Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest by Julie Zickefoose is a fantastic account on how baby birds develop in the nest, as well as a beautiful work of art. From 2002-2015, nature artist Julie Zickefoose set out to learn how baby birds develop and depict the amazing process through watercolors. In 13 years she painted 17 different songbird species. Many of the nests she found in her own backyard, an 80-acre sanctuary called Indigo Hill in Ohio. Some species were sent to her in pictures by friends who found interesting bird species in their yards.
From the day the young hatched, Zickefoose would select a chick (usually the oldest) and bring it into her art studio to paint. She would repeat the process each day of the nestling’s life until it seemed like it was ready to fledge. In certain instances Julie was able to continue to observe the birds after they fledged. Each species she encountered offered a unique and many times surprising experience. Zickefoose’s journey was not without its challenges though. She was not opposed to interfering when she felt it was needed. She rehabilitated some chicks, dealt with nest parasites, and warded off predators in order to help with their survival (although a few times these efforts did not pay off).
There are two types of baby birds: precocial and altricial. Precocial birds are born more developed, usually with down feathers and the ability to walk on their own. They are able to leave the nest within hours of hatching and can find food for themselves. Waterfowl, galliformes, and shorebirds are precocial. Altricial birds are underdeveloped upon hatching and require care from the parents for an extended period of time in order to survive. Examples of altricial birds include raptors, pigeons, and passerines (perching/songbirds). Julia focuses strictly on altricial birds in order to closely track their development.
The tone of Baby Birds is very casual; much of the book reads as if you are reading directly out of Zickefoose’s journal (which is some cases you are). Each species account begins with a spread of Julie’s painting with her fields notes. In a glance you can see what the bird looked like as it developed. As you dive into the chapters, Zickefoose breaks down what occurred each day and what milestones the chick reached. Next to each day is a larger version of the painting you see on the beginning spread.
I really enjoyed Julie’s style. The illustrations/paintings are very detailed and beautiful. She really captures the essence of each chick and the paintings look life-like. Peppered throughout her personal experiences are interesting facts about the species that she learned from research. Some species that Zickefoose painted include Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Indigo Bunting, and the only cavity-nesting warbler, the Prothonotary Warbler. My favorite was the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
I found it interesting that Julie included 3 species that many people consider pests: the House Sparrow, European Starling, and House Wren. Although she was originally against letting these birds nest and would remove any nests of these species she could find, sometimes the birds had other plans. She did ended up appreciating the experience to learn about these birds that people usually shun. In her chapter about House Sparrows, Julie notes that in some of their natural range of Eurasia, these sparrows are rapidly declining. It’s interesting that people in the sparrow’s natural range are scrambling to try to save their beloved bird, while people in the United States want them eradicated for stealing nesting spaces from native birds. In regards to this idea Zickefoose remarks, “Take no bird for granted, no matter how abundant.” It’s a sentiment that I agree with. Each individual bird is important, especially today in the midst of climate change and a rapidly changing world.
I would recommend Baby Birds to anyone with a love for nature, birds and/or art. Julie Zickefoose cleverly mixes art, science, and her personal experiences to captivate her audience and leads us on a fascinating journey into the life of baby birds.