Birds in fiction need facts too

Below Zero by CJ Box

The hero of Wyoming author C. J. Box’s mystery series is a Wyoming game warden.

Published Jan. 2, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birds in fiction need facts, too. Local author C.J. Box may write fiction, but his Wyoming-based books should still reference wildlife that is actually found in Wyoming.”

2015 Update: Check out these author websites: http://www.cjbox.net, http://us.macmillan.com/author/jonathanfranzen, http://www.markobmascik.com.

By Barb Gorges

“Below Zero” by C.J. Box

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen

“The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik

Cheyenne’s national best-selling crime novelist either needs to do more scenery research or needs to make a rare bird report. In “Below Zero,” C.J. Box’s hero, Joe Pickett, is hiking into the Hole in the Wall, Butch Cassidy’s famous hideout, and the description includes bluebirds and cardinals.

Cardinals are rare in Wyoming and no observations have been documented for Johnson County, where the Hole in the Wall is located.

If Box were from back east, cardinal country, I would say he added a splash of color to the scenery using a species he was familiar with. But Box is a Wyoming native, so he needs to contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s non-game bird biologist and report the cardinal if he saw it while researching the novel. Apparently Pickett, the fictional game warden, was too busy looking for trip wires to realize what he’d seen.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen’s novel features the plight of an endangered bird and the man trying to save it.

Can an author mention any but the most common birds in fiction or can they give unusual birds enough context so non-birdwatcher readers will understand their significance? In “Freedom,” a literary novel by Jonathan Franzen which I just finished reading, cerulean warblers are a bit more than scenery—they and their predicament, diminishing habitat, are both metaphor and plot device. And a main character is identified as a birdwatcher to explain his anti-social tendencies.

Realistic fiction has to be more believable than real life, it seems. Would it be believable that on the November Audubon field trip in the middle of Cheyenne we saw a Cooper’s hawk knock a mallard drake on its back, less than 50 feet from where we stood at the railing at the edge of Sloan’s Lake in Lions Park? They don’t usually go for ducks.

Of course, if it were fiction, we’d only include the anecdote to illustrate character or to move the plot along. I was all for leaving the duck, seemingly close to death, for the hawk. Pat wanted to tip it over onto its feet and Art tipped it. Fifteen minutes later it was walking with an occasional stumble. I suppose the three of us were characterized, even though we are not fictional: I think hawks deserve to eat, Pat is a retired nurse and Art has handled a lot of gamebirds.

The Big Year by Mark Obmascik

Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book about compulsive birders was later turned into a movie.

Some of the best storytelling I’ve read recently was about real birds and real birdwatchers: “The Big Year, a Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession,” by Mark Obmascik, the featured author at this year’s Laramie County Library Foundation’s Booklover’s Bash.

In 1998 three men independently decide to break the record for the number of bird species seen by one person in one year in North America. It takes them half a year to realize they are competing against each other.

No Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with such craziness as these men risking their lives in storms on Attu, the farthest west point of Alaska, where lost Asian bird species blow onto our continent.

In fact, the story is so crazy that Hollywood bought it and made it into a movie to be released early in 2011, starring actors you’ve heard of: Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin.

What I like about Obmascik’s writing is how deftly he explains the birding world without bogging down the story. He knows what needs to be explained to non-birders because he was one, yet he understands birders, too, having recently become one.

For nonbirding authors of fiction, adding avian color to realistic fictional scenery is simple enough. Check a recently published field guide and then call the local Audubon chapter for confirmation on exactly what time of year and on what kind of bush your chosen bird species might be seen. Millions of birdwatchers, who tend to be well-read folks, will appreciate your effort.

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