Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Club George

Central Park in New York City has a unique mix of human use and avian diversity. Located in the middle of Manhattan, within easy reach of public transportation, it is heavily trafficked by residents and tourists alike. A portion of these visitors are active birdwatchers who monitor the park's bird population and report their sightings on sites like NYC Bird Report. The park is considered among the best places to observe migration on the east coast. Its popularity as a birding spot has led to unusual encounters between birds and their human admirers, some of which are recounted in Bob Levy's Club George. During a period of unemployment, Levy became acquainted with a self-confident red-winged blackbird, named George. This blackbird supplements his natural diet by begging and taking food from the humans that visit his pond. Levy's initial interaction with George led him to explore the world of birds and take up birdwatching. His journals of observations from his first year of birding are the basis for this book.

Club George chronicles a full breeding season in Central Park, from the time that red-winged blackbirds begin to establish territories in April to their departure in late July. Along with the author, we watch as George establishes his territory, courts his mates, and then raises his chicks. The process repeats itself several times during the season, as George has at least two mates and raises at least three broods. (Early on, Levy makes a point of not giving the location of George's Pond, but people familiar with the park should be able to figure it out.) In addition to following the events of the breeding season, the book traces Bob Levy's development as a birder, from a beginner just learning to distinguish one species from another, to a skilled observer who records the nuances of bird behavior.

While George and his breeding attempts are the center of the narrative, chapters of the book follow the feeding and nesting of other species as well. Some of the nests are successful while others are not. Green herons raise broods of chicks on the Lake. Robins and cardinals nest near heavily-trafficked footpaths and manage to raise chicks. Meanwhile, a waxwing nest met a particularly violent end.

The book is full of details about bird behavior, principally the behavior of red-winged blackbirds. The author's personal observations of George and his neighbors are supplemented by references to ornithological studies. Some of these come via personal communication with a scientist; others are citations of important studies and reference works. As a result, even an experienced birder can probably learn something from this book.

At the same time, Club George is not intended to be an ornithological work, and the focus stays on the author's interactions with the birds of Central Park. Levy takes a special interest in the behavior of individual birds. One might wonder, as I initially did, how he manages to distinguish one individual from another when members of a species look so similar. In most cases, this is done by recognizing territorial boundaries. For some birds, individuals are recognized by certain physical characteristics, like a drooping wing or injured bill. Watching birds as individuals helps one appreciate the resourcefulness of these creatures. It also leads the author and other birdwatchers portrayed in the book to become invested in the success or failure of certain birds' nests.

Two ethical issues arise during the course of the book. One is where birdwatching shifts from interaction into intervention. The issue first arises in regard to the ethics of hand feeding. Does allowing birds to take food from your hands expose them to danger from other humans who might try to capture them? Should a birder rescue nestlings or fledglings? Does birdwatching itself put inappropriate stress on birds? The second concerns anthropomorphosis. Levy's observations of individual birds makes them appear almost as characters in a novel, each with its own intentions and personality. The danger, which this book largely avoids, is attributing human characteristics to birds or assuming that they (should) operate according to human moral codes. While Levy raises the questions, and clearly has his own opinions on these subjects, he leaves it up to the reader to determine where the proper boundaries lie.

Experienced birders may find some sections of the book to be too didactic since Levy covers basic information about birds and birdwatching, such as identification and choosing binoculars. However, for the intended audience - beginning birders and nonbirders - these discussions ought to be useful. Such details reflect the enthusiasm of someone who is new to birding. I think that this book would make excellent reading for beginning birders. When I was starting out, I had the pleasure of reading Louis Halle's classic, Spring in Washington, which taught me a way of looking at the natural world over the course of a migration season. I think that Club George could serve as a similar introduction for others.

Full citation:

Bob Levy, Club George: The Diary of a Central Park Birdwatcher. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2006. Pp. xiv, 370; black and white photographs. $24.95 cloth. ISBN: 0312341679.

To purchase:

Author's website:

Interview with the author:
March 28, 2006, on WNYC