I was happily immersed in a amusing story—a bathtub-reading kind of book, long on entertainment and short on talent—when I was rudely interrupted by a glaring error—at least glaring to me. The heroine was hiking in the Montana wilderness. The author waxed poetic about the deep green evergreens, the sparkling white snow, curious deer peering from the thickets, and the Saker Falcon wheeling overhead. Wait! What? What’s a Eurasian falcon doing in Montana?I can only assume that neither the author nor the editor are birders. But still—fact check, anyone? (This is the same book that later had an archeologist digging up dinosaur bones. She’s only off by a few hundred million years, but who’s counting?)
A few days later I was reading another book it happened again. The main character is in the middle of the Arizona desert. I’ve just finished reading a lovely description of an arid landscape, filled with sand and spiny cactus but not a drop of water, and this character comments on the lovely Red-winged Blackbird! Seriously?
Finding misplaced birds in books is annoying, but it’s not just books. How many movies have we seen that zoom in on a soaring eagle—while we hear the screams of a Red-tailed Hawk? I’m sure most of the movie audience has no clue. How many people know what hawks and eagles sound like? And yes, I understand why the studio does this. Can eagles help it if they sound like wimps?
Seeing rampant ornithological ignorance does wonders for my ego. It feels good to disparage authors and movie studios. After all, I know better! Of course, it’s easier to rant about someone else’s mistakes than admit my own. (I won’t mention here all those times that I’ve missed an easy ID.)
There are plenty of books, and even a few movies, that are specifically about birds. I particularly enjoyed Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman; A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, by Nicholas Drayson; and The Big Year (both the book and the movie, although I preferred the book). We expect those writers to keep their facts straight. But shouldn’t all authors pay attention to these sorts of details?
Finding a writer who has done their homework is so, so satisfying, and they’re out there. One of my favorite authors is Julie Czerneda. I absolutely love her Species Imperative trilogy: Survival, Migration, and Regeneration. I particularly appreciate her aliens, and the way she incorporates biological principles into her plots. How often do you find good science fiction written by someone with a background in biology? In any case, Czerneda accurately includes the resident birds in her place descriptions. She clearly knows what she’s writing about. It gives me hope.
These mistakes also make we wonder, what else are we missing? We’re not all experts in everything. I’m sure it’s a lot of work to verify all the facts in a book or movie, especially those in historical settings, but some things should be obvious. For example, I started a book that, on page three, described pine trees as deciduous. After reading that, I never made it to page four!
Birdwatching is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the U.S. As more people become more knowledgeable, mistakes will become more obvious—but hopefully less frequent. Meanwhile, our job is to share our enthusiasm for birds with those who have yet to discover their delights. And thank you for letting me vent. I feel better now.
What books have you read that get their bird facts straight?
Birds from top: American Kestrel, Red-tailed Hawk.
It should be obvious by now that the bird in last week’s quiz is a Wild Turkey. Happy Thanksgiving!