Book Review: The Bird Catcher, by Laura Jacobs

reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
January 15, 2010
The Bird Catcher Laura Jacobs book review
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Regulations such as those mentioned in the above review actually bear on the plot climax of The Bird Catcher, a novel by Laura Jacobs about Manhattan, love, birds, and art. Margret, a Manhattan “arts” woman, dresses windows at Saks and associates with the gallery scene at night. But she also shares her lifelong habit of birding with her husband, a professor at Columbia. Both author and character share a birder’s (and an artist’s) mind. Margret on field guides: “Roger Tory Peterson’s was the guide she grew up with, but the drawing was static. And though she loved the charming Golden Guide, its Blackburnian looked like a dutiful student. National Geo’s male was brilliantly colored but forlorn. Kaufman, a new guide with photos, was invaluable for jizz, but it was Pough, a guide from the forties, which got the closest.”

She has the birder’s eye: “When a flit or blur was different, it was almost as if your body knew before your eyes did.” And, unlike her ultra-refined friends, she has a naturalist’s cool eye. “There was a bird on the second-story ledge that was probably a pigeon, but she always checked twice now, ever since she’d looked out her apartment window and seen a kestrel on a nearby air conditioner, eating a sparrow. It plucked the bird like a cook at the sink . . . when only the bottom half was left, a cup with two spindly legs, from this gruesome goblet the falcon pulled out the guts and swallowed them whole. And most people would have thought it was a pigeon.”

She is propelled from this idyllic life by a tragedy and begins to create a strange art form for herself: she collects dead songbirds, mostly warblers on migration, killed in collisions with Manhattan highrises, stuffing them and putting them into glass-fronted boxes, not unlike those of Joseph Cornell. “The black-throated blues. The box was filled with a bower of branches painted bone, ivory, and cream, while the back of the box and the inside rims had steep color, a midnight blue she’d leafed with silver stars. The two birds flitted within, Tamino and Pamina.”

When her best friend, an alpha-female gallery owner, suggests a show, Margret becomes an overnight success—and, of course, a violator of federal wildlife law. I won’t tell you more about the tragicomic denouement, but Margret, and even her stuffed birds, come through well. Read this fine novel, even if books about Manhattan society aren’t your “thing”; it is full of treasures.

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