It was one of those early March days that should have been miserable. Snow flanked the streets in jagged, gray piles. The overcast sky was sallow, and sharp gusts of wind bit our cheeks as my 9-year-old son and I began a walk around one of our local city lakes. Common sense dictated a quick retreat into the warmth of our car — yet something kept us outside. It was a sound, compellingly high and persistent over the rattle of the wind.
Glancing around eagerly, we finally spotted them: four black-capped chickadees hopping between branches in the shoreline shrubbery. Just across a narrow arm of the lake, an American robin skimmed over the snow. And there! — the crimson flash of a male northern cardinal in a backyard tree. We stopped to listen as the tiny chickadees, rotund in their fluffed plumage, called back and forth to each other: “Fee-bee!” The robin’s distant chuckle overlapped with a cardinal’s echoing “cheer, cheer, cheer!” As we stood, grinning and shivering in the barren late-winter landscape, the birds sang for the imminence of spring.
What does the study of birds do for the imagination, that high power possessed by humans alone, that lifts them upward step by step into new realms of discovery and joy?
Natural historian Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday — who published simply as Blanchan — already knew the answer to this question when she posed it in the preface to her 1907 book, “Birds Every Child Should Know” (reprinted by the University of Iowa Press, 2010). As they watch birds, children not only learn to appreciate the beautiful diversity of life on Earth but also are inspired to greater heights of curiosity, creativity, and compassion.
As was common in natural history guides of her era, Blanchan incorporated personal observations, insights and folklore along with life history facts and scientific data on more than 100 common North American bird species. These stories bring to mind the buoyant poetry of Minnesota author Laura Purdie Salas, whose most recent picture book — an exploration of winter called “Snack, Snooze, Skedaddle: How Animals Get Ready for Winter” — was recently published by Millbrook Press of Minneapolis. Similarly, Christie Matheson’s “Bird Watch” (Greenwillow Books, 2019) offers children a playful view of urban birds.
Blanchan’s lilted phrasing is old-fashioned but enduring, much like our favorite classic children’s stories and poetry. This makes the book fun to read aloud, as readers must seek just the right intonation and pace to fully capture the author’s voice. A wonderful example is found in this description of blue jays, from the chapter called “Rascals We Must Admire.”
“In summer he keeps quiet, but throws off all restraint in autumn. Hear him hammering at an acorn some frosty morning! How vigorous his motions, how alert and independent!"
Don’t let the simple layout of “Birds Every Child Should Know” be a deterrent. Blanchan’s language brings vivid pictures to mind, no graphics required. The University of Iowa Press has also provided 24 detailed sketches by graphic artist Christine Stetter. The book is small enough to carry on a walk, and each profile is just a few pages long — perfect for a quick read at bedtime, during a car ride or, ideally, while outside among the birds themselves.
More green time
Despite its generally lighthearted tone, Blanchan incorporated a pointed message into the preface of “Birds.”
"If the thought of a tiny hummingbird, a mere atom in the universe, migrating from New England to Central America will not stimulate a child’s imagination, then all the tales of fairies and giants and beautiful princesses and wicked witches will not cause his sluggish fancy to roam. Poetry and music, too, would fail to stir it out of the deadly commonplace."
Like some of her contemporaries, Blanchan recognized that the landscape of American childhood was changing. When Lewis and Clark set off to explore the West in 1804, just 6 % of Americans lived in cities. By the time she wrote “Birds,” that figure had swelled to 40 % — a trend that showed no signs of slowing. How would children learn to appreciate nature in painfully crowded cities, with little access to free time or space? And as new generations spread across an increasingly industrialized nation, what would become of America’s wilderness?
Educators and conservationists of the Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1920s responded by promoting nature study in schools. Children deserved to experience nature directly, they said, rather than through what Blanchan called “training of the brain.” The more spontaneous and unstructured this interaction could be, said Blanchan, the better. She envisioned that time spent outside would spur “the growth of the heart,” maturing children with a sympathetic connection to nature and motivation to preserve it for the future.
Today, more than 82 % of Americans live in urban areas. Once again, many adults express concern about children’s lack of “green time.” For them, Neltje Blanchan’s advice will still ring true: Slow down and watch the birds.
Christine Petersen is an environmental educator and writer (christinepetersen.com). She lives in the Twin Cities.