Meet Our Columnists: Julie Zickefoose

As a long-time cover artist and columnist, Julie Zickefoose may be the most well-known contributor to Bird Watcher’s Digest, and certainly one of the most beloved. Her distinctive and delightful art has graced 28 (and counting!) covers, and she has been writing for the magazine since 1988.

Her popular True Nature column debuted in BWD in 2008, and she has penned the column Watcher at the Window in Watching Backyard Birds, our sister publication, for more than two decades. If you are a fan of Julie’s, you may already know that she has authored and illustrated several books, is a regular guest on NPR’s “All Sides with Ann Fisher,” and is a sought-after speaker and guide at birding festivals around the country—and around the world! Julie is a true naturalist in every sense of the word, and her unique insight into birds, mammals, insects, flowers, trees, and so, so much more enrich every issue of BWD.

Here Julie reflects on her career, projects past and present, and what the future might hold.

BWD: Tell us about your early years—where you grew up and attended college.

JZ: I was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, lived in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I attended Harvard University and majored in biological anthropology, which was a ploy so I could take all the electives I was interested in: plant taxonomy, animal behavior, ecology, and the like.

BWD: What was your first job?

JZ: Right out of college I went to work for The Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut chapter. It was one heck of a cooker for my field skills, because I was out in the field constantly, looking for rare things, and then starting the state’s first program to protect beach-nesting least terns and piping plovers. I went freelance with illustration and writing in 1986, after seven years with TNC, always as an intern without benefits… I figured if I was going to live on nothing I might as well be drawing and writing what I wanted. I have never looked back. Freelancing is what I was made for.

BWD: Who most influenced your interests in nature, art, writing, photography?

JZ: Nature: My dad, an Iowa farm boy who was outside as much as possible and knew something about everything.

Art: My older sister Micky is a gifted cartoonist and quick sketch artist, and I strove to be one-quarter as good as she was. My dad used to praise her work just to watch me fume. But I could only draw things that looked like they actually looked. I thought there was something wrong with me.

Writing: My dad and mom get the credit; both loved language, and my father wrote for fun. He was an incredible storyteller, and I studied his windup and delivery very closely as a kid. My high school English and World Lit teacher, Jeanne Saunders, really hammered me on style and cogency, and helped me to see I had a gift. She reads my blog to this day, and we email back and forth. I feel so lucky to still adore and be in touch with such a light as Jeanne.

Photography credit goes to BT3, who showed me how to take interesting shots with a Polaroid in 1992. How to frame things, how to look for the interesting angle or moment. When I got an iPhone and had a fabulous camera in my pocket all the time, photography really took off for me. 

BWD: Do you have a favorite BWD cover of the 28 you have painted for us?

JZ: I kinda like Indian Summer – Eastern Bluebirds (September/October 1997) because I was consciously conjuring drives through the Shenandoah Valley with my parents, my dad swerving for old barns and my mom’s lilting voice, saying, “Oh, LOOK at the LIGHT!” She appreciated light, skies, and clouds like nobody’s business, and gave me such a gift in doing so.

BWD: What was the first article you wrote for BWD?

JZ: I wrote my first piece in 1986, I think. “Magnolia Morning,” about being in college and having to take a final exam, thereby missing a fallout morning at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. And I went upstairs in my dorm to wake up my friend Nick to go to the exam hall, and there was a male magnolia warbler fluttering in the dark hall, having flown in an open window overnight. I got to catch it and show it to Nick, and release it on that beautiful May morning. The bird came to me.

BWD: What are some favorite projects you have undertaken in your career?

JZ: Baby Birds: An Artist Looks Into the Nest floats to the top, as something that nobody before or after me has ever done. I know I sound like a total Leo when I say that, but it’s true. Painting naked baby birds is definitely not for everyone, or even anyone but me, apparently. Ha ha! I also absolutely loved recording commentaries for All Things Considered. I had a 5 ½-year run as a commentator, and I loved writing and especially recording those.

BWD: What’s next? Any teasers?

JZ: Well, I’m just finishing a 20-painting commission that’s had me working hard since August. It feels great to paint. I’d like to do more of it, maybe try painting for its own sake as opposed to always for illustration, for a purpose. And then painting will be the purpose. I want to write. I have a lot bottled up inside. I want to blog more, because I think the blog helps its readers connect with nature, and soothes them, too. It’s the least I can do in the pandemic, but I’ve been too absorbed in painting to write much.

I want to write a dog book, at the certain risk of being taken down and savaged by all the dog experts out there (envision a pack of foxhounds, and I’d be the fox). I know there’s a book in Chet Baker, and one is unfolding with Curtis Loew. Things are uncertain because my beloved editor, Lisa White, has left Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, so who knows what will happen to my relationship with the publisher? I have loved being an HMH author. I’ll just have to trust in the universe that a publisher who wants the book will happen along.

Bill was pushing me hard to start a podcast when he died, but I still haven’t pulled the trigger. Maybe someday. I think I’m tripping over technology, honestly. But Phoebe is trying to get me listening to podcasts, which is the first step—to consume the product before creating.

BWD: You’ve traveled extensively, but where would you still like to go?

JZ: I’d love to see Australia and New Zealand, maybe New Guinea. Borneo is alluring, but… leeches… I’ll never tire of Central and South America. I miss travel! Think I’ve been to Canada, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Brazil, Guyana, Ecuador, and a wee bit in Wales, England, and Holland, then Spain (olé!) and the Canary Islands last Christmas—what a wonderful trip with my kids that was! Would love to go back.

BWD: Do you keep a life list?

JZ: I no longer keep a life list, which is too bad, because I’ve been to a lot of neat places, but I just can’t make myself care enough to collate and curate it. The Indigo Hill list, though, I am dead serious about! It’s going strong at 197 species—Henslow’s sparrows, in the summer of 2019. And the spa list—of birds who bathe in the Bird Spa—is a healthy 74, with a yellow-throated warbler stopping to bathe in 2017. Always watching for something cool to dip its toe! Those are my kind of lists.

BWD: Do you have any advice for burgeoning nature artists/nature writers/naturalists?

JZ: Get outside. Don’t just read about it—do it. Be there for the moment. Be curious. Spend the time to watch actual creatures living their lives. You’re going to see something new. Write it down.

Keep up with Julie on her blog, juliezickefoose.blogspot.com; her Instagram page, and various social media platforms. Julie Zickefoose products are also available at Redstart Birding, redstartbirding.com, including her latest book, Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay. 

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