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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

We followed Eli J. Knapp from a leaky dugout canoe in Tanzania to a juniper titmouse’s perch at the Grand Canyon in The Delightful Horror of Family Birding. Today, with heavy topics of pandemic and extinction on his mind, Knapp’s still looking skyward, equipped with facemask, binoculars, and some wild hope. Torrey House will publish Dead Serious: Wild Hope Amid the Sixth Extinction by Eli J. Knapp in June 2021.


Following the Herd

I stole an oddly warm November day last week to visit a little postage-stamp-sized slice of wooded, public land on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Although hemmed in by traffic noise and subdivisions, exhausted southern migrants drop into the welcoming pine boughs like confetti as winter tightens its grip further north. I was seeking crossbills, charming and chattering birds sporting weirdly bent bills that look more like a cosmic prank than the useful Swiss Army knives they are. Crossbills would be nice, but really all I wanted was a quiet place to exhale from the recently finished election and surging, unsettling coronavirus statistics.

Spoiler: I didn’t find the crossbills. But as birding often goes, I had plenty of consolation prizes, one being a barred owl, as ambivalent to my presence as the white pine it perched upon. While I’ve seen plenty of barred owls, this encounter was singular. For one, the owl perched at eyelevel, a far cry from the sore neck that accompanies most of my owl sightings. For another, I wasn’t alone. Hoping for crossbills, I’d done what lots of eager birders do: logged on to eBird, checked out the hotspots, and followed the herd to the most promising—and visited—one.

Ten of us, with masks and binoculars, oohed and ahhed as the owl studied the forest floor with laser-focused, ebony eyes.

A highly visited spot was an odd choice for a guy seeking a few hours of peace. Ten of us, with masks and binoculars, oohed and ahhed as the owl studied the forest floor with laser-focused, ebony eyes. We all, in a sense, had arrived via a herd mentality, likeminded in our pursuit of the winged wonders around us. Although paths led in every direction, we remained rooted in the owl’s grasp, content to watch the sun’s slanting rays slice through the forest like lightsabers. I typically flee random, amorphous groups. But this one was different. People spoke in hushed whispers or not at all. No overzealous photographer encroached. These, I realized, were my people. Here among the appreciators, I truly belonged.

Cringeworthy or not, it’s hard not to think about a herd mentality without also thinking about President Trump. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Trump memorably mixed up herd immunity with herd mentality while discussing the spread of the coronavirus. The Internet went crazy. Memes appeared instantaneously.

“It will go away without the vaccine?” Stephanopoulos incredulously asked Trump.