Armchair Birding: Welcome to Subirdia, by John M. Marzluff, illustrations by Jack DeLap

Armchair Birding: Welcome to Subirdia, by John M. Marzluff, illustrations by Jack DeLap

Ever since the days of John Muir, conservationists’ efforts have focused on saving as much wilderness as possible, cordoning off tracts of land from our traffic-congested cities, stopping clear-cut logging practices and our garbage strewing ways. Grizzlies, Marbled Murrelets, Spotted Owls and the like depend on large, untouched swaths of intact habitat to survive and reproduce. Humans, too, need the backcountry to replenish our spirits—even if we never go there but just know it exists and persists for its own sake. But even as we practice “leaving no trace,” we still come down off the mountain to dwell in houses and apartments crowded together, drive cars on roads to get to work or school, and live immersed in an industrial culture. How can we suburbanites reconcile our ideals with our everyday lives? Is there a middle way?

The scheduled speaker for our annual BHAS dinner in March, John Marzluff of the University of Washington, has good news and plenty of well-informed guidance for us city residents. If you can’t wait or want more in-depth information now, I highly recommend his book Welcome to Subirdia. While grounded in rigorous academic research, documented in copious endnotes, Marzluff truly does welcome everyone to live more closely with nature and blur that line dividing urbanites from the creatures all around us. His language is engaging and accessible, though he writes with an obvious backbone of deep knowledge based on years of work in the field. He speaks from the heart as well as the head; the combination is infectious and inspiring.

Too often when I’m reading books on conservation I can barely get through them. The room seems to darken as the gloom of hopelessness descends; it feels too late, too big, too impossible. Reading Marzluff felt different; he doesn’t fluff over the hard realities of climate change, extinction and suffering, but he carves a path to a better, more informed relationship we might all have with birds and other creatures. He cheerfully declares himself an optimist. And optimism leads to a more hopeful vision and more importantly to action – action grounded in painstaking science. Considering ourselves facilitators of biological diversity, not simply destroyers, shines a new light on our place in the web of life. And just now, especially, we need all the light there is.

Marzluff measures both bird resiliency and fragility as they find a place in our suburban and urban environments. He examines their whole life cycle, reminding us that to persist, animals must be able to live, breed, and move among the habitats we provide. How does our human-centered world stack up? Some birds flourish – juncos! Some are stressed and retreat from the challenges we present. Some live on the edges of both environments and depend on the mix of features offered. If we know what birds need and take some steps to accommodate them, Marzluff assures us that we can co-exist. He lists what he calls Nature’s Ten Commandments, principles and practices we can adopt even in small spaces. As he says, “Actions aligned with these ideals would increase the persistence of biological diversity by increasing the vitality of species that tolerate our presence.” I rearranged them slightly here to emphasis his approach: Begin with #10, which states, “Enjoy and bond with nature where you live, work and play.”

1. Do not covet your neighbor’s lawn.
2. Keep your cat indoors!
3. Make your windows more visible to birds that fly near them.
4. Do not light the night sky.
5. Provide food and nest boxes.
6. Do not kill native predators.
7. Foster a diversity of habitats and natural variability within landscapes.
8. Create safe passages across roads and highways.
9. Ensure that there are functional connections between land and water.
10. Enjoy and bond with nature where you live, work and play.

Inspired by Aldo Leopold’s work, Marzluff encourages his readers: “Embracing these commandments can guide your development of a land ethic that holds at its core an appreciation for the community, not just the commodity, of your property… more relevant than ever in urban settings.” If we all practice these basic precepts, we will be richly rewarded with birds living with us and delighting us with their presence, and knowing that we are part of Nature, not cut off from that which nourishes our lives, too. I look forward to hearing him speak about his work at our Annual Dinner.

Note: The illustrations by Jack DeLap are stunning! They enrich as well as inform the text in a way photographs would not. A handsome book you’ll turn to again and again. (by Anne Kilgannon)