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Introducing the Bird Watching Answer Book

by Hugh Powell
Bird Watching Answer Book cover

One of the most-visited pages at All About Birds is our Frequently Asked Questions page. With their bright colors, funny antics, and tendency to show up in unexpected places, birds are an unending source of questions for the people who watch them. We’ve calculated that the Cornell Lab staff answers some 80,000 questions per year from the public.

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So one of the things that our science editor, Laura Erickson, has been doing for the last year is compiling those questions into the Bird Watching Answer Book, handily sized to fit onto a crowded bookshelf or next to your favorite bird-viewing window.

With more than 200 answers, it’s like a never-ending conversation about your favorite subject. [We feature some of the answers on our rotating Question of the Week feature.] The book’s web page has more, including a video where Laura Erickson explains how and why she wrote it. Or go here to buy your own signed copy.

I asked Laura a few questions about writing the book, starting with How long did it take you?

Laura: Theoretically, it took me about a year to write this book, but a lot of it was based on questions I’ve received over the past two or three decades. Some questions are asked a lot: “Do hummingbirds ride on the backs of geese?” (A: No.)  “Help! A woodpecker is chopping holes in my house! What do I do?” (A: See our woodpecker problems page)  “How do vultures find their food?” (A: They smell it out, preferring many meals to be not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead.) “Help! A cardinal (or a robin) is bonking into my windows all day long! Why is he doing this and what can I do to make him stop?” (A: See our birds-attacking-windows page)

RR: How does somebody learn enough to answer 200+ strange bird questions?

Laura: I was a wildlife rehabber in northern Minnesota for over a decade, and so I got the inside story on a lot of birds. That made it easy to answer questions like “Why is bird poop white?” (A: The “poop” part is dark, and the white part is the urine, composed of uric acid rather than urea.) “What part of an egg turns into a bird?” (A: The yolk is the single-celled ovum which develops into the bird.) “Should I put eggshells out for birds?” (A: Yes. They need the calcium.)

RR: Birds are seasonal creatures. Are bird questions seasonal, too?

Laura: Are they ever! This time of year people often ask a most seasonal question: “Why do chickens and turkeys have dark and white meat while geese and ducks have only dark meat? (A: Red muscle fibers—making up dark meat—are necessary for the legs and the wings of birds that both swim and fly long distances. White muscle allows huge bursts of flight without the heavy weight and maintenance of red fibers, but chickens and turkeys need red muscle to power their walking habits.)

RR: Well Happy Thanksgiving, Laura, and thanks for writing the Bird Watching Answer Book.

And readers, be sure to check our Question of the Week—and send us your own questions. Laura’s already gathering questions for the follow-up volume!

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library