Berkeley native Oliver James has most likely written the only birdwatching guide to begin with a political call to action.
To the 27-year-old author and illustrator of Birds of Berkeley, new from Heyday Books, the avian creatures who fly above our city are our “neighbors,” and “fellow citizens.” As members of the same community, James says, we have a civic duty to interact with and respect both the human and non-human animals with whom we share this habitat.
“In a system that peddles anonymity, the work of resistance begins by becoming a student of place — its history, its people, its ecology,” James writes.
James began watching and drawing birds as a young child in Berkeley, and his admiration for his hometown is evident in his playful, perceptive descriptions of the city’s birds and their surroundings. He weaves in natural history lessons and tips for identifying the calls — from the oak titmouse’s “rapid, hoarse, scolding notes” to the “sound of reversing trucks” emitted by the red-breasted nuthatch. Each profile in Birds of Berkeley, part field guide and part coffee-table topper, is accompanied by an intricate illustration.
James previously conducted a similar hyperlocal study of the birds at Wesleyan University, where he earned a degree in biology and environmental studies. He has worked in ornithological research around the country and abroad, and just moved back to to the Bay Area this month. Berkeleyside caught up with James as he was settling back in.
From the first few pages of Birds of Berkeley, it’s clear your interest in birding is inseparable from your dedication to getting involved in your local community and politics. Why did you choose to start the book with a discussion of current events and this call to action of sorts?
First, I wanted to declare off the bat that this is not a field guide, at least not in the traditional sense, and to situate this book firmly in time. Most field guides are these monolithic, ossified books that for the most part transcend these boundaries. You can pick up an old field guide, and maybe some of the names of the birds have been updated, but it’s still useful. It’s different to pick up a book on the state of our avian ecology in this moment in time. So when you pick this up 50 years from now, it will be like, “Interesting, this is what we were thinking about in Berkeley. These were the issues that were hot.” And because the environment is changing so quickly, I think the ecology will look very different here in 50 years.
I would also really love for natural historians or birdwatchers, whether you’re a beginner or an expert, to approach the practice not just as a hobby. Birdwatching can become somewhat of a ritual of name-calling, just a collection of baseball cards, and kind of consumptive. Call me idealistic, but this is trying to elevate something that’s just a hobby to a sort of civic responsibility — the idea of embedding yourself locally as a means of building resiliency in a politically tumultuous time.When we actually look out for each other and begin to know our neighbors on a more personal level, we begin to understand the environment, both human and non-human.
Bird-watching has helped you become more aware of your surroundings?
Once you start looking at anything out in the world, whether it be birds or architecture, you start to notice a lot more than you expected. I think making a ritual out of just being a witness to some other living creature, some other group of people, some other kind of art form, you end up really cracking open your awareness of your environment.
As the climate has changed, and human demographics have shifted, what are some ways the bird population has changed in Berkeley?
A somewhat less recent example I feature in the book is the western meadowlark. We’re lucky to have this amazing research institution (UC Berkeley) where there have been practicing ornithologists for 100 years. A famous ornithologist, Joseph Grinnell, kept this obsessive list of the birds of the campus itself, and some birds jump off the page because they don’t exist here anymore or are greatly reduced. You’ve seen those pictures of the Berkeley Hills where there are just no trees, and obviously no development. But even in the flatlands, with houses, there’s all this open grassland. That’s the preferred habitat for grassland birds like the meadowlark.
It’s interesting to see how, as the land use has changed, certain birds got pushed out, but also new birds have arrived on the wave of all the planting of trees, and ornamental trees and gardens. More recently, the scientific consensus is, and it does feel apparent that, bird populations are declining across the board. Even in the 15-odd years that I’ve been participating in Christmas Bird Counts, it’s noticeable that there are some bird species that are not quite as abundant. And the big thing is habitat loss, as infill becomes more and more dense. We’re losing more of the little in-between spaces that birds can find.
Does that disturb you?
Yes and no. It’s a matter of perspective. It’s amazing how productive places like Berkeley can be on a level of biodiversity. It’s amazing how many birds can find refuge in a dense human habitat. It’s important to remember that too.
If you had to pick a sole bird to be the avian representative of Berkeley, either because of its habits or its ubiquity, which would it be?
I’d pick the California towhee because it’s this bird, at least in the neighborhoods I grew up in, that seemed to always be present, this familiar back-yard bird that makes itself comfortable in the representative, somewhat verdant urban-suburban neighborhood in Berkeley. But it doesn’t really stand out in terms of having a loud personality or being a colorful bird.
You do have a knack for interpreting birds’ personalities. Have you always had that perspective?
I think it comes over time. I do really believe that the study of any living creature hones the capacity for empathy. It’s through the process of building individual familiarity with a species, beyond their color or their shape, but their unique ways of moving through the world that are very discernible. The most rewarding parts of wildlife observation are when you’re like, “Oh yeah, that chickadee is navigating through my neighborhood in this way, which that woodpecker doesn’t do.” Not only do those become field marks for identification, but there’s a real personal joy that comes out of being able to recognize your friend just by the way they do the dishes or walk down the block. There is kind of a risk of anthropomorphizing birds, but I also think there’s a lot more common ground in our experiences, between people and non-human animals, than we’re aware of.
Is there a tight-knit birder community in Berkeley?
I wouldn’t say it’s especially intimate on a personal level, but it’s a growing hobby. You begin to recognize faces.
Where do they hang out, and where would you recommend someone who’s just getting started begin?
When I got started I spent a lot of time in Tilden Regional Park. Or down at the shoreline and the Albany Bulb.
I like how you note in the book that the black phoebe is drawn to water, which could mean Lake Anza, but it could also simply mean the Marin Circle fountain.
Start in your own backyard. We’ve carved out shared spaces [with other species]. We also happen to live in this internationally recognized, globally important place for birds, which is the San Francisco Bay Estuary, so we’re kind of surrounded.
You describe these birds’ calls so musically. Are you just wandering around hearing a symphony all the time?
My friend asked this question the other day — how often are you listening to birds? It’s all the time. It’s almost like the background process on the computer that’s always going but you aren’t aware of it. Once you learn to identify birds by their sound, it really expands the depth of your sensory perception. For most of us, our ears can cast a wider net than our eyes. Once you get those sounds drilled into your head you can’t not hear them.
Finally, do you actually bust out your binoculars when you’re stuck in traffic on I-80, like you describe in the book?
Definitely. I have some friends who are obsessive birders, and they have a pair of binoculars that are just for their car, so they’re ready at a moment’s notice. You never know when you’re going to run into that unusual bird flying over you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.