Book Review: The Backyard Bird Chronicles // Amy Tan

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Nestled in the suburb of Sausalito, at the northern end of the Golden Gate bridge, a quiet garden overlooks Richardson Bay. The ancient, sylvan setting, guarded by four centenary oaks towering over their juniors – birches, dogwoods, Japanese maples as well as camellia bushes, lilies, and narcissi – is an eyrie in the treetops. This haven where the birds come and go to their heart’s content is the setting of The Backyard Bird Chronicles and Amy Tan’s first book in seven years. 

Her latest publication brings together eight years of diary entries and sketches that document how she fell in love with birding. In this self-acknowledged “mess” of a book, Tan displays an ornithologist’s curiosity in the avian creatures that populate her garden. While many of her observations revolve around her rather banal day-to-day life, from rare bird sightings to the different types of feeders and food she has used (suet, spicy suet, extra spicy suet, etc.), it also veers into the scientific. What determines dominance among birds? Tan asks. And what body language do they display? In one notable passage that brings to mind Pavlov, she successfully trains sparrows (who usually eat from the floor) to eat from suspended feeders.

Tan’s enthusiasm for the animals in her backyard is heartfelt, which makes reading The Backyard Bird Chronicles like stepping into a parallel universe. It is a world that “no longer follows the Earth’s spin axis,” and where “the seasons have been replaced by Spring migration, nesting season, fledgling season and fall migration.” It is a world most would describe as uneventful but that is brought to life by Tan’s words. It is a Secret Garden with a diverse cast of characters that includes the “non-conformist hermit thrush” and the “comical towhee” as well as less prominent actors like great horned owls and Cooper’s hawks. The outside world is only alluded to in passing.

But this seclusion, which allows the reader to be transported completely to this unknown patch of green, is also a weakness. Covid, the California fires, and even the death of a friend are given only a few lines each, begging the question, “where is the Amy Tan we know?” The author of The Joy Luck Club, usually so incisive, is rather tame. There are feeble attempts at anthropomorphizing the birds, turning the hummingbird male into a deadbeat dad or the quails into typists, thereby inviting comparisons between birds and human beings, but these are rare and far between. Mealworms dying in the sun and birds with conjunctivitis are given more prominence. 

Similarly, Tan’s attitude towards her garden dwellers is at times uncomfortably prejudicial. In one passage, she rails against cat owners’ letting their pets go outside because they are known to kill birds only to reveal that she feeds the birds thousands of mealworms every single week, farmed for the only purpose of being sustenance. Their cost? Several hundred dollars per month. While it is, of course, Tan’s prerogative to spend her money as she sees fit, it is disconcerting that she would spend what is a month’s wage in many countries on feeding birds that would otherwise feed themselves. 

This criticism, however, does not detract from Tan’s work. The Backyard Bird Chronicles is nothing more or less than what it claims to be. It is a well-written and often funny account of the birds in an ageing writer’s garden, complete with meticulous sketches. It may not be her bread and butter nor the second coming of Audubon (the birder, not the ideologue), but it is a strangely soothing book that delves into the often-overlooked birds that surround us. One not to miss for nature lovers!

Words by Elkyn Ernst


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