A Conversation with Julie Zickefoose, Author of The Bluebird Effect

Julie Zickefoose’s new book, The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds (Houghton Harcourt; click here and scroll down to read our starred review), has given me a marvelous reason to connect with its author at long last. Julie and I attended the same college at the same time, majored in the same subject, lived in the same residential housing‚ and yet never interacted, a circumstance entirely due to my being too shy in college.

Julie lives with her husband and two children on 80 acres in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio. In addition to writing and illustrating for Bird Watcher’s Digest and other magazines, she has authored Backyard Birding: Using Natural Gardening To Attract Birds and Letters from Eden: A Year at Home in the Woods. She writes a popular eponymous blog and is also regularly featured on NPR’s All Things Considered.

MH: Since your previous book, Letters from Eden, which evolved from columns you wrote for Bird Watcher’s Digest, your own blog, begun in 2005, has really taken hold. How has the advent of blogging, and electronic media generally, affected your work ?

JZ: Electronic communications keep me from my work, but at the same time, they help me build my brand. Blogging is a warm, highly personal invitation to my readers to join me in celebrating what’s wonderful about life, nature, horticulture, art, music. I just share what I love, and enjoy it all the more in the sharing.

Photo by Mary Ferracci

I dig inspiring empathy in my blog pals for some of the more inaccessible creatures such as insects and bats. I love helping people understand how birds think and what makes them do what they do. More and more, the archives of my blog are like a treasure chest of ideas for me as a writer, as well as a proving ground for subject matter and essays.

Even so, I note the decline of blogging in favor of the more immediate (and infinitely more shallow) frisson of social networking. I’m convinced that if I didn’t share every blog post on Facebook, nobody would read my blog anymore. Too much trouble to click or seek it out. And that scares me. If a blog is too much trouble to read, what about a book, made of paper and cardboard, that you have to pick up and hold in your hands? I worry.

MH: So do you still read books‚ including bird guides‚ the old-fashioned way‚ on paper?

JZ: Oh, yes! No Nooks, no Kindles, no iPad for me. They’re around my house, but I avoid touching them. Kind of sad, but I cling to what little Luddite behavior remains in me. I believe in books, in their weight and heft and the feel of them on my stomach as I drop off to sleep. I don’t want to stare into a lit screen that needs to be plugged in. Books can go anywhere, and they don’t run down. Although I will admit to loving the online version of Birds of North America for a quick reference that doesn’t involve teetering on a footstool, if I’m reading at length, I want a book!

MH: That guide, Birds of North America, uses paintings of birds, rather than photographs?

JZ: Birds of North America isn’t a field guide; it’s a multivolume edition of leaflets, each of which is an up-to-date bio of a North American bird species. It was a ten-year collaboration between the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Ornithologists’ Union. It takes up an entire wall shelf in my studio. I love it because it has everything. I can find out how much a bird weighs, what its natal down looks like, and its wingspan. But it’s not a book…it’s a monument! I illustrated a lot of it with my behavioral drawings.

MH: Aha! And for a regular bird guide, which is your favorite?

JZ: My favorite by far is David Sibley’s, illustrated with his paintings. Yes: paintings. They distill so much that can’t be found in a photograph.

MH: In one of your recent blog posts, you showed your process of painting an evening grosbeak as the American Birding Association Bird of the Year. Tell us about your enjoyment of bird writing as compared to bird painting.

JZ: Writing is the bomb. Painting is really fun when it goes well, but it can be a real effort to wrench my writing brain back around to painter mode. The hemispheres seem to be a bit at war with each other. I could write hanging upside down by one toe, but everything‚ the north light, the music, the herbal tea temperature‚ has to be just so for me to feel like painting. I attribute that in part to my bifocals. It’s just not as much fun anymore to peer at a detailed watercolor and not be able to see it as well as I used to be able to. Drat! So my paintings get looser, and that’s always a good thing for the viewer. More left to the imagination. So I’d rather be writing. I dream of writing a book with no illustrations, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’d be so easy! But then again, I like books with pictures. So books with pictures it is. Lots of pictures.

MH: You describe yourself as a writer, naturalist, and watercolor painter. What if that math SAT score of yours‚ mentioned in your introduction as leading you away from the famous ornithology program at Cornell‚ had been higher, and you had embarked on a more traditional scientific career? Do you think that like The Bee-Man of Orn (note to librarians: time to revive author Frank Stockton) you would have ended up exactly where you are now anyway?

JZ: Honestly, I don’t think embarking on a course of traditional ornithological studies would have changed my arc a bit. The passion for animal behavior and for empathizing and understanding birds was always there, and I’d doubtless would have been as repulsed by the then-current fads in ornithology (picking apart avian brains, putting birds in wind tunnels to measure energetic output; painting red-winged blackbird epaulets black to see if that affected their mate-attracting capabilities) as I am now. I always have turned to the living bird for answers, the unperturbed, undisturbed free-flying bird, and always will. And suppressing the artist and poet in me would have been futile.

MH: So your chapter about the ivory-billed woodpecker must have been a challenge!

JZ: Yes. The yearning gets in my way. The ivory-billed woodpecker piece was a bear to write. I default to reportorial style only as a last resort. The spoiled kid in me wants to write about my own encounters, not someone else’s. Too sensual, I guess. I want to bury my nose in a bird’s feathers and know what it smells like.

MH: Do you remember the stuffed ivory-bill on display at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ)?

