Several years ago, I was asked to visit my nephew’s preschool class and talk about birds. I was delighted by the invitation and spent hours going through my photos, printing them out, imagining fifteen 4-year olds entranced by egrets, herons, and Burrowing Owls. Jake lives in southern Florida, so he and his friends had to be interested in learning about these birds, which they saw everyday, right? Wrong. There is nothing as deadly as 15 bored 4-year olds. And then I showed them the one photo that was not taken in Florida, an image of baby American Robins in a nest in Central Park. Magic! Their faces lit up, they couldn’t questions fast enough. How old were the baby birds? How did they get into the nest? What did they eat? Was that the mommy or daddy robin? I had discovered, to my relief, the secret of connecting children with nature: baby birds.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Jake’s favorite before-bedtime book when he was just a bit younger was Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, a picture book I had picked up at a nature center. Owl Babies is about three fluffy owlets waiting for their mother to come home. It’s night, and they’re not sure where she is, and while the two older owlets try to console themselves with the thought that she’s looking for food, the youngest, Bill, plaintively cries, “I want my mommy.” By the middle of the book, Jake and his younger brother Zach would be chiming in, “I want my mommy,” and when Mama Owl finally return, they would rejoice along with the owlets.
One of the secrets to their involvement were the wonderful illustrations by Patrick Benson. The boys knew what Owls looked like, they saw Screech Owls (and Barred and Great Horned Owls) at a local wildlife park, and we photographed Burrowing Owl families every year at Brian Piccolo Park. So, they knew that these were Real Owls. There was no mistaking the woodcut-like ink and watercolor illustrations for anything else. Each owlet was of a slightly different size and covered with fuzzy cross-hatched down, just like Real Owlets. The forest, in dark ink shades that crept around lighter, softer babies on their branches, was menacing. When Owl Mother returned, the width of her wings extended across both pages, showing us how big and powerful an Owl can be. Then she landed and became “Mommy.” Owl Babies was always a joy to read aloud, especially when The End was followed by pleas to visit the Burrowing Owls the next day to see if the babies had yet arrived.
It turns out that there are quite a few children’s books that feature baby birds, often owls, looking for their moms. You can go into all sorts of developmental and social theories about why this is so. I chalk it up to the original baby bird book, P.D. Eastman’s classic Are You My Mother?, which hit the beginning reader shelves in 1960. Some might contest this, saying that Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches An Egg precedes Eastman’s book by twenty years. But since Horton is an elephant, and since the creature that hatches from the egg is an elephant-bird, I’m going to wait till 10,000 Birds does a Hybrid Bird Week before discussing this representative of the Seussiverse.
In Are You My Mother? a baby bird of indeterminate species hatches while his mother is away from the nest. Flying from kitten to hen to dog to cow to car to boat to steam shovel, the baby bird asks the timeless question, “Are you my mother?” Unlike the anxious baby owls, this is a baby bird with attitude, a role model for 5 and 6-year old birds and children everywhere. Which may help explain its popularity, number 45 on School Library Journal’s list of 100 Best Picture Books, and a longtime favorite of Jake and Zach’s mom. It has been hypothesized, in a legal review article no less, that the baby bird is an American Robin, possibly because Mama Bird is pictured pulling up a worm. It is a great read aloud and learn-to-read book, which also just might encourage young children to look up and look down, searching for lost baby birds.
It’s not always easy to tell if a storybook is about a baby bird. There’s the popular Pigeon series by Mo Willems, which started print life with the funny, wonderful Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! I have been told by certain non-birders that this is an adult pigeon, but it’s hard to believe that an adult would throw a temper tantrum when he’s told he can’t do what he absolutely positively most wants to do in the whole world, drive the bus. (Or, maybe not.) The Pigeon alternately cajoles, pleads, cries, and whines, “I never get to do anything.” I think Pigeon must be a Rock Pigeon, he clearly lives in an urban area city and will not take NO for an answer. And, young children (ages 2-adult) love him! They love the simplicity of the cartoon-like drawings and Pigeon’s outrageous behavior. Put the Pigeon books in the category of totally anthropomorphic baby bird books, but books that are a whole lot of fun to read aloud. The Pigeon has spawned an empire of books, DVDs, plush toys, games, and musical theater. Like several of the other books described here, the titles have been translated into Spanish. Pigeon and his friend The Duckling, who first appears in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog, are the superstars of the Baby Bird book world.
