I first learned about this book, Club George: The Diary of a Central Park Bird Watcher (NYC: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006), when the author, Bob Levy, was interviewed recently by Brian Lehrer on the local National Public Radio affiliate, WNYC [mp3, 17:54]. After that interview concluded, I poked around on the internet, found the publicist’s contact information and emailed him, requesting a review copy of the book, which he was happy to provide.
Club George is the story of the relationship that developed between a human and a wild bird, the transformation of a focused career man into a devoted bird watcher and photographer — a situation that was triggered by a crisis in his life; unemployment. Seeking solace, the author visits Central Park, and it is this fateful decision that provided the impetus for this book.
Predictably, the author begins by describing the events that led up to his introduction to his book’s avian hero, George, an audacious male red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus. While sitting on a park bench, his conversation with his friend, Michael, is interrupted repeatedly by a brazen loud-mouthed bird perched several feet away. Levy describes what happened next;
I got a bit of Michael’s roll and held it up for the bird. In an instant, George rushed toward me and took the bread in his beak and sped off to the island again. This put a smile on my face that I could not wipe off for the next hour. I did not know it at the time, but it marked the beginning of a relationship and a heightening of my awareness of the natural world. Gradually, I would come to understand that I had been given an invitation to join a special club and by giving George an offering I had unconsciously accepted the invitation. I had become a charter member of Club George without knowing it.
Throughout this often amusing, stream-of-consciousness memoir, the reader becomes a watcher, too; watching the author’s improving observation skills, watching his increasing sensitivity to the natural world, watching him fall in love first with one bird, George, and then with many more. As such, the charismatic George provided the author (and perhaps a few readers, too?) with an open door through which he could easily enter the wonderful world of birds.
This book is actually a diary consisting of 71 chapters. Each chapter is several pages long and presents a snapshot of nearly every day of the summer, revealing the author’s interactions with George. Because it is a diary, this narrative magically allows the reader to feel like a secret friend who is always there alongside the author in Central Park and at George’s pond, a special friend who is privy to the author’s innermost thoughts even as he describes each unfolding scene.
As Levy’s interest in birds grows, he discusses important issues that confront every beginning birder, such as how to choose a quality pair of binoculars and suitable “birding” clothing. Even though he is not an authority, the author invested a considerable amount of time and energy learning more about the habits of red-winged blackbirds, communicating often with Ken Yasukawa, professor and chair of the biology department at Beloit College, and also citing Les Beletsky’s research into red-winged blackbird behavior and Don Kroodsma’s research into birdsong.
Levy also reflects on more ambiguous philosophical issues, such as the ethics of feeding wild birds, especially hand-feeding them; whether it is “proper” to give names to wild birds and if it is appropriate to anthropomorphize animals; and he even discusses his emotional response to the astonishing, and sudden, violence that occurs in nature, even in a highly urbanized place such as Central Park. Curiously, these sections were prefaced with a peculiar warning that might only serve to titillate the reader; WARNING: The following paragraph describes another scene of graphic violence but without the graphics.
The author’s photographs of his feathery heroes are interspersed throughout his book, but I was very disappointed that none of these were in color. I also found myself annoyed with the author’s incorrect use of the word “breed” to describe avian species.
But overall, this was a delightful book, conveniently divided into bite-sized chapters that are easily read between subway and bus stops or on coffee breaks. In his WNYC interview, Levy observed that, “birding is not just making a list of the birds you see, it’s an experience.” He is correct, and this refreshing book serves to remind even the most experienced birder or ornithologist of what it felt like to begin taking those first tenuous steps through that open door on this lifelong journey of discovery. Fittingly, Levy ends his narrative thusly;
Now is the time for you to accept your own Club George charter membership. Get off the sofa, turn off the TV, gather your gear, making certain it does not include open-toed shoes, and get out of doors. The birds will enlighten and entertain you if you only let them.