JZ: The MCZ has drawers packed with ivory-billed woodpecker specimens taken over a century ago. I’ve opened those drawers and wept. Many times. The study skins, kept in darkness, are much more beautiful than the faded, goggle-eyed mounts we see on display. Much more beautiful and evocative, with their white cotton eyes and still-glossy feathers, and tags written in the crabbed hand of long-gone ornithologists.

MH: I’m not sure how large a body of scientists are ornithologists, but I was amazed to learn that there are over six million Americans who claim birding as a hobby. Do you have any advice to novice birders?

JZ: Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from friends who are hearing a mystery bird calling every day in their yard, and they want me to identify it based on a verbal description of the song. And this puzzles me. I tell them, “Beg, borrow, or steal a pair of binoculars. Go outside. Listen intently until you figure out where the sound is coming from. And look for the bird. Watch it sing. Look it up in a field guide, or tell me what you see. You will learn far more this way than you will by asking me what you might be hearing. The bird is out there. Go find it!”

There’s this lassitude that beginning birders seem to have, this conviction that they couldn’t possibly go find a bird by themselves, and that puzzles me. It’s not that hard. It’s actually a lot of fun. I started tracking birds down by their songs when I was seven. Anyone can do that. Why not try it? It’s called birdwatching.

MH: In your Carolina wren chapter, you mention trying to attract a bird by playing its call aloud via your iPhone app. Have apps and portable electronics had a big effect‚ either on birders or on the birds?

JZ: I think the proliferation of iPods has helped a lot of people recognize songs they might have overlooked. But it’s also made us quite lazy as birders, to be able to play a call into the shrubbery and have a furious bird pop out at eye level. It’s impinged on our field craft, and it’s made us impatient as birdwatchers, and that’s kind of sad. It’s not so great for the bird being called out, either, especially if it happens to him a lot in the course of a breeding season. As for apps, I’m not a smartphone user. I spend too much time at the computer as it is to want one in my hand all the time. Yecch.

MH: Your books remind readers that a pristine lawn, pruned trees, lack of any tangle of vines and shrubs, a locked garage/shed, etc., all run counter to encouraging bird activity. Are you sensing any real change, with increased sensitivity to an approach to landscaping that’s beneficial to birds?

JZ: It kind of depends where you go. The lawn is still king in my part of Ohio. Every day I watch people bulldozing the woodland to create a perfect and perfectly boring greensward for what? To look at? You never see people out on those perfect lawns. Our yard, by contrast, is full of diversions–beds and prairie swaths and shrubs and trees. Tonight our dog spooked a female song sparrow off a nest with four warm blue-brown eggs in an uncut mess of ornamental grass. Thank, God, we left it this long!

Our yard has become a real pain to mow, in fact. But there are birds everywhere. I love seeing the “rebel gardener” on every street who doesn’t pinch and prune everything into submission. Who lets a forsythia be a great wild octopus of yellow; who lets the weeping cherry weep instead of turning it into a parasol; who‚ gasp!‚ plants a wildflower meadow in the front yard. I do think the enlightenment is creeping across America, but there will always be a vast majority who believe that a sterile yard is a beautiful yard.

MH: Now a library question. You mention the Henrico County Public Library of your childhood; now I imagine you’re near a branch of the Washington County Public Library. In what way do public libraries play a part in your life now?

JZ: I have to confess that I am most often spotted carrying a large stack of what my 15-year-old daughter refers to as “shoe books” from the Washington County Public Library, the kind of chick lit she likes, which, she points out, often have a stiletto-heeled shoe on the cover. And I read in winter, when there aren’t so many outdoor chores, and I love, love, love to carry a stack out for myself. I go right back to childhood when I do that. I do feel a little self-conscious because our librarians know me, and I wonder if they cock an eyebrow at my selections: “Doesn’t she read anything but shoe books, dog books, and brain books?”

It’s funny, but I turn to nonfiction. I like to read about the human brain, about autism; about the minds of animals. I guess I’m always trying to understand the other nations that are the wild things and the animals with whom we share our homes and lives.

MH: But your book has all the tropes of fiction: the arrival of a stranger in town (a new bird visits your home turf); the brief interlude (Rose-breasted Joe); the unexpected virtuous guide (turkey vulture); the sex farce (bluebird squiring two females); the friendship like no other (orchard oriole); the death of someone loved; the eternal quest (ivory-billed woodpecker).

JZ: I think what you’re getting at is the germ of storytelling that pervades every interaction I describe. I don’t consciously select the tropes (ooh, love that word); rather, the interactions with birds present them. What you’re reading comes of pure emotion on my part. I love what I love and feel it all very deeply.

MH: Is it part of the job description of strict scientists that they exclude such stories?

JZ: I have no idea what a strict scientist should do, never having been one. But I do think that the scientists who manage to inject humanism in their writing (Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson, and Carl Sagan come to mind) ultimately reach far more people than do those who dwell only in the pages of journals with their equals and peers.

Thanks, Julie! It’s been a long-overdue pleasure!

Margaret Heilbrun About Margaret Heilbrun

Margaret Heilbrun is a former Senior Editor, Library Journal Book Review.


  1. Jeff Jones says:


    It was a pleasure to read this interview with Julie. You asked some great questions that helped to draw back the curtain a bit. I’ve learned a lot more about what makes her tick and I thank you.

    Since finding her blog from Bird Watcher’s Digest many years ago Julie has been my number one resource for getting answers to questions only somebody who lives with and learns from her backyard tenants. She has helped me countless times to decipher behavioral nuances in my backyard birds.

    I’m glad you finally got a chance to learn more about her as well.

    And, to Julie, thank you so much for all the help you’ve given me throughout the years.