Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds

By B.J. Hollars

University of Nebraska Press, 2017; 195 pages; $24.95

Aspiring birdwatchers will find a sympathetic soul in these literary essays by B.J. Hollars, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He writes about his hobby with the self-effacing air of a man who knows he’s a dabbler, quoting admiringly from interviews with far more experienced birders, such as Steve Betchkal, whose life list extends to 934 species observed and identified worldwide. “That’s what the best of birding’s all about,” Betchkal tells him, “It’s about the abundance of good things, of seeing things that make you feel joyous.”

The absence of some of those good things, paradoxically, got Hollars into birding in the first place, and many of these essays center on his search for birds that exist today only as faded images and stuffed specimens. When he was in third grade, he recalls, he searched vainly in the woods around his Indiana home, looking for a dodo that his teacher had talked about in class. “How could something that once existed no longer exist anywhere in the world?” he wondered.  

That’s a puzzle Hollars carried into adult life, sparking near obsession with the ivory-billed woodpecker, the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the dusky seaside sparrow. Among other pursuits, it has lead him to seek out archives from which he introduces readers to such birders as Don Eckelberry, a noted ornithological artist, who, in 1944, made the last undisputed sighting of a live ivory-billed wood-pecker. In a back room at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, Hollars opens a folder containing eight of Eckelberry’s sketches from that sighting, still seeking answers to his childhood questions: “What must it have been like to be the last of her kind, offering her call only to hear the echo call back?”

Another journey takes him to the Field Museum in Chicago, where a curator pulls open a drawer, revealing preserved specimens of several vanished American species, including an ivory-bill shot in Florida on March 13, 1883 by a wealthy collector named Charles Cory. In a later essay, the author searches in vain for the long-abandoned cabin of a little-known naturalist, Francis Zirrer, who wrote eloquently about endangered birds in the first half of the twentieth century. When Hollars writes of Zirrer, who lived a hermit’s life off the grid in the northern Wisconsin woods, there’s the sense that this man, too, is one of a vanishing species.

Not all these essays convey a sense of loss, however. A piece on the Christmas bird count, a tradition dating back over a century, expresses the ultimate reward that drives birders to brave the chilly winds of winter alone or together. Riding the back roads with his mentor Steve Betchkal and a friend, Hollars exults in spotting golden eagles, horned larks, wild turkeys, and snow buntings, twenty-five species in all. That morning, the snowy woods warmed us, he muses, by stirring “the dying ember within, the spark that ties us to our ancestral past.”  

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