Thursday, April 03, 2008

No Child Left Inside

If you are a member of a bird club, have you noticed the utter lack of new, young members joining up in the past decade or so? My bird club certainly has. We are as gray as a winter sky. There simply isn't a crop of young nature enthusiasts coming up, interested in belonging to a club of like-minded souls.


Because kids today have a million other things vying for their attention and a red-spotted newt or an American redstart has a hard time competing with the latest Wii game or a TV loaded with 300 channels.

To promote The Young Birder's Guide, I've been giving my "No Child Left Inside" presentation, and I'll be giving it more in the coming months. In the talk I discuss how many of today's youngsters are suffering from a "nature deficit disorder" because they spend all of their time inside, on the computer, watching TV, talking on the phone, or playing video games. The only outside time they get is during recess at school or during organized sports activities. That's hardly a connection with the natural world.

Richard Louv, in his best-selling, fascinating book Last Child in the Woods, was one of the first to identify this unsettling trend of kids growing up with no connection to the natural world. If this trend continues unabated, we as a society may face some unfortunate consequences in the future. Studies have shown that children with little or no exposure to nature can develop both emotional and physical problems. Indoor-only childhood time can result in troubled kids.

Furthermore, if today's young people don't know and love nature, whom can we rely upon to be interested in the protection of the natural world in the future? To know something is to value it. And if you value it, you are more likely to want to protect it.

I could go on talking preachily about this topic for an hour. Other adults and organizations are getting involved, too, which is reason for hope. The Boy Scouts of America has redone its bird watching merit badge. The American Birding Association and Leica Sport Optics continue to sponsor youth birding team called the Tropicbirds. Here in Ohio, the Black Swamp Bird Observatory operates the highly effective Ohio Young Birders Club.

I am no evangelist, but I DO feel strongly about giving kids an easy entry to discover the world of birds if they want to. I'm trying to do what I can by giving my talk on this subject as often as possible.

Two upcoming dates where I'll be giving the "No Child Left Inside" presentation, in case you're interested, are Saturday April 12 at Lake Erie Wing Watch in Huron, Ohio, and Sunday, April 13 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you can come, please do, and bring a young birder with you!

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Young Birder's Guide!

Last Friday I finally got to do something I've been waiting to do for nearly three years.

I went to Salem Liberty Elementary School, to Phoebe's class and passed out copies of The Young Birder's Guide to all the kids who helped me create the book. The kids, now in sixth grade, started working with me when they were fourth graders.

Before handing out the books, we reviewed all the stuff we'd done and studied since the project started. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

The local newspaper, The Marietta Times sent reporter Kate York and photographer Mitch Casey to cover the event, and it was the lead story on the front page of the Saturday edition!

Our local TV station, WTAP, sent Allison Rhea, a one-woman reporter/camera operator. Her very nice report, which aired on the evening news on Friday, can be viewed online here.

The biggest thrill for me was opening the box of books and handing them out to the class. The kids pored over the pages, looking for their names in the acknowledgments, pointing to the photos of the class out bird watching, checking the species they'd worked on . . .

The first gander at the new book! Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Julie (who did a black-and-white illustration for each of the 200 species) was there and we both signed the kids' books. I then asked all the kids to sign my copy as well as the one we were placing in the school's library.

Mrs. Booth the school librarian accepted a copy of the YBG from Phoebe for the Salem-Liberty library. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

It was a great feeling to see the kids enjoying the finished product of our collective effort over such a long time.

Phoebe at the book party. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Through it all Phoebe was beaming. And so was her dad.

For more information on The Young Birder's Guide, see my January 10, 2008 post here in BOTB. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin, has a description of the book here.

Interested in getting a copy of The Young Birder's Guide? Ask your local bookstore about it-- most stores should have copies of the book in stock in about a week. The online bookstores have it, too.

Bird Watcher's Digest
is taking advance orders for the book and I will happily inscribe a copy to the young birder in your life.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Young Birder's Guide

That's me in the yellow shirt in April of 1970 only a few months after seeing my spark bird.
Dad (BT, jr.) is in the middle and brother Andy is on the right.

I saw my spark bird in November of 1969, when I was 7 years old. It was a snowy owl that flew into a tree in our front yard in Pella, Iowa. I keyed the bird out in my mom's Chester A. Reed Bird Guide.
Until the mid-1930s, millions of households relied upon the Reed Guide for bird identification. In 1934, Roger Peterson changed all that with the publication of his revolutionary Field Guide to The Birds of Eastern North America.

