Franzen, Watching Out For Birds

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Freedom … Jonathan Franzen (left), birdwatching with Guardian writer Oliver Milman (right) at Natural Bridges Farm, Santa Cruz, California. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

Thanks to Oliver Milman writing for the Guardian from Santa Cruz, California with someone whose concerns about the intersection of books and technology, combined with his interest in birds and the art of watching, have led to us featuring him more frequently in these pages than most other people:

Jonathan Franzen: ‘Climate change isn’t the only danger to birds’

‘The two things I love most are novels and birds, and they’re both in trouble,’ says The Corrections author, one of the world’s most famous birdwatchers

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Illustration: Sarah Mazzetti

Birdwatching was once an activity that elicited a sense of mild shame in Jonathan Franzen. The author stalked New York parks with binoculars in hand, rather than on a strap, carefully hiding from view the word “birds” on his field guide. Debonair friends in London recoiled in horror when told of his pastime. Franzen was furtive, almost embarrassed. Now, he is one of the most famous birdwatchers in the world.

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 Author and birdwatcher Jonathan Franzen, at Natural Bridges Farm where he goes to birdwatch in Santa Cruz, California, September 30th, 2018. Photograph: Talia Herman for the Guardian

“I totally let my freak flag fly now,” Franzen says as he scans for birds at a community garden near his home in Santa Cruz, California. His phone has an app that deciphers bird sounds. He travels the world to see recondite species. He has written about birds in essays, op-eds and novels.

“I was so socially unsuccessful in my youth and such a pariah in junior high that I really didn’t want to look like a dork,” says Franzen, the 59-year-old author whose best known works include The Corrections and Freedom. “I got over that. The success started to make me think: ‘Hey, it’s not me who’s got the problem.’”

Having taken up the birder habit in New York’s Central Park in his 40s, Franzen is now firmly ensconced in the world of twitchers, with their early mornings, their meticulously kept lists, their argot (the elastic harness attached to binoculars is called a “bra”). “Within the bird world the gull people are considered the super freaks,” Franzen confides. “They talk about ‘I think this is a worn alternate plumage of a second year whatever Iceland Gull which really looks a whole lot like a Herring Gull’. Oh, who cares.”

Unusually for most birdwatchers, Franzen’s circumstances have allowed him access to birds in places like Peru, Antarctica and Cyprus, the latter a place where he documented “the most intensive songbird-killing operations in the European Union”.

It has also provided him a glimpse of the existential perils that confront many bird species. In April, an exhaustive compendium of population data revealed that one in eight bird species are threatened with global extinction, with once widespread creatures such as puffins, snowy owls and turtle doves suffering punishing losses.

In all, 40% of all 10,000 or so bird species are in decline in the face of threats such as agricultural expansion, logging, invasive species and hunting. “The situation is deteriorating and the trends are intensifying,” said Tris Allinson, senior global science officer for BirdLife International, which produced the report.

The world’s population of seabirds, a group that includes gulls, terns, albatrosses and others, has dropped by around 230m, a 70% slump, over the past 60 years due to slightly different group of maladies that also includes overfishing and plastic and oil pollution.

“What does that tell us? Tells us something is not good,” Franzen says of the seabirds, as he pads the garden, looking at a couple of California towhees through his binoculars…

Read the whole article here.

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