Bob Tarte has never had a “big year,” but his new book, “Feather Brained,” is a masterfully written beginner’s guide to the hobby of birding.
A “big year” is an informal competition among birdwatchers to identify as many species of birds as possible in a single year. The 2011 comedy “The Big Year,” starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin, chronicles a hilarious quest as eccentric birders go to great lengths and travel thousands of miles to rack up the most species. Who knew birding could be so funny?
Well, Tarte did, for one. His latest book is an enjoyable way to learn about the history of the sport and all of its quirks. As with Tarte’s previous bird books, “Enslaved by Ducks” and “Fowl Weather,” the journey is incredibly funny.
Tarte’s introduction to birding came in an unusual way. He and his wife, Linda, on a trip to the Toledo Museum of Art, were delayed by traffic and arrived too late to get into the museum. Instead, they decided to head to Cleveland. On the way, they stumbled upon a migrating flock of brightly colored Kirtland’s warblers being ogled by undistinguished birders.
“The whole woods seemed to be moving past us,” Tarte writes in his book. “I began to feel drunk on dazzle, like I’d just chugged a six-pack of rose–breasted grosbeaks.”
After this coincidental collision, he and Linda took up birding as a serious hobby.
“Before that, I had tried birding with fits and starts for my entire life,” he said.
“Feather Brained” is filled with little known tidbits about birding history. For example, the first person to identify the threat of the cowbird to Kirtland’s warblers was Nathan Leopold, who is infamous for the 1924 murder of a 14-year-old boy and the resulting trial, where he was represented by Clarence Darrow. Leopold delivered a paper on the Kirtland’s warbler at the 1923 American Ornithologists' Union. Just one year later, he and a friend, Richard Loeb, kidnapped and killed the young boy. Suffice it to say that it didn’t help the image of birders.
“Birders were already considered a little strange,” Tarte said.
The Tartes’ love of birds isn’t limited to the great outdoors. The couple has had pet birds, including a pair of African grey parrots.
“The parrots were the craziest things,” Tarte said. “They learned through observation — and they learned how to push our buttons.”
Linda Tarte, who is a wildlife rescuer, also raises and releases starlings. One time, she kept them too long, which created a dependency situation.
“The first time they returned for food, the parrots called out, ‘They’re back!’” Bob Tarte said.
After seeing how intelligent parrots are, Tarte began to wonder about birds of the wild and their level of intelligence.
“I noticed signs of intelligence in wild birds,” he said. “How do they keep coming back to the same places year after year?” Tarte, who is visually challenged, has learned to tell birds apart by sound. While he enjoys birding, he makes a clear distinction between his day job, reviewing sound equipment, and his hobby.
“There is a whole breed of birders that are fanatics. There are birders who will visit every county and drive thousands of miles to identify birds,” he said. “That’s not fun. That’s work.”
So far, Tarte’s life list of birds is at 286. “If you want to get to 700, you have to go to every state,” he said.
Tarte uses entertaining side stories to keep his book interesting, including a section about a 1953 episode of “Lassie.” Timmy sees an American egret, but his teacher doesn’t believe him.
“I wanted to make the book memorable,” Tarte said.
He also references early bird books like Walter Barrows’ 1925 tome “Michigan Bird Life” and Elliott Coues’ 1,152-page “Key to North America Birds,” which often switches between poetic and dry in the same descriptions of a bird.
Tarte did admit to driving from his home near Grand Rapids to Chelsea to see an ancient murrelet, an unusual bird from the Pacific Northwest that looks like a penguin. A sighting in Michigan is quite rare and brings birders from great distances.
While birders are a varied bunch, Tarte has noticed one common trait. Most birdwatchers are 50 or older.
“Birding doesn’t require a lot of exertion,” he said.
For aspiring birders, Tarte recommends starting at parks and nature centers, which often have knowledgeable staff. He’s also had luck finding birds in unusual places like sewage disposal sites. He describes bird watching as “a cross between a treasure hunt and a chance encounter.”
“You never know what you are going to run into,” he said, “But I’m never disappointed when I don’t see something.”
Author talk and book signing 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 21 FREE Schuler Books & Music (Eastwood Towne Center location) 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495, schulerbooks.com