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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Franzen's Freedom: What the heck bird is that on the cover?

What the heck bird is that?
There's incredible variation in
Birding Field Guides when
you go to seek answers.

By Hugh Gilmore
October 20, 2010

First things first, even in the presence of the mighty.  I'd been waiting quite a while to get my hands on Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom," but when it finally came to hand, it arrived "wrapped in a mystery" (literally) that needed solving first.  
   Though I was eager to read this book, I didn't want to buy one if I could borrow a copy from the Library.  
   But by good luck, at the Fall for the Arts Festival I ran into Ann Demilio, co-manager of Maria's Ristorante On Ridge Avenue in Roxborough (and daughter of Maria). Ann loves reading literary fiction. Our "Hi's" are usually followed by "What are you reading lately?" And this time, at once "Freedom" came up. She had just finished her copy, did I want to borrow it? Does a bear read in the woods?
            I picked it up at the restaurant on Tuesday after enjoying a delicious dinner made doubly delightful by the heft (651 pages) of the much-anticipated book I carried out with me. I returned home at 7 p.m., fully intending to start reading that night.
            But I couldn't, because of the bird on the front cover of the book's dust jacket. Against a background image of a pond in a Northern spruce forest at sunrise (twilight? the colors seem deliberately ambiguous), a bird's head projects in profile (superimposed?) from the edge of the cover. The bird seemed familiar, but slightly off, as though it were a variant of a bird I knew well -- a Cerulean warbler. I'd just take a minute to verify the identity of this freaky little avian creature. Then I could start reading. Being of an old-fashioned nature bird-wise I went to my Peterson Eastern bird guide.
            The Cerulean warbler, indeed. Now I could begin reading. I carried the book over to my favorite chair and sat down and adjusted the lamp.
            Except the cover bird, on second sight, seemed grayer than the bright blue one in Peterson, and its bill was a bit thicker. So was its throat. And the thin ring around its neck, where it should have been black, was bluish gray.
            Oh, so what? I resettled in my chair.
            No, that's lazy. Maybe the bird on the cover, rather than being a slightly off rendering of a Cerulean, was an excellent drawing of a bird I didn't know. Maybe I should look in Peterson's guide to the birds west of the Mississippi. I found it on the shelf and turned to warblers. As I suspected, the only bluish warbler with a white throat is a Cerulean. Case closed. I started back to my chair.
            Unless Peterson missed the mark on this bird. I went to my bird reference shelf and took down Kenn Kaufman's "Field Guide to Birds of North America." Again, the only blue warbler with a white throat is the Cerulean. But Kaufmann's version shows a bird that's colored a deeper, almost purplish blue. ("Cerulean" means sky blue, but we all know the range of variation that can mean, depending on time of day and latitude and ambient pollution at work any given day.) And his bird has a very short, almost sparrow-like, stubby bill.
            Okay, let's get the "Stokes (SIC) Field Guide to Birds." The Stokes use photographs rather than drawings and their Cerulean warbler exemplar is pitifully lacking in color and detail. The black chest ring for example is not visible. Nor is the slight contrast that should be evident between the face and cheek of the bird.
            I really should have been reading, but out came the National Geographic guides, then "The Sibley Guide to Birds" and the old Audubon Society guides. Everything was off.
            Then: bing! I remembered reading a report by Franzen in the New Yorker about songbirds in Europe. Maybe the bird on the cover of his book, "Freedom," was a European bird. That would explain the variation.
            I went online and reread the article from last July 26, "Emptying the Skies: Songbird slaughter in the Mediterranean." The article describes the destruction of millions of songbirds, especially Blackcap warblers, to serve as food delicacies in Italy, Malta and Cyprus." Very depressing.
            I had an old guide to the birds of Europe, part of the Peterson Field Guide series. I'd consult that book and then, if necessary, go online to search, including perhaps a brief run through YouTube. (No run through YouTube is ever brief.) As I walked to the shelf for the European field guide, my wife, Janet, looked up from reading her own book and said, "Maybe there's a cover art credit on the dust jacket flap."
            Yes. The back flap credit reads, "Jacket Art: Cerulean Warbler by Dave Maslowski." Maslowski is a noted wildlife photographer. The book jacket designer then reworked the colors of the warbler to make them fit the overall tone of the cover.
            And below that: "Landscape: 2009 - Heikki Salmi/Getty Images." (And a quick trip to Flickr.com revealed that the background photo shows Heikki Salmi's parents' summer cottage at sunset -- in Finland!)
            Okay, pretty dumb, in a way. I wasted my time chasing down a "fact" that was easily available. On the other hand, I learned a lot about variation in birding guides. In the past I had often needed to look at several field guides to identify a bird I wasn't sure of. But I had never before compared drawings and photos of a bird I thought I knew. The range of difference among them was remarkable.
            I didn't get to begin reading "Freedom" that night, but would you say the way I spent my time was an "Enemy" of reading? When I finished my armchair birding I was certainly eager to know what that strange little bird had to do with the story.


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