3 questions for Mike Parr about ‘Bringing Back the Birds’

This photo of a sleeping Northern Gannet is featured in the book “Bringing Back the Birds.” Photo by Owen Deutsch

This month, American Bird Conservancy and the publisher Braided River are publishing a stunning new book titled Bringing Back the Birds: Exploring Migration and Preserving Birdscapes throughout the Americas. It’s a gorgeous coffee-table-style book measuring about 12×10 inches, and it uses its large size to display bird photos by Owen Deutsch, a renowned Chicago-based photographer.

The book’s lineup of writers is as impressive as Deutsch’s photos: Novelist Jonathan Franzen, poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, ornithologists Peter Marra and John W. Fitzpatrick, and authors Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman contribute pieces, as do Mike Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy, and Clare Nielsen, ABC’s vice president of communications. Sales of the book benefit ABC: 100 percent of the royalties go back to the group. I recently asked Parr a few questions about the book.

Michael J. Parr
Michael J. Parr. Photo by Tacha Coleman Parr

In this book, you have a stellar lineup of contributors from the literary, scientific, photographic, and advocacy segments of the ornithological community. How did the idea for the book come about? And what do you hope readers take away from it?

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The idea started when I sent a note to Owen about a photo he posted of a Black-and-white Owl. I wanted to know what camera settings he used as it was an awesome photo and I have been struggling with photographing owls at night. This led to a conversation which led to an idea which led to the book concept. We were fortunate that the first publisher we approached, Braided River (the conservation imprint of nonprofit publisher Mountaineers Books), jumped at the idea and we were off and running.

In terms of take-aways, I just hope that readers are motivated to do something positive to help birds. I really hope they will join ABC if they are not already a member, but why not join all the main bird groups – and your local group – then you will really be contributing in a significant way to bird conservation. There are things you can do around your home and yard to make the environment safer for birds too, and you can also lend your voice to the collective policy efforts of the bird community – and show a child the book and take them to see birds. Then you’ll really be doing something to bring back the birds.

One of the chapters discusses BirdScapes, an ABC program. Please explain briefly what it is and who your partners are.

BirdScapes are areas where we know that there are important bird populations, and where we can set goals for habitat conservation across landscapes large enough to make a meaningful contribution to bird population recovery. It is more a question of conservation priority meets opportunity than an idea to recreate a big science priority-setting scheme like Important Bird Areas (IBAs). Thanks to IBAs and other data projects we already know where many of the most important places are. Most often, the thing that is lacking is a means of delivering conservation solutions at scale. We have a lot of partners and you can find a list on our website. We have already identified more than 50 BirdScapes and are active in 20 – both in the U.S. and on wintering grounds in Central and South America and the Caribbean. And we also hope to expand into Canada in the near future. 

Any coffee-table-type book requires great photos, and you certainly have that with Owen Deutsch’s work. His photos are incredible! I was moved by something he says in his “artist’s statement” toward the back of the book: “It has been a great source of pleasure for me to share my photographs, not only with bird lovers, but also with people who, like me before I began to look at birds through my lens, have no interest in avian life at all.” That’s the trick isn’t it? To get more people to take an interest in birds? How do you think the birding community is doing in terms of getting more people to care?

It’s gradual but there’s recently been an acceleration through people who appreciate birds through their photography. Digital has opened up bird photography to so many folks like me who previously struggled with slides in terms of cost and the time it took to get their work developed. If you really study Owen’s photos you can learn a lot about how to take good bird pictures. Owen has taught me a lot, but the one most straightforward and easy lesson was to get your lens at a bird’s level. Photos taken looking down on a bird are never as good (or as much fun) as the ones taken on your stomach lying in water and mud. Those people who are just beginning with bird photography will eventually be the bird champions of the future – so I hope they get down and dirty and really enjoy their hobby – and remember to join ABC or another bird conservation group or three.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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