I was a bit torn in my reaction to the bird aspects of The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church.
The author acknowledges that while she is a birder she is more interested in behavior than species identification and that certainly comes through in Meridian’s character as well. There are occasional comments about specific species throughout the book but they are scattered across the years and across the country–a few in Pennsylvania where Meridian grew up, a few more in Chicago, Illinois where she attends university, and a few more in New Mexico – where she lives most of her life.
I understand that she’s interested in bird behavior more than species identification, and I also get that birders tend to gloss over the more common birds, taking them for granted. However, I have a hard time believing she doesn’t get more excited about the change in birds from Pennsylvania/Illinois to New Mexico.
When I moved to Los Angeles after having grown up in upstate New York and having lived in Wisconsin for more than a dozen years, the change in the local common birds was a little jarring. Suddenly there were no robins, no cardinals, no chickadees, no blue jays, no downy woodpeckers, no nuthatches. The birds I see on a daily basis changed dramatically. Now I see (and hear) hummingbirds every day. There is a small local flock of escaped parrots. I seem to see more crows and ravens – and the crows definitely sound different here. My backyard birds tend to be fruit and nectar eaters rather than seed and nut eaters, and seed eaters are usually coming through on migration rather than hanging out all year.
My point is that other than one short section where Meridian gets excited about seeing a roadrunner (and who wouldn’t?) there isn’t much said about the change in birds that is integral to a move across country. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the author grew up in Los Alamos–maybe the local birds are just that to her – local and uninteresting. With the exception of the roadrunner and a couple of jays, the species mentioned are almost all pretty dull birds–as common in Chicago or Pennsylvania as in New Mexico.
However, despite that, there are many bird-related things I loved about this book. The chapters are all named after a particular bird and its collective noun: A Parliament of Owls, A Murder of Crows, A Watch of Nightingales, A Charm of Hummingbirds. And each chapter title is accompanied by 2 “definitions”–a descriptive definition (related to plumage or characteristics) and a more symbolic definition (often based on mythology). These definitions often relate to what happens in the particular chapter.
I did a little checking, and found loads of lists of collective nouns, including one on Wikipedia, which seems to be the most comprehensive and includes many collective nouns for other animals. Wikipedia didn’t have all of the ones Church used, however, whereas this list from Palomar Audubon Society does.
As for birds important to the story–ones that actually appear–the main one, of course, is the crow. Again, I have to say I was a little disappointed. I kept expecting some mention of the Native American mythology surrounding Crow–especially when one of the two crows she was able to distinguish from the others was one with a withered leg (*!). I had to keep reminding myself (as Meridian’s adviser reminded her) to “Be a scientist, Miss Wallace, not an English major.” However, as she grew and opened more to her creative side, I really expected her to investigate some of the Crow legends. Yet the Native Americans of the Southwest hardly even made an appearance in the novel.
Still, the tidbits of crow behavior and evidence of their intelligence were fascinating, and the description of the crow “funeral” was beautiful.
One by one, they approached White Wing and either stopped short of him by a few inches or touched him with their beaks, as if placing a hand on a closed casket, bidding farewell. I was seeing a crow funeral, as impossible as that seemed. They’d gathered for White Wing. To say good-bye? To honor him? … we watched the crows bid adieu and then take off. When the departing crows had flown some prescribed distance from the setting, each one called, two to three brisk caws.
The novel begins with a description of an incident around New Year’s Day 2011 of several thousand red-winged blackbirds falling from the Arkansas skies. I was morbidly fascinated with this tale, and had to find out if it was true. It is, as is the conclusion she says the scientists reached. The bit I didn’t realize until I finished the book was that the scientific laboratory that figured it out (in real life) is located in Wisconsin–it is the same lab that Marvella, the girl Meridian mentors toward the end of the book, works at.
Marvella works as a veterinary medical officer at the U.S. Geological Society’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin.
In other words, Marvella was one of the bird researchers who figured it out (theoretically, anyway, since she is a fictional character).
There were some other great tidbits too–just small references, but really nice touches.
“Stay on topic. Please. … None of your peregrinations.”
“Oh, bird humor. I love it!”
Meridian’s childhood nickname, given by her Scottish-heritage father, is “wee brown sparrow.” This is a reference to Robert Browning, the great Scots poet, who called his wife, fellow poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, his wee brown sparrow.
There was also a reference to the Jim Crow laws and the origin of that phrase, which I had occasionally wondered about.
One of the first North American ornithologists was an army major, Charles Bendire. … Well, he recounts the tale of a crow named Jim. Some idiot taunted Jim with a knife kept just out of reach. Finally, Jim bit the hand that held the knife, causing the tormentor to drop it. Then Jim flew off with the knife, hiding it and putting an end to the teasing game. Cause and effect. … I just now thought about it. Jim Crow laws. Hunh.
This is an interesting theory Meridian comes up with, however, according to History.com it isn’t considered to be the origin of the phrase. I didn’t find the account of the crow, but Wikipedia had a little information about Charles Bendire and I also found this book review for Of a Feather by Scott Weidensaul, which gives a history of North America’s great ornithologists, including Bendire.
Another nice play on words:
We believe in lovebirds. Not lovehorses or lovecows, or even lovebutterflies. Lovebirds.
And I was a bit chuffed to see her adviser gave her a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, as the Peterson guides were our family’s preferred guides on our cross-country trips and day-to-day birding for many years.
As a side note, Cornell is still the foremost university for ornithology, and a fantastic source for birding information should you ever need it.
So–the list of birds for The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church. As I mentioned, these birds are seen in several states (not just New Mexico), and there are a few, like the birds from the Burgess Bird Book for Children, that I couldn’t justify including in the Life List, as well as a few generic “finches” or “sparrows” or “hummingbirds” that defy identification.