For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Scott Weidensaul's Living on the Wind

Original Air Date: Jan. 19, 2000 (estimated date)

Laura is thoroughly enjoying Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds.

Audio missing


My favorite mid-winter reading takes me far from the frozen north country to distant, balmy lands and other seasons. One of the books I’m enjoying this winter is Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. Beautifully-crafted prose brings to life past and current research about migration, taking us on fantastic journeys with the birds.

I love the first sentence of this book. Weidensaul begins: “At whatever moment you read these birds, day or night, there are birds aloft in the skies of the Western Hemisphere, migrating.” How, a reader might ask, could birds be migrating in mid-winter? He answers, “In the snow squalls of December, goshawks and golden eagles fly south along the ridges of the Appalachians, over oak trees that rattle their last stiff, dead leaves at the wind.” He goes on, “[Birds] don’t all follow the expected course, nor do they always travel by wing. With the first winter snows, blue grouse leave the more temperate foothills of the Western mountains and migrate—on foot, no less—into the bitter, wind-drifted high country, searching for conifer needles to eat.”

Of course migration fascinates birders and ornithologists, but why would others be interested? Weidensaul notes, “Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.”

Complex migration is, yet Weidensaul gracefully draws in even the least scientific of readers, enlightening as he fascinates. He talks about his own travels to distant lands following his beloved birds, vividly sharing with us lessons he learned firsthand. I’ve never experienced the fall-out phenomenon that occasionally happens along the Gulf Coast, but Weidensaul makes me feel like I’m right there when he writes about his disappointment in the dearth of birds at Dauphin Island one cold April evening:

Maybe in the morning, I told myself. That’s when the sky started giving up its treasures. I never actually saw the birds come down, but I could hear them, a series of low whooshes overhead and around me, like fast pitches that brushed past my ear or the thrumming sound of sticks whirled through the air. An instant later the lifeless trees were seething with dozens of birds, which cascaded, branch by branch, toward the ground, spilling out into the understory. They started eating without preamble, without stretching or relaxing or preening—feeding with a fervor usually seen only at state fairs during pie-eating contests. Over and over again, small explosions of birds would materialize out of the sky, whirring from on high, beyond the limit of vision and into the trees like bolts, until the woods were stuffed to overflowing with them.

Weidensaul’s clear and accurate explanations and vivid descriptions make Living on the Wind one of the very best natural history books I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was a judge in last year’s National Outdoor Book Award contest, and am disappointed that his publisher didn’t nominate this book—it would have been a shoo-in. The well-considered index will make the book a useful reference, and I suspect that whenever I turn to it to find a little detail, such as about irruptions of Rough-legged Hawks or the unique migration of Blackpoll Warblers, I’ll get sucked in and re-read whole sections all over again. But that’s fine—this is a rich book that will bear re-reading for many years to come.