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Q&A with Lillian Stokes, author of Stokes Field Guides

Lillian Stokes with Peter Alden at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Lillian recently joined Peter Alden on Spark Birding field trips to Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Plum Island and Great Meadows. We asked her about her start in birding, her prolific publishing career, and her current project. Lillian is currently writing Stokes Field Guide to Finches of North America with co-author Matthew Young. She and her husband, Don, are authors of Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, the most complete photo field guide ever published covering 854 species with over 3,400 stunning photos! Along with 35 other Stokes Guides, which have sold over 6 million copies, she was the executive producer, host, and videographer for the national PBS television series, Stokes Birds at Home seen by 40 million viewers.

For 35 years Lillian has educated the birding public, giving keynote talks and workshops at birding festivals, and written for most of the leading bird magazines. Lillian shared with us the moment that turned her life 180 degrees.

Q. How did you first get started in birdwatching?

Lillian: It's funny because a lot of people always say, “oh I started when I was five,” that's a typical birder answer. I'm not typical. I didn’t get started until later in life. I had two young kids, a bird feeder in my backyard, and I was curious about birds. I didn't have any mentors and I had all these questions like, what's the social structure of a chickadee flock? Why are titmouse in fours? Why are woodpeckers in pairs? I didn't find the answers easily to that. A lot of what was going on in birding was a heavy emphasis on identification. Most of the books were written by men and I really wanted to see if there was a female mentor who I could look up to so I discovered Margaret Morse Nice, an ornithologist icon known for her studies of bird behavior. Jane Goodall was also an inspiration. And that led me then to further want to take some courses.

Q. Was there a particular moment that was a catalyst?

Lillian: I loved raptors and was hooked on hawks. So, I took a hawk watching course with Paul Roberts, the famous birder, and we went up to Mt. Wachusett, in MA, as a class. At that time some birds were rare that are more common today. I was standing on the mountaintop with Paul and the class and I went off and looked in another direction, all of a sudden I saw this incredible dark form come over my head, and it was a Bald Eagle. Bald Eagles were rare and exciting at that time. I shouted out “Bald Eagle!” The class all came over, everybody was celebrating. And I said to myself, “Oh, this is really cool. I can do this. I want to do this for my life.” So, I said I want to become an ornithologist.

Q. Sounds like you had a spark bird moment! How did this moment change your life?

Lillian: I think the spark bird to me was super exciting. I did a 180 turn from being a psychiatric social worker to want to become an ornithologist. I felt that I discovered my true passion. I could lead people to birds. I think it was a combination of my early interest but also just having a special, magical moment. And this does happen to people. There are literally life-changing moments in time. For me, at that moment, I knew it. I said I want to become an ornithologist. I'm going to go back and get a Ph.D. in ornithology.

Q. What happened next?

Lillian: At that point, I took one more course on bird behavior at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. My husband to be, Don Stokes, was the teacher. The rest is history. We met and fell in love. He said if we joined together and combined talents, I could make this my career and we could write books together. And in doing this, you can get the equivalent of an education in ornithology, because when you write a book, you do all the research and learn so much. So, what happened? We joined forces and 35 years later, 35 books later, we've had a long, highly successful, extended career producing lots and lots of kinds of nature and bird books for people.

Don and Lillian Stokes

Q. Can you take us back to when you and Don set out on this journey to write all these books? What was your vision and how did you seek to be different from other field guides?

Lillian: At the time Don was writing the first volume of Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior. I came from a behaviorist background, which was my interest. Our first books were guides to bird behavior. We covered 75 species in three volumes, with each species' complete life history and everything about their behavior. It was a little revolutionary because we put on the map a holistic approach to birds. Birding at that time was heavily checklist oriented. Then we decided to reach out to as many people as possible in a broad range because we wanted to connect more people to birds and nature.

