Recently, I spoke with author Phillip Hoose about his new book, “Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95,” which is reviewed in today’s Inquirer.
Here’s a recap of our conversation:
Hoose’ relationship with birds goes back to graduate school in the mid-70s. He wasn’t a birder at the time, but “everyone around me was a birder,” so he “received two years of full immersion. Birding became a huge part of my life.”
In 1977, he joined the staff of The Nature Conservancy, where much of his work and that of his colleagues centered ardound birds. “Birds have just become a huge part of my life.”
Later, “as an author, I reached a point where I wanted these two hemispheres to marry.”
He had been writing books about racism in sports, high school basketball in Indiana as such, and “I just reached a point where I wanted to write a book about extinction. I view extinction as tragic and preventable and certainly worth everybody’s attention.”
He hit not on the red knot, at first, but the ivory-billed woodpecker.
So Hoose’s next title was “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird” — the wording coming from the tendency of some who spotted the magnificent creature to blurt out, “Lord, God!”
The publisher’s description: “A powerful saga that sweeps through two hundred years of history, it introduces artists like John James Audubon, bird collectors like William Brewster, and finally a new breed of scientist in Cornell's Arthur A. "Doc" Allen and his young ornithology student, James Tanner, whose quest to save the Ivory-bill culminates in one of the first great conservation showdowns in U.S. history, an early round in what is now a worldwide effort to save species. As hope for the Ivory-bill fades in the United States, the bird is last spotted in Cuba in 1987, and Cuban scientists join in the race to save it.”
“It was a tough story to write,” Hoose recalled.
As it turned out, the book had been out about three months, and Hoose was on an author tour to promote it, when there was astonishing news: A possible sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas.
Researchers, including some from this region, headed to the swampy woods to try to find it — by sight, by sound, by camera, by any means possible.
And the tone of the questions Hoose was getting from audiences changed completely. Did he think the sighting was real? However he answered, he couldn’t win. If he said yes, he might be considered an unrealistic optimist. If he said no, what a spoil sport!
“I made up my mind after the dust cleared that I hadn’t finished,” he said. “I still wanted to write about extinction.”
He sent an APB to his friends — any ideas?
He identified some semi-finalists and continued to read and think.
Enter his friend, Charles Duncan, a conservationist with the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, who kept hounding Hoose. What about the red knot? There’s your bird. It’s got it all. It’s beautiful. It has this heroic migration from the bottom of the world to the top. It’s in real trouble. How about the red knot?
Hoose kept shaking his head. He needed to protagonist. He needed a single character. That would be tough to find in a bird, but he vowed he would wait until he did.
Then Duncan called again. “I’ve got your bird.”
There was a specific red knot that had been alive much longer than red knots are supposed to.
Probably only half of them make that first journey of about 10,000 miles from where they would have hatched in the Canadian Arctic to their wintering grounds at the tip of South America.
If the bird makes it through that, it might live another six or seven years.
This one had been banded there in 1995. But since researchers ran out of bands that day, they had put a single ring of black plastic on the final birds.
In 2001, researchers put a unique identifier around upper left leg of one of the birds — an orange band that said B95.
After that, biologists kept seeing the bird. “By the time they recaptured it in 2007, it had started to achieve this reputation as being this wise old bird, but also kind of bionic, the toughest four ounces in the world,” Hoose said.
“By the time I spoke to Charles about this, this bird was 17 or 18 years old. It had lived through a terrible crash of rufa red knots.”
“Biologists also had tallied up its frequent flyer mileage, and had concluded that in B95s life had flown a distance that exceeded the distance from the Earth to the moon and was closing in on half the way back,” Hoose said.
“I said to Charles, ‘I’m hooked, bingo, what do I do now?’ “
In December 2009, Hoose and his wife got on plane and went to bottom of world to begin to tell B95’s story — and through that, the story of the rest of the rufa red knot population. Or perhaps, as it turned out, vice versa.
He looks at the book not only as a ripping good tale, which it is, but also as an ornithology primer, with sidebar material on physiological transformations, molt, feather wear, orienteering, arrival time, banding, rationale for migration, how they know when to go, predator evasion strategies, and so on.
Hoose remembers the day last spring — after his book was already finished — that B95 was spotted once again.
It was on Delaware Bay, and it was May 28 — statistically, the last day birds leave for the Arctic.
Throughout the month on the bay, birders with high-powered scopes scan the flocks for any birds with tags, logging them to add to the data base of who goes where and how long they live. But, of course, they were also looking for B95 in particular.
That morning, when B95 hadn’t yet been spotted, Hoose tried to be philosophical.
“I remember thinking that morning, ‘dang, looks like we missed him. I hope he’s alive.’ And people were saying nothing lives forever. What a run it’s been for him.”
At 10 a.m., Hoose was in a conference with the Canada team. About an hour before, he had given a presentation on the book and showed some of the images.
He was watching his email when the message came in: B95 had been spotted! “What a jolt. I can still feel it,” he said.
“I whooped. And it was in the middle of somebody’s presentation. But I was so happy. I did. I yelled out.”
As far as anyone knows now, B95 is up in the Arctic, where the birds arrive in early June, when it’s often still snowbound, the insects they need for food still locked in frozen ponds.
The birds start courtship dances in the air, and set up their breeding territories. The eggs are laid — often four — in a scrape in the rocky ground.
The hatchlings can walk with family to the shore the very day they’re born. For about three weeks, the families stay intact. After a while, the moms take off — probably to give them a chance for food without competition, researchers have figured.
“They’ve made quite a sacrifice. They’ve deposited 60 percent of their body weight into those four eggs,” Hoose said.
“So the dads so daycare for another three weeks — brooding them at night, keeping them from Arctic foxes and snowy owls and jaegers.”
Then, the males take off, too. “The kids are left on their own, not knowing a heck of a lot. Then the urge comes to move to the net place, and they do it.”
Researchers keep learning amazing things about these birds, and Hoose said that was one of the biggest challenges of the book — keeping up with the science.
Now, with tiny geolocators that can be attached to their legs, “we have the ability to see the whole journey, day by day. To really be able to track the entire journey and how far they fly, see the decisions they make. They backtrack and hang out until whatever storm is over, then go on again. They visit places we never knew or suspected.”
In the end, Hoose felt transformed by the story of B95 and the rest of his kind.
“I’ve worked for the Nature Conservancy all these years, so I’ve known bilogists and conservationists and habitats and creatures,” he said. “But this book really filled me with admiration for how rugged biologists are. You think of scientists as these geeky kinds of people in white lab coats. The people I met throughout B95’s circuit were as rugged and tough and adaptable and stubborn in their commitment to these birds and understanding them as any people I’ve ever met.”
As for the birds, “my admiration for B95 himself and all red knots and all shorebirds is boundless. It’s amazing and wonderful to me that these creatures can make these flights and do the things that they do in order to keep going.”
“And, you know, the point of it all is, just bringing it back to the book I wanted to write about extinction, it’s folly to knowingly let a life form go. Every life form is a success story. Every life form holds and carries all these wise decisions within it. The point is not to let them go, but to learn from them and admire them and to keep them going … for the wonderful contributions they make to living on earth.”
When Hoose isn’t writing books, he works with a Canada program of The Nature Conservancy. Most of his work inolves supporting youth programs among First Nations people in the Great Bear Rainforest area in British Columbia. He sets up camps and internships and in general works to “restrengthen the connections that young people have with customs and traditions” of their land and people.”
Breat Bear is an area of about 21 million acres of maritime rainforest, the biggest example of temperate rainforest in good well-protected shape remaining in the earth, Hoose said. “Oh gosh, it’s wonderful.”