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Review: Amy Tan takes wing in ‘Backyard Bird Chronicles’

By Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times
Published: May 5, 2024, 6:05am

Amy Tan’s best-loved, bestselling novels were all, in one way or another, born at home. Books like “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife” grew out of the Chinese American author’s family life, turned to rich fiction by her elegant writing.

Her charming new book, “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” is nonfiction, a memoir about taking up two new pursuits when she was in her 60s: drawing and birding. And like her novels, this book centers on home.

Just as her fiction has focused on family and personal relationships, in this book we see her interest in the dynamics of behavior — except this time the characters all wear feathers.

Among Tan’s fondest childhood memories, she writes, is exploring a creek and woods near her family’s suburban home. But back then she looked down into the creek, not up into the trees, she says.

At age 64, for the first time, she takes drawing lessons, then nature journaling field trips, with author and naturalist John Muir Laws. As they look at a bird, he tells them to “try to feel the life within it.”

Tan writes, “For me that meant ‘Be the bird.’ That came naturally to me as a fiction writer. To feel the life of the story, I always imagine I am the character I am creating.”

Tan enjoys the field trips, but she soon begins to realize that she literally lives among birds while she’s at home. She and her husband designed and built their home in Sausalito, California, to be open and airy, like a tree house. It’s surrounded, she writes, by “a paradise for many birds” with “four Pacific live oaks with overlapping canopies. … For the fussy bird that wants variety, we offer a birch, a dogwood, a Japanese maple, and a lush nectar-bearing fuchsia shrub as big as a tree.” Ivy and other vines, fruit trees, a succulent garden, herbs and flowers fill it in, and a rooftop garden is “a friendly habitat and food source for bees, butterflies, and birds.”

So it’s no wonder that, as she begins to put up feeders, watch from various vantage points (including her bathroom window, whose ledge is a favorite bird hangout) and keep a journal of notes and sketches, she identifies more than 60 species of birds in her own yard.

But she doesn’t just check them off on a life list. She observes them closely over months and years, noting the differences in plumage and coloration among fledglings, juveniles and adults, the changing behavior during mating season, nesting season and, for many of the birds, preparation for migrations as long as a thousand miles.

And about those drawings: They’re one of the delights of the book, not only capturing the birds but illustrating Tan’s progress as an artist. In one section she lists her art supplies and the cabinets she buys to store them — a list that goes on for a couple of pages. “I know I will never use all of those art supplies. But I was gleeful buying all of it.”

There are other backyard birding expenses, too. Most of her neighbors are songbirds, and most of them, she learns, love to eat mealworms. So she’s soon buying fresh mealworms by the thousands — wriggly little live critters with crispy exoskeletons that she has to sort by hand into feeding bowls for her eager tenants.

“I rationalize the cost of mealworms,” she writes, “by calculating the amount of money I have saved by not having children. I would have been funding college tuition for grandkids by now. I can justify buying mealworms by the millions.”

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Like any backyard bird-watcher, Tan is engaged in an ongoing battle with squirrels. She buys some supposedly squirrel-proof feeders and builds her own; the squirrels laugh, with their cheeks full. She’s thrilled when she discovers that squirrels can’t stand hot sauce, but it doesn’t bother birds at all. Soon she’s dishing out “hot-pepper suet and seeds that the squirrels hated.”

Her tandem pursuits of arts and birds engage her, and during the pandemic they become a comfort she can enjoy safely. As a writer, they inspire in new ways her ability to find the larger meaning in an intimate canvas, this one mapped in inches.

And she finds moments of magic. In the journal’s first entry, she writes about the childhood fantasy of having a wild creature eat from your hand. Despite her desire not to anthropomorphize birds, to honor wild boundaries, she can’t help the urge toward understanding them.

Noting that tiny hummingbirds are often bold about approaching humans, she buys small handheld feeders, hoping to lure them but not holding out much hope.

She sets one on a porch rail and watches from afar as the little birds quickly inspect and empty it. The next day, when she hears a hummer’s buzz, she holds the feeder on her palm. “Within ten seconds the hummingbird came over, landed on my hand, and immediately started feeding.”

The next day he does it again. “Whatever his meaning, he had come back. We have a relationship. I am in love.”

The Backyard Bird Chronicles

Written and illustrated by Amy Tan, with a foreword by David Allen Sibley

Knopf, 320 pages, $35