Thursday, January 10, 2013

Book Review: Private Lives of Garden Birds by Calvin Simmonds

Calvin Simmonds' Private Lives of Garden Birds is a series of essays about the birds Simmonds sees all the time on his farm. He is a behavioral biologist, so he cannot be classed as an amateur, but he writes for amateurs, for people who just want to get to know their winged neighbors. In this, he reminded me quite a bit of John Crompton, who spent The Spider writing about spiders as his eccentric neighbors. Simmonds' prose is not so lavish, but the feeling of general neighborliness is the same.

It did take me a while to get used to the fact that each chapter in Private Lives of Garden Birds takes the form of a gentle essay, rather than being a straight, factual article on the bird named in the title. Up to half an essay on any given bird may be spent describing the walk it takes to reach the bird's place, musing on other birds seen in the same area, and generally taking a leisurely approach to the purported subject of the essay. For some reason, I was expecting a more clear-cut, efficient division of subject, so it took me a few essays to realize that, of course, this casual approach is part of Simmonds' point: The birds are his neighbors, and this is their neighborhood. He's not writing about the generic phoebe category, he's writing about the phoebe who lives on his farm, down near the bridge, above the river. After the first bit of disorientation, I relaxed and enjoyed strolling the farm with him.

There is plenty of detail on the birds' lives, as well as some lovely musings on crow grammar, some great bits of humor, an account of the first colonists' impression of the hummingbird ("their descriptions of them sound fantastic, like descriptions of unicorns or griffins"), an description of his and his human neighbor's differing views on blue jays, and other matters surrounding birds. The prose is relaxed and easy to follow.

Simmonds sticks to birds most of his readers likely also encounter, birds like phoebes, song sparrows, crows, hummingbirds, and other common varieties people all over the States are likely to see. That made the book all the more welcome; these birds are my neighbors, too, and it was nice to meet them in a slightly different setting and to learn more about their lives.

Highly recommended.


More or less an aside: I do have one complaint that is not unique to Simmonds, though the problem does show up in Private Lives of Garden Birds: A good many writers on organic gardening and on gardening for birds or bees or butterflies describe "gardens" that, to me, border on estates (or in Simmonds' case, farms), insisting on meadows, groves, and ponds. Simmonds, for example, suggests a "garden" with "tall trees that cast deep shadows...bushy thickets or dense evergreens...several different kinds[of shrub]...a place where the water stands in a pool, another place where it trickles..." I live in a city. I've perfectly nice city-sized front and back yards; there's plenty of room for me to try new varieties of tomato,to let herbs flower for the bugs, and to put in some native plants. There's even a lemon tree. Groves and thickets, however, are quite out of the question. So are out-of-the-way stands of thistle. I do wish more advocates for organic gardening and animal sanctuary would recognize this. Yes, I'm grateful for what they have done, but sometimes I'm left with the feeling that all the flowering plants in the world won't be enough if I can't include a swamp as well so why bother trying?

What I'm trying to say is: Could someone please write a book that keeps in mind the less-than-an acre gardener? The person who maybe only has a small patch of porch or windowsill?

Do you happen to know about any such book?

Also, at this point, I'm also thinking I'd like a few books that are even more local, some specifically West-Coast books that won't assure me that the yellow jackets will all die out in the first hard freeze, or that if I don't want house sparrows around, all I need to do is skip feeding them one winter and they'll leave. Not that I especially mind yellow jackets, and I'm really quite fond of sparrows, but the snowy weather won't be chasing either away from anything, not around here! Also, I suspect many of the local birds have slightly different behaviors, given the relatively mild weather. So, anyone know of any good West Coast writers?

Note: This review was originally written and shared on my blog, Bookwyrme's Lair. Stop by and visit for lots more reviews, photos, and general musings on the good things in life.


  1. I just read one, Garden Anywhere by Alys Fowler, but it's more of a friendly instruction book than essay style. I know of a few about city gardening- Farm City, Seedfolks, etc. but there's a lovely little book called Linnea's Windowsill Garden. It's a picture book, but I enjoyed it myself.

    1. I'll keep an eye out for it then, thanks!

      It's frustrating: I like gardening & organic gardening, but sometimes people's ideas of a "small" garden are very different from mine! "small" is a balcony!

  2. That's exactly what I've got right now: windowsills and a balcony. I went from a huge back yard to a space I can cross in four strides. It's very different, and I'm having a bit of trouble adjusting!