Another great example of a little bird book is, yes, Little Bird, written by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine, recently brought over from Switzerland and translated by Enchanted Lion Books. This beautiful book, an a import from Switzerland, is a joy to look at and read. The deceptively simple illustrations, geometric shapes defined by deep brilliant primary colors, often spread out over two pages, fill the eye with wonder. The changing perspective gives the story a surprising cinematic perspective.
The story is simple: A man drives a truck across a plain brown landscape to the edge of a cliff. He opens the back of the truck and out comes a flock of fantastical birds. Except one, a small black bird with an orange bill that he finds in the back of the truck. (I have decided that the bird is an Alpine Chough, a red-billed blackbird that breeds in the Swiss Alps. This is probably not what Zullo and Albertine had in mind, but it is the only European blackbird I could find whose babies also have red-bills, enabling me to go with this baby bird theme.)
The man, at first flummoxed by the unexpected, develops a relationship with the little bird, encouraging him to fly off to join his friends. The text is haiku-like, poetic exclamation points to the minimalist illustrations. It’s a tale that emphasizes the importance of “little things.” Little things like little birds, little changes in routine, little gestures to help somebody else. By the end of the book, we see how honoring the little things can bring life-fulfilling joy. I don’t want to spoil the ending, it’s too magical, but it did remind me about how I feel when I go birding. Which brings up an interesting point. If children feel an instinctive kinship for baby birds, does that feeling ever go away? I showed Little Bird to my daughter, who as a college graduate fancies herself a little too old for picture books. I could tell immediately that she coveted it. “It’s a book for adults,” she tells me, “Children wouldn’t understand it.” Well, I don’t know about that. The truth is, there are baby bird books for kids and there are baby bird books for kids AND birders. As Germano Zullo says, “There are no greater treasures than the little things.”
I hope this celebration of Baby Bird Books and Little Bird Books has brought back good memories of books you’ve read, as a child or to children, and that it will spark future read-aloud sessions with the child of your choice. There are so many ways in which we can prompt our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, neighbors, students to engage in nature. When it’s too late or too rainy to take our children outside, story and picture books like these are a great alternative. Tell me, what Baby Bird books are your (or your children’s) favorites?
Here is the basic information about the Baby Bird Books mentioned here. Keep in mind that many of these titles are also available as board books, DVD’s, and other formats:
Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell , illustrated by Parick Benson.
Candlewick Press, 1992. 32 pages.
Hardcover: ISBN-10: 1564021017
Softcover: ISBN-10: 0763617105
Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman.
Random House, 1960. 72 pages.
Hardcover: ISBN-10: 0394800184.
Softcover, HarperCollins: ISBN-10: 0007224796
Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss.
Random House, 64 pages.
Hardcover: ISBN-10: 039480077X
Softcover, HarperCollins: ISBN-10: 0007175191
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus! by Mo Willems.
Hyperion Press, 2003. 40 pages.
Hardcover: ISBN-10: 078681988X
Little Bird, by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick.
Enchanted Lion Books, 2012. 72 pages.
Hardover: ISBN-10: 1592701183
The illustrations above are used courtesy of the respective publishers, with special thanks to Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion for the use of Albertine’s art from Little Bird.
Baby Bird Week is our celebration of the young, the cute, the adorable, the twee. We certainly spend enough time on adult birds here on 10,000 Birds so we figured it would only make sense to fawn over the fuzzy bundles of fluff that grow up to become the objects of our fascination. Whether you seek out waterfowl, songbirds, or seabirds we will have baby birds to match your obsession.
Baby Bird Week will run from 15-21 July, Sunday until Saturday. Make sure to check back every day or even multiple times a day to keep up with all the baby bird goodness!