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Books

Listen for the Birds

in Flock Together, Hollars reminds us that extinct birds’ fates may be our own

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

FEATHERED FRIENDS. Author B.J. Hollars poses next to a stuffed pileated woodpecker in the James Newman Clark Bird Museum at UW-Eau Claire. The pileated is a relative of the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, whose story figures prominently in Hollars’ new book, Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds.
FEATHERED FRIENDS. Author B.J. Hollars poses next to a stuffed pileated woodpecker in the James Newman Clark Bird Museum at UW-Eau Claire. The pileated is a relative of the extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, whose story figures prominently in Hollars’ new book, Flock Together: A Love Affair with Extinct Birds.

‘Once upon a time there lived a bird and then that bird stopped living.”

B.J. Hollars begins his latest nonfiction book, Flock Together, with this statement, which is at once prosaic and profound. Obviously, birds – like the rest of us who draw breath – eventually die. But as the subtitle explains, this book is really about “A Love Affair with Extinct Birds” – those who “stopped living” here were not individual animals but entire species.

“Extinction isn’t a bird problem, it’s our problem.” – B.J. Hollars, author of Flock Together

Once, billions of passenger pigeons blackened the skies over North America. Now they are all gone.

Once, the “kent-kent” call of the ivory-billed woodpecker echoed through southern swamps. Now they are all gone.

The same goes for the dodo, the dusky seaside sparrow, the Carolina parakeet  –and the list goes on. As Hollars writes, humanity has a lot of bird blood on its hands.

Ultimately, however, this book isn’t merely an elegy for extinct species or a scientific tome aimed at ornithologists. It’s a cry of warning for the members of our species.

“This isn’t about birds. It’s about us,” explains Hollars, 32, a prolific author and assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire. “Extinction isn’t a bird problem, it’s our problem.”

It’s a profound sentiment – one that could easily lend itself to histrionics – but Hollars approaches his subject with humility and even humor. He’s the first to admit that he’s only a budding birder, and he’s not afraid to poke fun at his own ignorance about birds even as he delves deeper into the world of winged creatures and those who have devoted their lives to observing and preserving them.

Avid Chippewa Valley birder and author Steve Betchkal figures prominently in the book, helping Hollars navigate the birding world. Wisdom from – and adventures with – Betchkal are woven together with two other narratives: the fate of the ivory-billed woodpecker and the long-forgotten correspondence between a pair of Wisconsin naturalists, Francis Zirrer and A.W. Schorger. In Hollars’ hands, these diverse strands reinforce each other, making the book satisfying and enjoyable whether or not you can tell a cardinal from a chickadee.

Flock Together, which will officially be released Feb. 1 by the University of Nebraska Press, is the 10th book Hollars has authored or edited in his career, and he’s already got another in the pipeline: The Ride Rolls On, about the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to integrate interstate transit in the early 1960s. Hollars has previously written about the Civil Rights movement in Opening the Doors (about the integration of the University of Alabama) and Thirteen Loops (about lynching).

As with the civil rights movement, the success of the environmental movement depends upon widespread changes in public consciousness – but Hollars realizes changing the public’s mind isn’t easy.

“Ideally science alone would persuade citizens to take action, but I think we live in a world where we’re far more interested in the individual – the name, the face,” he says. Hollars hopes that by individualizing the tragedy of extinction he can help expand readers’ concerns from the individual to the whole. It’s a twist on the old adage that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. Pondering the deaths of all ivory-billed woodpeckers may be coldly academic, but their absence becomes hauntingly personal when Hollars writes movingly about visiting a museum archive to cradle an individual stuffed ivory-billed woodpecker in his hands.

Ultimately, Hollars hopes his book reminds readers to turn our eyes to the skies more frequently.

“It’s not backdrop, it’s not something we pass through,” Hollars says of the natural world. “It’s something we engage with daily, and it’s something worth fighting for.”

For those of us who don’t spend our spare time with binoculars around our necks and field guides in our back pockets, birds are easy to ignore; consider how we dismiss unimportant things as “for the birds” or lay insults like “bird-brained.” Hollars would rather we dwell on another metaphor, that of the canary in the coal mine. “Today our proverbial canaries are turning silent,” he says, “and we humans would be wise to take note.”

Hollars will read from Flock Together at 7pm Tuesday, Feb. 7, at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire. He will also be among four writers who will speak at “Nature Nurture: A Celebration of the Arts and the Environment,” a fundraiser for the Sierra Club and the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council at 7pm Tuesday, Feb. 28. Tickets for the latter event are $10.

AN EXCERPT FROM BJ HOLLARS’ FLOCK TOGETHER: “THE DODO”

When I first learned of extinction, I hardly learned of extinction at all. Instead, I learned of the phenomenon’s poster child, the dodo – a flightless, feathered, football-shaped bird that by the late 1600s had marched his pigeon-like legs into oblivion. Of course, we humans paved that trail – hunting them until their numbers dwindled, then allowing an invasive species of wild pig to finish the job.

In third-grade science class, we never quite got around to the finger pointing. Certainly there was no discussion of the relentless assaults by sailors and swine on the remote Mauritius Island. Instead, we at our desks were mostly content just staring at paintings of that silly-looking bird, a creature we never knew existed beyond the confines of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

When our teacher explained to us that the dodo was more than a movie star – that, in fact, it had once existed – her explanation managed only to spur further questions.

What did she mean by “once”? I wondered. How could something that once existed no longer exist anywhere in the world?

I took my teacher’s claim as a challenge and, that very afternoon, wandered the woods behind my Indiana home in search of what hadn’t been seen in well over 300 years. While I spotted the usual array of Midwestern avian inhabitants – a preponderance of robins and finches and crows – I was surprised to find not a single dodo among them.

After an exhaustive 15-minute investigation, I faced facts: The dodo, it seemed, did not live anywhere in my backyard.

Which proves nothing, I decided as I tromped home for dinner that night.

After all, every house on our block had a backyard – plenty of places for some silly-looking bird to hide.

To say that I was in dodo denial would be an understatement. Frankly, I was a hell-bent 9-year-old cut from the same cloth as Ahab, motivated (at least I thought) not by some deep inner turmoil but by an innate desire to prove my teacher wrong. In retrospect, I can now admit that perhaps my struggle to grasp the dodo’s extinction was, in fact, related to my own inner turmoil; namely, my inability to come to grips with what seemed impossible, that entire species could vanish on a large scale.

If the rumors were true and the dodo was extinct, then what prevented other species from joining them?

Of course, plenty of species have – five mass extinctions’ worth – though it wasn’t until 9-year-old me began poring over my local library’s collection of illustrated dinosaur books that I began to rethink my own dodo-related doubt. It was one thing for some football-shaped bird to hide, but where the hell were all the dinosaurs?

There was no denying it; the facts were now clear.

Probably, they were hiding together.