By CYNTHIA SCHUSTER EAKIN
The birds were calling and an internationally known author wrote a book in response.
Bestselling author Amy Tan recently took the stage in the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Murch Auditorium to discuss her latest book, “The Backyard Bird Chronicles.” Fans of the author and birding enthusiasts filled the auditorium to hear her account of nature, birding and the beauty around us. Tan discussed how she embarked on the emotional journey that would become the book. She was joined on stage by Dr. Caitlin Colleary, the museum’s Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“I began working on this project in 2016,” Tan said. “That was a very divisive time. There was an increase in name-calling across the country. I had to go to nature to affirm that the world is beautiful.”
“I have always been interested in all of nature. Birds were most numerous in my yard,” Tan explained. “Even as a child, I loved drawing as a solitary activity. In that way, it is the same as being a writer. When I began sketching birds, I would call out their characteristics. I looked up what I could about each type of bird and my knowledge grew over time.”
“I’m obsessive by nature. It’s part of being a fiction writer,” she said. “I wanted the best feeders, the best habitat. I designed my landscape entirely for flying creatures. I wanted to help our pollinators. What was most interesting to me was their behavior. I bought meal worms for the birds and stored them in our refrigerator. When I got to storing 20,000 meal worms, my husband of 50 years who never complains, said that there was no room in the refrigerator for dog food. So, we added another refrigerator in the garage.”
“I put seven small hummingbird feeders in one area of the garden. After awhile, I found that the hummingbirds would come to me and I could talk to them. I began to draw portraits of the individual birds,” she said. “I decided to draw the female birds because in nature, they get short shrift. After all of that razzle dazzle, the male bird is gone after about four seconds.”
“All of the birds in my book are in my backyard. On occasion, I would get rare birds in the yard that shouldn’t be there. I would take drawings to bird experts to find out what they were. Pencil is my medium. I had to learn to draw in color,” Tan said.
“There is something that I describe as intentional curiosity. You should look at things in a very open way, almost as a child would. Pay attention like you never have before,” she suggested. “It is important to realize that the purpose of nature is to observe and ask questions. When you look at a bird, you should feel its life force.”
“A section of my book is about, ‘Crime Scene: The Murder of a Crow.’ I had so many crows in the yard. I heard somewhere that crows mourn their kin. So, I went to the store and paid $14 for a fake crow and hung it in the yard,” Tan said. “Crows started flying in from all directions, screaming. They stopped coming to the feeder. Because crows are so smart, I was able to come up with a solution to my crow problem.”
“I started going birding with friends. I even went birding in Ecuador for three weeks. It was two weeks too long. I call that type of birding ‘sniper birding.’ I only count the birds in my yard and keep track of them,” she said.
“If you want to become a birder, decide on what kind of birding you want to do. The easiest way to get into birding is to look at the birds in your backyard or nearby park. Put out bowls of water for the birds, with about one and a half inches of water in each bowl. I use terra cotta planters. Birds need water every day. They will drink or bathe for minutes at a time,” Tan noted. “Do whatever is fun for you. I really want people to fall in love with birds. Then, they are far more likely to advocate for conservation. That is my hope.”
“This project was never intended to be a book. This was a private, personal journal,” she said. “The journal was a lot of fun. A novel is existential agony. This was for myself. No one had to see this. My editor suggested that we make it into a book. I told him that the journal was covered in wine and coffee stains. He said, ‘Then it’s authentic’.”
Amy Tan is best known for her novel “The Joy Luck Club,” which spent more than 40 weeks on The New York Times Bestseller List and which was adapted into a film in 1993. Other novels by Tan include “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” “Saving Fish from Drowning” and “The Valley of Amazement,” all New York Times bestsellers. In addition, her writing has appeared in numerous national publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic, The New York Times and The Washington Post. In 2022, Tan was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2023, President Biden presented her with the National Humanities Medal. She serves on the board of American Bird Conservancy, the National Poetry Series, and The Community of Writers.