The Boy Who Drew Birds
By Jacqueline Davies; illus by Melissa Sweet
32 pages, ages 7 – 10
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
This book has everything one could want in a sciency book: luscious artwork (I love collage!), mystery, historical context and wonderful storytelling. I was hooked at page one: “It was true that John James could skate, hunt, and ride better than most boys. True also that he could dance the minuet and gavotte as if he had been born a king.” John James, we learn, can fiddle and fence and flirt – but the thing he likes to do best is watch birds.
Even though birds have four legs too few, I had to keep reading. Who is this John James? And what is it about birds that intrigues him so?
But what really hooked me was that the story centered around Audubon’s observations of the eastern phoebe – a bird that, over the past dozen years, we have been watching closely because a pair built its nest just beneath my study window. And, as John James learned, they return spring after spring, with kids in tow.
The mystery is where birds go in winter. We know they migrate, but back in 1804 scientists thought they hibernated underwater. Or flew to the moon. The other mystery is whether they return to their home each spring – a mystery Audubon solved with a silver thread.
We think of Audubon as an artist. But clearly, he was a natural scientist as well – even though he didn’t fare well within the confines of a classroom.
Like Audubon, author Jacqueline Davies was inspired by the phoebe. “I met my first phoebe during a nature walk with my daughter," she says. "I was intrigued by the idea of a bird that returns to the same nest year after year.” When she delved into research, she learned that Audubon was the first person to band a bird in this country and that the bird was the phoebe. That’s when she knew she had to write the story.
Davies read lots of biographies about Audubon, as well his own writing. But she didn’t make it to visit his Pennsylvania home until after her book was published.
During those three months of research, Davies says she learned lots of new things. “The most engrossing,” she says, was reading the scientific theories of Audubon’s day that explained where birds go in the winter. “Those theories offered great insight into not only what they knew but also the accepted practices of the day for making scientific discoveries,” Davies said.
While Davies doesn’t keep a life list, she does keep a pair of binoculars at the ready in her upstairs bathroom. “It’s the perfect spot for watching all the bird activity in my backyard,” she explained.
This is part of STEM Friday, hosted at Celebrate Science. Review copy provided by Tompkins County Public Library in Ithaca.