The Reed Guide was basic by today's field guide standards, but it served my purpose. I keyed out the snowy owl—there was no doubt about it.

The snowy owl page from the Chester A. Reed Guide.

Then I noticed all the other birds in the guide! And I set out in the woods behind our house to find some of the other species depicted in the Reed Guide. Little did I know that all the bobolinks and painted buntings and indigo buntings and eastern kingbirds were far to the south of Iowa in November. So I set about identifying the cardinals and tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos in the evergreen windbreak and the house sparrows in our barn.

We moved to Ohio in 1971, and my mom once again gave my interest in birds a boost. She joined a local bird club made up mostly of women, who were happy to have my brother Andy and me along one Friday a month. These gals went birding somewhere every week! And the leader Pat Murphy, wrote about their trips and sightings in our local newspaper, The Marietta Times. Every club member had a nickname (perhaps to avoid putting their real names in the paper—birding was not yet socially acceptable). My mom was The Catbird—a name which fits her chatty, high-energy nature, and which has stuck to her to this day.

During these early years of bird watching, the seeds of what would eventually become Bird Watcher's Digest were planted. It would be another seven years before we'd start the magazine in our living room, but during each of those years we became more interested in birds.

As a kid, I would have LOVED to have had a basic field guide that was somewhere between the Reed Guide and the Peterson or Golden Guides. Those latter guides were wonderful, but they were far too all-inclusive for me. I was constantly identifying birds only to find out that they were nowhere near our area. Of course this was in my youth, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when I started working on the concept of a field guide for young birders. I wanted it to be welcome mat for all those 8 to 12 year olds out there who are sort of interested in birds, but who are not yet bitten by the bird watching bug. My goal was to create a guide that would be a starting place for them. A book they'd LIKE READING as well as using to ID birds. So we knew we'd need to include some puke, some guts, some screaming, a few gross-outs, and so on, and, baby this book's got 'em!

I made some initial notes and started talking to the kids in Phoebe's elementary school class about it. The kids and their teachers and I worked on the guide for almost three years! We studied how books are created from idea to proposal to manuscript to layouts to final galleys. In a eureka moment, we realized with that in being written, printed, shipped, and distributed, the book would actually travel around the world!

The kids helped me with the design of The Young Birder's Guide, they helped me write some of the text. We chose many photographs together. We selected page layout preferences. We worked on tweaking the cover design. I must have gone in to Phoebe's fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classes more than a dozen times in all to work with her classmates on the book.

Now it's all done and being printed and we CAN'T WAIT to see it. I've seen a bound galley and it looks and feels just like I hoped it would. It's narrow and tall—easy to use for smaller hands and easily stuffed in a pocket or backpack. The pages are packed with color—one species per page with photographs as illustrations.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin is debuting the book at this weekend's birding industry trade show, BirdWatch America in Atlanta. I'm heading down to give a talk about getting kids into birding and, I have to admit, I'm completely excited about the launch of this book.

The kids at Phoebe and Liam's school are excited, too. Anytime they see me they ask about the book and when it's going to be here. It does seem like a long time coming. But that's publishing for you.

Of all the books I've been involved in as author, editor, project manager, or idea-monger, this is the one that is closest to my heart. Why? Because I want my own kids (fingers crossed) to know the joy of watching birds.
Our kids are good sports about their crazy birding parents. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

And because I believe that the future of this planet is in their hands. We need them to know about birds and nature so they understand the value of the natural world. And the Playstation or the Wii is not going to teach them the difference between the song of an American robin and a rose-breasted grosbeak.

But this book just might accomplish that. The good folks at birdJam have created a playlist of 160 of the 200 species in the book. Kids can augment their copy of The Young Birder's Guide with the songs and images on this optional digital download.

Too bad it's going to be several weeks yet before we see actual copies, shipped express from the printer overseas.

I won't really feel the book is real until I walk into Phoebe's class with a box full of copies for all the kids who helped with the project. THAT'S going to be awesome!

Phoebe's fourth-grade class outside, posing with imaginary binoculars.

And here is a glimpse at the cover. I've got more to say about this book, but will save that for later. Right now I've got to finish writing my talk about getting kids interested in birds!

In case you're curious about it, the on-sale date for this book is sometime in mid-to-late April. I'll certainly keep y'all posted on that.

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