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A Year of Birds

Writings on Birds from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau

Foreward by Peter Alden


Admiration for Henry Thoreau has stood the test of time. He had so much to observe, think about, and write-about society, his friends and townsfolk, politics, science, literature, slavery, Native Americans, making a living, and the natural world.



Henry Thoreau was born in and mostly lived in his beloved Concord, Massachusetts, about twenty miles northwest of Boston and Cambridge. Axes, saws, and fires had transformed the once heavily forested landscape into a vast farmscape of crops, orchards, and grassland for livestock, with remnant woodland.


While millions have read Walden, many fewer have read even part of Henry's enormous Journal. For his whole adult life, he followed the seasons and made observations on plants, insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and birds (among many other subjects). Although that work has not been as popular as Walden, it has spawned all sorts of books, journal articles, and discussion over the years.


Most of Henry's careful observations were focused on plants and birds. Virtually every day he wrote about various birds that he saw, heard, or were reported to him. From his records we can compare the arrival times of the summertime birds in his day with their arrival times today. We can also clearly see how bird populations have changed, with the loss of most grassland birds, the northward retreat of birds from the boreal forest, and the increase in southern birds. I can't claim to be the world's most knowledgeable ornithologist or most accomplished Thoreau scholar, but I stay in touch with, and "bird" with, several dozen local bird experts. I was born in Concord's Emerson Hospital in early July in the mid-1940s. The hospital overlooks the Sudbury River, with Walden Woods beyond. My family lived on Main Street in Concord near the Assabet River, where Henry paddled frequently. When I was a kid, my brothers and I would explore the riverside woods and meadows. My first school was the Thoreau School. I learned how to swim at Walden Pond.


My father was an amateur birder with lousy opera glasses that we kids would fight to borrow when he wanted us to see a heron or an oriole while on a walk, a canoe trip, or climbing a mountain in New Hampshire. My mother would read to me from The Burgess Bird Book for Children, which had great color paintings by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. We also had a big Fuertes art book called Portraits of New England Birds that showed birds in their correct habitat.


I wanted to see those birds, but I didn't have binoculars for several years. That forced me to climb a huge Norway spruce in our backyard to see some warblers. I wasn't interested in hunting birds-neither of my parents were hunters, and they had a general dislike of guns—and I never got heavily into finding bird nests, as I was admonished that if you approached a nest or touched the eggs, the nest might be abandoned.


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