In 1953, ornithologist and educator Roger Tory Peterson and a friend took a 100-day trip around the United States to explore birds and the places they seek shelter. Peterson, known for his many birding guidebooks, recounted the trip in the book "Wild America."
Nearly 70 years later, retired journalists Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal packed their lives into a 23-foot Airstream trailer and set out on a similar journey. They weren't taking an ordinary birding trip. Instead, they wanted to report on the how changes in us and our country have affected birds.
The country they traveled would have twice as many people and billions fewer birds than the one Peterson explored. Their journey also resulted in a book, "A Wing and a Prayer: A Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds," (Simon & Schuster, $30). A plea to help echoes through every page.
One of their first stops was to visit with John Fitzpatrick, director emeritus of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whom the Gyllenhaals call "the hemisphere's most influential voice on behalf of birds."
"They — the birds — are telling us that we need to look carefully at what's going on," Fitzpatrick tells them.
What the Gyllenhaals find as they continue their exploration renders Fitzpatrick's comment gentle understatement.
Bird conservation is not rocket science, Fitzpatrick told the authors. "It's more complicated than that."
In 2019, a group of researchers found a way to calculate North America's total bird population. The report, published in the journal Science, showed a loss in the past 50 years of 3 billion birds, nearly a third of the continent's bird population.
That population has withered away, the Gyllenhaals' write, because of habitat loss, shifting climate and the growing hazards of an urban world.
During their 25,000-mile journey, the Gyllenhaals find people who are fighting against that rapid decline, people who are making progress a little bit at a time, creating hope and setting examples that we, the ultimate problem solvers, can follow in our own backyards.
They recount efforts to save the bald eagle from the plague of DDT, describe how whooping crane populations have been nursed toward recovery. They note how electronics, much of it made widely available by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, allow us to follow seasonal movements of birds by the minute.
Myriad efforts to restore grasslands, wetlands and ranch lands populate the book, with thousands of people across the country volunteering to push conservation of flora and fauna.
The Gyllenhaals also attend a meeting of the North Carolina chapter of Ducks Unlimited, where they learn that duck hunters got the conservation message a long time ago: They understand that if duck habitat isn't preserved, duck hunters will become extinct.
Hunters, as the book's authors point out, pay a federal tax on hunting gear, guns and ammunition, money that is used to conserve the game hunters want to hunt. This is in addition to the chapter fundraising activities and boots-on-the-ground habitat efforts by Ducks Unlimited members themselves. And Ducks Unlimited isn't alone. It's joined by groups like Pheasants Forever, Delta Waterfowl, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The Gyllenhaals point out how bird watchers across the nation have yet to make that kind of impact, with bird conservation organizations — including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — mostly failing to make a significant improvement in habitat.
The book concludes with a thorough summary of things we all could and should do to help birds — install bird feeders and nesting boxes, buy bird-friendly coffee, control cats, take children birding and, perhaps most important, voice your support for conservation efforts local and national. Speak up, the Gyllenhaals implore us.
In this five-star journey into our birding history, present and future, the authors make clear that ultimately, it's up to us — you and me — to care and to act.
There are plenty of guidebooks for bird identification. This is the guidebook for bird conservation.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.