Q. You didn’t stop there. What was the next project to attract new birders?

Lillian: The second group of birds was in the backyard. That's really where the majority of the approximately 45 million bird watchers in the United States often started -- in their backyards. So that's what we did. We wrote a large number of books. There was The Bird Feeder Book, which was a huge hit at the time, and all about bird feeding, attracting them, and their behavior. Then The Oriole Book, The Hummingbird Book, The Birdhouse Book, and more. These were a sort of practical “how-to in your backyard,” with broad-based appeal. Then we decided to do a field guide. We did Stokes Field Guide to Birds, East and West. A lot of the guides that were out there were illustrated guides, so these were photographic guides that people really enjoyed. After that, we did a whole series of beginner guides to birds and nature such as Stokes Beginner’s Guides to birds, shorebirds, warblers, hummingbirds, butterflies, and more.

Q. How did you end up doing a television show?

Lillian: Because of our growing fame, we were asked to do the first national PBS TV birding shows. We were the producers and the hosts of our series called Stokes Birds at Home, which reached 40 million people from 2000 to 2002. That again was kind of revolutionary going with our concept of how do we reach the largest number of people. The show was a magazine format in which we traveled all over the country and also always did a big piece on your backyard, such as how to create a hummingbird patio garden. That was quite a long time ago and one of the comments we had early on was “what, you're doing a birding show, but you look so normal.” We were fighting the stereotypes back then. But it was great to open it up and broadcast to a large number of people and take things from your backyard to the field.

Q. What was your most ambitious project?

We thought we would create something that wasn't out there, which was a massive, complete photographic guide. A lot of what was out there were illustrated guides, which were fine, but, in our opinion, one of the problems with illustrations was that they didn't completely accurately show the proportions of the real bird. So, we created The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America with over 850 species of birds and 3,400 photographs, covering all the ages and sexes of each species, flight photos, complete identification information, and subspecies. I am one of the major photographers in that guide.

Q. Tell us about your current project. How did this get started?

Lillian: When the pandemic hit, like everyone else, I was horrified and homebound. I lived in Hancock, New Hampshire, and a friend of mine said, “You know, there are Red Crossbills coming every morning to our nature center.” I thought that's a totally cool bird. I went every morning and I completely bonded with them. I often say that my second spark bird was Red Crossbills because they basically recruited me to tell their story. Red Crossbills are some of the most mysterious of the finches. I recorded them, photographed them, and studied them for a month. You learn there are different groups or “tribes,” each with its own call type who live in different places throughout the country. Each tribe speaks its own language that the average birder can't understand. I recorded the Red Crossbills and sent my recordings to an expert at decoding the call types, Matt Young of Cornell, and we struck up a friendship. We realized there was no finch guide out there so we combined our skills. We got accepted by my publisher and Stokes Guide to Finches of North America is in the works. That's my 36th book. It will come out in early 2024.

Q. What excites you about talking to beginners about birdwatching?

Lillian: I love beginners because they're open, they're eager, and they're enthusiastic. And what I love most is giving people skills and tools because I want to empower people to reap the rewards of a connection to birds which provides a lifelong resource for mental and physical health and wellness. That's an important message today as people are becoming much more aware of the actual health benefits of getting outside and being involved with birds and nature. That's something we all inherently seek and need, as E.O. Wilson stated in his biophilia hypothesis. And in this day and age, we need it even more because a lot of modern life involves a lot of stress and disconnecting from nature. So that was my message in 1997 and it's still my message. And I think most of all, that's a gift that I want to give to people.

Q. How would you tell a beginner to keep up the enthusiasm when there’s so much to learn it can be overwhelming?

Lillian: My approach is always very encouraging and to go at your own pace, not to be intimidated by vast amounts of knowledge by people who are super birders. And there are many ways to enjoy birds whether you're just in your backyard and sit down and watch birds mindfully and listen to their beautiful bird sounds, or, whether you get involved in something like eBird and keep lists. It doesn't matter. Birding is a big tent. Everybody is welcome. And I particularly like working with beginners and having them not be intimidated and go at their own speed, and also giving them tips and knowledge on how to fast forward their birding, however they choose to participate.


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