Birds of Washington
When I was a graduate student, I volunteered to be a contributing author to a book. The book I was contributing to was a new version of, and was modeled after the 1953 book, The Birds of Washington State by Stanley Jewett, Walter Taylor, William Shaw and John Aldrich. To this end, I wrote "accounts" for 20 species of birds that reside in or migrate through the beautiful state of Washington, where I lived for much of my life. These articles adhered to a strict format and word count (250 words each) by detailing population movements and trends, habitat preferences, listing all described (and suspected) subspecies, and conservation issues for each species, among other things. As a volunteer contributing author, I of course, do not receive any money or royalties, although I do receive a free copy of the book. At the time anyway, that seemed adequate.
Few of the contributing authors wanted to write about common birds, so as a lowly graduate student, I was stuck writing about them. "My" species included all of the wrens (genus Troglodytes), tits (Genera Parus/Poecile and Psaltriparus) and the waxwings (genus Bombycilla) along with a few others. All common species but nonetheless, all were special to me. Quite by accident, I developed an unspoken goal; to write one sentence about each species that summed up its "specialness". For example, for black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus, I wrote something like "these birds have probably introduced more people to the art of bird watching than any other North American species due to its cheerful presence at backyard bird feeders." (I wish my copies of the original text survived my many moves so I could quote it exactly for you here).
I spent almost as much time trying to condense everything special about each of "my species" into one sentence as I invested into all the researching, compiling, analyzing and writing of the entire species account. All that extra effort and thought .. invested into just one sentence .. a single sentence that was probably sacrificed for brevity's sake by one or another of the book editors at some point during the ensuing years. Just the facts, that's all we want. But like people, birds are more than facts, more than their demographics, often more than their names. So it seemed somehow fitting that my personal mission on my part of this project would be to capture with mere words the unique essence of these avian species.
When I wrote those species accounts, I was living on the opposite side of the country from where I live now. I was a graduate student studying the molecular underpinnings of hormone-mediated breeding behavior in birds in the zoology department of my university. In addition to my research, I was a teaching assistant, a respected parrot breeder, and I managed to cobble together enough sporadic employment as a bird watching field guide, website designer, public speaker, freelance writer and book reviewer for several of the major science textbook publishers to fund a modest social life.
When I wrote those species accounts, I had a different name. In fact, as my dissertation defense and graduation became more and more certain, I found I was increasingly bothered by my name: I didn't want it on my diploma. That name was bestowed on me by parents who made it obvious through word and deed that they had never wanted me, it was a name given to me by people who refused to speak to me after they threw me out of their house when I was 15 years old, a name imparted by strangers who swore that they would do whatever they could to prevent me from pursuing my dreams. As such, my name was a relict of a childhood that I wished to forget, a reminder of abuse suffered at the hands of blood relatives whose behavior transformed them into aliens, into enemies. I legally changed my name seven months before I defended my dissertation (in fact, my name change was finalized almost exactly three years ago to this very day) so my diploma would carry my chosen name, a name that captured me and who I am and who I wanted to become: a name that looks toward a bright and shining future.
I wrote these species accounts four (or was it five? or .. six?) years ago, before and during the Christmas holiday season. In the ensuing years, it was discouraging to watch this book gasp and fight for life, much as I was doing. At last, I managed to earn my PhD in spite of a situation that was weighted heavily against me, although my struggles continue to this very day. After my contribution was completed, I didn't think about this book very often. But last night, I received word from the book's chief editor that, as of the end of this month, our work -- the editors', mine and approximately 40 other contributors' -- will finally be completed, that it will be a permanent contribution to humanity's collective store of knowledge. Now this book stands on its own merits, fully fledged and independent; Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution, edited by Terry Wahl, Bill Tweit and Steve Mlodinow, published April 2005 by the Oregon State University Press.
The publication of this book gives me a quick, fleeting glimpse of something that I thought had become extinct since my unemployment; hope. I find myself hoping that this book can revive my moribund capacity for optimism, that it can carry my disintegrating dreams a little closer towards that bright shining horizon on its brilliant wings. I am curious to know if each of my species has managed to keep their "special sentence" in the final published account, my tiny gift to those uncommon common birds who visited me when I was a child, thereby giving me the precious gift of hope when all seemed forever lost. I also hope that my name -- my chosen name -- appears somewhere in that book. That person, whoever and where ever she is now, would really enjoy that.
Thanks to Ian Paulsen for making sure I gave credit to all authors of the original Birds of Washington State.
© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist