that they’d just seen six Golden Orioles from the comfort of the roadside rest area. Having a good sense of humor will help the successful birder as well.

Walz warns aspiring birders about the discomforts that await them: early-morning risings in the dark, seemingly endless drives, hours-long waits in cold, brisk winds or soaking rains. Birding “hot spots” are often in less-than-inspiring surroundings. “A sod farm near a bison compound,” was one such example. But Walz also shares the awe inspiring and sometimes unexpected sights that can reward a patient birder after enduring such hardships. He and a friend once watched eight falcons perform amazing aerial acrobatics for hours as they pursued a flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Walz and his companion had only gone out to see the Sandpipers.

In his essays he passes along some lessons he’s learned. As a child he once found a Yellow Warbler nest in which a Brown-headed Cowbird (which doesn’t build its own nest but rather parasitizes other birds’ nests) had laid an egg. The warblers built another nest of top of their old one, eggs and all, and laid another clutch. The cowbird deposited an egg in that nest too, and in the next, and the next, until the warblers finally gave up. This was not the lesson Walz wanted to share, however. The lesson was that he believes he might have unwittingly alerted the cowbird as to the location of the warblers’ nest by visiting it so often, thereby condemning the warblers.

Birders of all levels will be entertained, informed, and inspired by Walz’s essays, as they find a new birding destination to explore, learn the name of a good bird book to read, or are simply reminded that birding expeditions give birders “a lot more than just fabulous, rare birds.”

Katharine Britton volunteers at VINS and is the author of three novels, HER SISTER'S SHADOW, LITTLE ISLAND, and VANISHING TIME. She lives in Norwich, VT.