The Verb 'To Bird': Sightings of an Avid Birder

Overview

All around the world, birds are the subject of intense, even spiritual, fascination, but relatively few people see the word bird as a verb. Peter Cashwell is one who does, and with good reason: He birds (because he can't help it), and he teaches grammar (because he's paid to). An English teacher by profession and an avid birder by inner calling, Cashwell has written a whimsical and critical book about his many obsessions — birds, birders, language, literature, parenting, pop ...

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The Verb 'To Bird': Sightings of an Avid Birder

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Overview

All around the world, birds are the subject of intense, even spiritual, fascination, but relatively few people see the word bird as a verb. Peter Cashwell is one who does, and with good reason: He birds (because he can't help it), and he teaches grammar (because he's paid to). An English teacher by profession and an avid birder by inner calling, Cashwell has written a whimsical and critical book about his many obsessions — birds, birders, language, literature, parenting, pop culture, and the human race.

Cashwell lovingly but irreverently explores the practice of birding, from choosing a field guide to luring vultures out of shrubbery, and gives his own eclectic travelogue of some of the nation's finest bird habitats. Part memoir, part natural history, part apology, The Verb 'To Bird' will enlighten and entertain anyone who's ever wandered around wet fields at the crack of dawn with dog-eared field guides crushed against the granola bars in their pockets. But you don't have to know the field marks of an indigo bunting to appreciate Cashwell's experiences with non-lending libraries, venomous insects, sports marketing, and animated Christmas specials.

A Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" Selection for Summer 2003

A Summer Paperback Book Sense 76 Pick

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Peter Cashwell loves birds with a passion that drives him into forests and swamps, often before dawn, to search out his quarry and to add new species to his growing list of sightings. It is this avian compulsion, too, that renders this English teacher's descriptions of his prey so heartfelt and clever, evoking passages of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Verb "To Bird" is a wildly entertaining look into the world of birders that promises not to take itself too seriously. Told through personal anecdotes that range from his own backyard in the hills of Virginia to trips in search of a particular species, Cashwell's tale includes plenty of screeching-to-a-halt-and-grabbing-the-binoculars on the roadway in between. Throughout, he provides a historical perspective on human intervention in the natural world and the introduction of certain avian species to the U.S.

From his description of birds and their surroundings, Cashwell draws lovely metaphors for modern life and raises questions -- some serious, others more whimsical -- about the importance of leaving our world a better place with each passing generation. (Summer 2003 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
Birders as well as all others interested in birds will enjoy this witty and informative meditation. Declaring himself a victim of birding compulsive disorder, Cashwell, an English teacher in Virginia, does an excellent job of describing his fascination with observing and listening to birds. He is fond of the peace of birding alone, but also enjoys getting up at dawn, meeting a group of other birders and logging species together. Many birders compile lists (called life lists or lifers) of each species they have seen in the wild, which can make the pursuit a competitive one. Interspersed with the author's personal experiences are engrossing commentaries on the history of birding and the means by which certain species were introduced to the U.S. Cashwell also lists birds he dislikes: for example, he considers the starling to be a nuisance that has driven other species to the brink of extinction. He credits the starling's existence in the U.S. to Eugene Schieffelin, who, in 1890, released at least 60 of these birds in Central Park because they were mentioned in Shakespeare. The author has birded in his own backyard, in many other states and in Scotland. In a touching anecdote, Cashwell recounts how a difficult Christmas holiday was transformed by the sight and sound of a great horned owl. This is an unusual and engrossing rumination on birding. B&w illus. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Many birdwatching books are cute and quite often forgettable, but this one is much better than most. A teacher of English and speech at a private school in Virginia, Cashwell presents an entertaining and witty meditation on birding, full of relevant quotes from the classics and infused with a sort of Victorian travelog and anecdotal narrative that is pleasant and, in a circuitous way, informative. Cashwell pretends not to be an expert, but his curiosity, sense of humor, irreverence, and lively writing style (e.g., "a horizon shaped like Kate Winslet") more than compensate. Divided into three sections, the book covers a range of topics, from raptors to the contrast between wildlife in rural North Carolina and New York City, in chapters that have snappy, emphatic, and often unexpected endings. Nonbirders as well as birders would enjoy this. As Cashwell's emphasis is on the East Coast, this is recommended for larger regional collections.-Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781589880016
  • Publisher: Dry, Paul Books, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/1/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST PAUL D
  • Pages: 273
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 8.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Birds first captured Peter Cashwell's attention when his mother hung an avian mobile over his crib. He was born in Raleigh, N.C., grew up in Chapel Hill, and graduated from the University of North Carolina, where he took every creative writing course permitted by the English department (and one that wasn't). Cashwell has worked at lots of different jobs -- radio announcer, rock musician, comic-book critic, improv comedy accompanist. Now he teaches English and speech at Woodberry Forest School in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.
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Read an Excerpt

2

Wanton Freaks

Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low-hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings,
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.

