3/12/2020 Peter Durantine

Professor’s New Book Explores How Humans Project onto Birds

The idea took flight in the North Museum, next to Franklin & Marshall College’s campus, when Assistant Professor of English Erik Anderson started on the trail of the black-tailed trainbearer, an unusual-looking South American hummingbird he found in the museum’s collection.

“I became very interested in how it wound up in the museum, so I just followed this rabbit hole and kept following it, trying to learn how it got there,” Anderson recalled. “At the end of that process, I thought, ‘Oh, this has opened up a whole world of natural history for me, a whole world of human interaction with birds. There’s a book here.’”

“Bird,” which Bloomsbury Academic will release March 19 (as part of its Object Lessons series), is about Anderson’s journey to learn not just about the black-tailed trainbearer, but the relationship between birds and people. In much of the book, he uses a bird-field guide style of writing with some field-guide entries.

  • “I was thinking about the ways we project certain qualities onto birds," Anderson says. "And, by extension, how we project certain qualities onto nature as a whole, and in some ways fundamentally misunderstand it.” “I was thinking about the ways we project certain qualities onto birds," Anderson says. "And, by extension, how we project certain qualities onto nature as a whole, and in some ways fundamentally misunderstand it.”

“A lot of it is narrative nonfiction about particular incidents or times along this journey, and it has been a journey,” Anderson said. 

It began in 2014, when he assigned his science writing class the exercise of writing a physical description of a bird specimen. Students could choose from among hundreds in the museum. The professor found the thumb-size bird, its tail longer than its body, when he completed the exercise himself.

“It was very odd to me,” Anderson said. “I was thinking about the ways we project certain qualities onto birds, and, by extension, how we project certain qualities onto nature as a whole, and in some ways fundamentally misunderstand it.”

Years of research took him from North Museum to F&M’s Special Collections, Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, Delaware Museum of Natural History, Yale’s Peabody Museum and historic ornithology publications archived at Cornell University and the Audubon Society.

As a rising senior, Larissa Keene ’15 assisted in some of the research for the book, including an interview with an ornithologist who directed a nature center in Montpelier, Vt. 

“Larissa was very involved in the early stages of combing through all the records of ‘The Auk,’ the journal of the American Ornithological Society, and other ornithological literature, looking for everything that had been written about this list of 50 birds I wanted to research,” he said.

Anderson even accepted an opportunity to conduct fieldwork on the Gulf of Mexico while tagging along with F&M Associate Professor of Geosciences Paul Harnik, whose annual trip with students researches how humans affect the ocean ecosystems. Anderson wrongly identified a distant buoy for a bird, an experience he wrote about in the book.

“That became a kind of object lesson in what we think we see when we look at the natural world versus what do we actually see when we look at the natural world,” he said. “The book is really interested in that.” 

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