Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Review: Going Wild, by Robert Winkler

I chose this book entirely by happenstance. It happened that I went into a cheap book store while on a recent trip to the passport office in Whitby, Ontario. While browsing the nature/outdoor books, I saw this book, Going Wild, for sale for the princely sum of $7.99 (Canadian). The photos of the large binoculars and hawk on the front of the book sold me on this being a book about birding that I just might like reading.

Are those 12x50s? Might as well just use a scope.

Going Wild is an assortment of varied essays on the birding adventures and bird observations of Robert Winkler. As a writer who lives in Connecticut, the topics range from his observations of suburban owls to the first reappearance of a Bald Eagle in his home state in the early 1980's to the poor choices of birdsong by Hollywood producers. Clearly Winkler covers a lot of birding ground and does so with variable success. The book largely comes across as the ramblings of a recluse who identifies more with birds than people (something that most of us can probably relate to). The problem with this is that the book fails to give you a reason to read it, besides "I like reading about birding".

There were possibly more things about the book that I didn't like than things I did. For example, Winkler gives considerable disdain to making and compiling lists (this book was written pre-Ebird and I wonder if Winkler would have a different opinion now?). In the book, he makes the case that birding, for him, is more enjoyable without numbers or lists. In other words, he could go birding, not see any birds, and be content. That's nice for him, but to me, if the intent is to observe birds, I won't be content unless I actually find some. Despite what his statements, the funny thing is that Winkler repeatedly uses numbers to spruce up his text. He seems impervious to the obvious; numbers are at the root of good science, including the science that he uses to inform his essays. He would like to have it both ways, and this type of inconsistency typifies the book.

Winkler also has quite strong opinions about how you should bird. It is okay to walk quietly through the forest and to phish. It is okay to feed birds and watch them for endless hours out the back of your exurban apartment. Its even okay to help a bird disentangle itself from your deadly bird feeder. But its not okay to use playback, as this to him this would be too disruptive. I know there has been considerably fretting and discussion about playbacks (oh, we will write many posts about this soon enough) but, ultimately, if you don't want to disrupt birds, you shouldn't probably bird at all, let alone pish. These types of suggestions by Winkler are a distraction in the book and made it far less enjoyable than it could have otherwise been.

In the end, I didn't really like Going Wild. Don't get me wrong, I strongly identify with the book's nearly invisible theme of "preserve wildness wherever we can and enjoy what bits and pieces we have left". However, his focus on birding and the interesting tidbits on bird ecology provided didn't overcome the book's failure to have any real purpose. What exactly is he trying to tell us? None of the chapters really seem to have a point and altogether could have easily been the compilation of random essays off of some birding blog (perhaps even this one). I say save your bird book budget for more important and better written books.

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