--John Keats, “I Stood Tiptoe”
Having established the verb, and its subject, let’s get to the modifiers: How does one bird? Where does one bird? When? In what condition? With what or whom?

Let’s consider the last question first: a birder can obviously get along without equipment, but there are a few items that certainly make birding a whole lot easier. The first is a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, which will allow you to be distracted by birds over a mile away. Such devices are not strictly necessary for a birder, but a lack of them will limit you to observing birds that are large, close by, and in plain sight. Should you wish to examine a small bird perched thirty feet up in a broadleaf tree, or one particular shorebird in a large flock down the beach, the naked eye isn’t going to do the job.

I should note that some birders eschew the eye altogether, preferring to bird by ear. Because many species have calls or songs that are at least as distinctive as their appearances, this method can be very effective, particularly if the bird in question is nocturnal or secretive in its habits. You can buy recordings of various birdcalls, but these will require no small amount of study if you want them to be as useful to you as a pair of binoculars. The auditory approach is also unwieldy in the field, as you can’t easily flip through four hours of recorded chirps to find the bird you just heard, while a quick glance in a good .eld guide can immediately help with a visual identification. As a result, most birders I know use their ears to supplement their eyes, not to replace them.

The second item of birding equipment is a list. This can be a list of birds seen in a particular place (such as a yard, a park, or an official count area) or over a particular time (a twenty-four-hour period, a season, or a year), but the most common sort is the life list, a record of each different species of bird you have ever observed in the wild. Those birds on the list are commonly called “life birds” or “lifers,” and knowing which lifers you have and which you don’t have gives you two things: a sense of accomplishment and a clear knowledge of specific birds you can add to your tally. Let me be clear: it is perfectly fine to bird without such a list. I did so for more than twenty years. I found, however, that birding was more challenging and more interesting once I began listing. And why did I begin listing? I got item number three as a twenty-fifth birthday present.

This third item is Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, which, as any veteran birder knows, will help you identify what you’re observing better than any other book, period. Peterson’s “field mark” system is head, shoulders, solar plexus, and abdomen above any other means of identi.cation. Some guides may have nice color photographs or flashier paintings than Peterson’s, but they don’t always help you put a name to what you’re seeing. I know many birders who use other field guides, such as the Audubon Society’s photographic guides, the National Geographic guide, or the beautifully painted, exhaustively detailed, but somewhat unwieldy Sibley guide. I own several of these myself, but when it comes to identifying birds in the field, I use them only as supplements to Peterson. They’re a way of narrowing down a difficult ID by using multiple sources, just as a student of the Torah will often consult the commentaries of dozens of rabbinical scholars in order to help him understand a particular point -- but only after he reads the Torah itself. There’s a reason why the Peterson guide is called “The Birder’s Bible.”

The field mark system, in Peterson’s own words, is “in a sense, a pictorial key based on readily noticed visual impressions.” In other words, it points to the distinctive and observable features of each type of bird, rather than those anatomical differences that you might notice only through in-hand study or dissection. The Peterson guide’s paintings of the various birds are composed specifically to “show field marks to best advantage,” usually through careful positioning of the bird and an arrow or two pointing to the most important features. For the Eastern Bluebird, for instance, arrows indicate the bird’s overall blue color and rusty red breast; if you note those two features, you’ve seen everything you need to see in order to identify Sialia sialis. Beside it in the guide is the Mountain Bluebird, whose pale blue belly is noted as a field mark, thereby showing the main difference in these two similar species. If you can observe and compare the field marks, you can identify the birds.

In his 1996 appreciation of Peterson’s life, the Washington Post’s John Pancake noted that “he was often celebrated as a painter and illustrator, but the truth is that the illustrations aren’t very good art.” I would both agree and disagree; true, the paintings in the guide aren’t of a kind with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but they are of a kind with Leonardo’s technical drawings, artwork that had a specific purpose: to clearly state to the observer the exact nature of what was being observed. Sir Christopher Wren’s blueprints for Saint Paul’s Cathedral may not have been good art in and of themselves, but the cathedral they helped build certainly qualifies. If you want to construct for yourself a knowledge of birds that will be a source of beauty and enjoyment to you, Peterson is the only architect that matters.

