Book review by Lori Nick

I noticed Julia Zarankin’s memoir Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder on the B.C. Bestsellers list recently and it piqued my interest.  I consider myself a bird watcher—I enjoy looking at birds that visit my feeders and it is fun to try to identify birds in the forest and on the ocean while on walks. I often consult a bird identification guide to find out more about species that interest me.  Listening to songbirds is a favourite pastime, and I wish that I could identify birds by song alone. I decided to read Zarankin’s book to discover if I should take bird watching to the next level and become a birder. 

As a child, Zarankin avoided the outdoors. Her parents enrolled her in piano and ballet lessons.  As an adult, Zarankin  found herself drifting from hobby to hobby. She decided to try a new pastime when living in Toronto, and she joined a bird watching group’s outing. Zarankin was enthralled by a red-winged blackbird, which she calls her “spark bird” and this encounter started her development as a birder.  Zarankin feels a special affinity with migratory birds. Immigrating from Russia as a young girl, she landed in Canada, and has lived in Vancouver and Toronto.  She has also made the United States and France her home. Zarankin’s book is about her development as a beginning birder, but it is also the story of her family members and their experiences in Russia and moving to a new country. 

spotted towhee
Spotted Towhee. Photo by Don Enright

Through Zarankin’s thoughtful and informative book, I have learned that a birder is a competitive and sometimes obsessed enthusiast. Counting birds and recording species are important activities, and a birder will drive or fly for hours to see one rare bird. Zarankin has spent hours counting and identifying birds at  sites such as water treatment plants and recycling yards. Birders often take trips to famous birding sites worldwide to check off species on their birding life lists. The most dedicated birders eagerly participate in 24 hour birdathons and the Birding World Series. 

Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder contains few illustrations but has vivid descriptions. I read Zarankin’s  book along with a North American bird identification guide. I wanted to see the differences between a  hairy and downy woodpecker or yellow and red-faced warbler in full colour. There are many birds that look similar but are different, and I admire Zarankin’s tenacity and desire to master the skill of bird identification. 

I have decided to remain a laidback bird watcher for now. I’m not sure I have the time, patience or determination to acquire the skills it takes to differentiate between so many different types of birds. I  will focus on the species that can be found in my neighbourhood and branch out from there.  However, I think that all birders and bird watchers would agree with Zarankin when she says “To be among birds is to be constantly learning–about their history, biology, behaviour, plumage and migratory paths, and about ways to advocate on their behalf and help protect them.”

Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder

Julia Zarankin

Categories: Book Reviews

1 Comment

elizabeth bredberg · March 31, 2021 at 5:39 pm

I’ve always distinguished between “birders” and “twitchers.” I think this may be an eccentric distinction, but I consider myself a “birder.” I don’t travel all over the place seeking to fill up my life list, and have no intention of doing so. I spend a lot of time birding–studying birds, looking at their habits and behaviour and their environment. “Twitchers” seem to me to be obsessed, and into collecting sightings without necessarily gaining understanding of the species they’re collecting.

Book sounds interesting, though.

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