The Peterson guide is not merely a collection of bird pictures, however; there are also brief, pithy descriptions of the birds, with especially noteworthy field marks in italics. After a long day of slogging through the verbiage of Bryant or Shelley, there is something bracing about a nononsense piece of writing like this:

NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD
Mimus polyglottos 9–11. (23–28 cm)
Gray; slimmer, longer-tailed than Robin. Note the large white patches on the wings and tail, conspicuous in flight.
In three lines, Peterson gives you everything you need to recognize the bird: an economic miracle, especially for a birder.

Of course, being a birder, Peterson is occasionally prone to more descriptive prose, but it comes off as effective -- almost narrative, almost poetry. I think his wordpicture of the Eastern Meadowlark would make a serviceable piece of free verse:

In grassy country,
a chunky brown bird flushes,
showing a conspicuous patch
of white
on each side
of its short wide tail.
Several rapid wingbeats
alternate
with short glides.

Should it perch on a post,
the glass reveals
a bright yellow breast
crossed by a
black V.

Walking,
it flicks its tail
open
and
shut.

It’s minimal, but complete in its suggestion, like the work of Basho. Indeed, I can envision an entire series of haiku based on Peterson:
WHIP-POOR-WILL GREEN HERON
flushed by day, the bird a small dark heron
flits away on rounded wings that in flight looks crowlike
(but like a large brown moth. flies with bowed wingbeats).

WILD TURKEY BARN OWL
head naked; bluish white heart-shaped face. A
with red wattles intensi.ed long-legged, knock-kneed, pale,
in male’s display. monkey-faced owl. Dark eyes.
And not a blithe spirit or a plashy brink to be seen.

The fourth thing a birder needs, at least some of the time, is a fellow birder.

Birding alone is peaceful, make no mistake, and a lone birder has the advantage of never having to debate whether the bird he has glimpsed is a Sharp-shinned Hawk or the similar but less common Cooper’s Hawk -- he can simply write down “Cooper’s Hawk” on his life list and later dare anyone to deny it. Still, I have always enjoyed company when I am beating the bush for new lifers, and certainly there is no better way for a birder with a small-to-middling life list to see new species than to be taken around by a more experienced birder. My own growth from passive to active birder happened in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and it happened largely because of a fellow teacher named Mary Stevens.

Things began innocently enough. Soon after Mary and I discovered each other’s interest in birds, I spotted a new life bird over Thanksgiving break. On our first day back, I sneaked into Mary’s classroom before she arrived for first period and scrawled its name across her blackboard. She did the same to me after her next lifer, and the practice grew into a habit for us, a minor source of amusement that helped us prevent teaching from numbing our minds completely.

We did not, however, consider who else would be reading these messages. The first thing her Latin students saw that first Monday morning were the words “LITTLE BLUE HERON” in my distinctive all-caps handwriting. This alone might have passed unnoticed, but my own students were later treated to Mary’s retaliatory “WILSON’S WARBLER,” and then a rapid exchange of “YELLOWTHROATED WARBLER,” “ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK,” “PIPING PLOVER,” and so on. Soon, tongues were wagging about our torrid and ongoing affair.

The fact that said affair was totally nonexistent didn’t matter. The kids didn’t know a heron from a ’74 Volvo, and assumed we were writing each other cute little terms of endearment from our passionate encounters, which they no doubt imagined taking place in the teachers’ lounge, and sounding something like this:

HE: Oh, my little blue heron, how I have missed you!
SHE: No more than I have missed you, black skimmer of my heart!
HE: Am I still your piping plover, my darling?
SHE: Oh, no one has ever ploved me the way you do, mon cher avocet!
I have only two comments to make on the subject of this fictitious dalliance:

First, were I to have an affair, WHICH I’M NOT, I would not do so with another teacher. I’d constantly fear having my grammar, social behaviors, and/or angle of approach scrupulously corrected, perhaps even repeatedly until I got it right. Worse, I myself might be the one spoiling the mood by answering my partner’s breathy demands with “That’s unclear. What is the antecedent of the pronoun ‘it,’ anyway? And can’t you use a more specific verb than ‘do’ here?”

But second, and more importantly, were I to have an affair, WHICH I’M STILL NOT, I would unquestionably compare my lover to something -- anything -- that did not have a needle-shaped bill, gnarly meter-long green-gray legs, and breath with the aroma of a thousand dead raw bullfrogs.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2003

    A Funny Yet Precise Account of a Birder's Adventures

    Peter Cashwell, an English teacher, has written a graceful book that discusses birding in a light- hearted manner. It will delight those of us who love birds and those of us who love the English language. I often laughed out loud at the various situations Cashwell creates for himself in the pursuit of birds. After reading it, I felt inspired to look at the visitors to my backyard far more closely.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2003

    Outstanding

    Indiscreet glimpse into the passion of a young man---birdwatching. An excellent treatise on naturalism. The sharp and sarcastic humor had me laughing out loud. Don't miss this one!

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