It all started three years ago, when I was squeezed in between a cabaret table and a wall at the McConnell Arts Center, listening to Bernard Master talk about the birds of Worthington.Master talk about the birds of Worthington. For those of us who wanted to learn how to identify the birds that fly through our own patch, Dr. Master suggested reading Jim McCormac’s work. I dutifully followed instructions, checking out Jim’s Birds of Ohio and bookmarking his blog, Ohio Birds and Biodiversity.
On the right side of the blog’s home page, I spotted a section titled “Good Blogs and Websites Found Here.” There, I found this: “Julie Zickefoose – Beautiful musings about nature by a premier author and artist.” One click and off I went to Indigo Hill, Julie’s 80-acre sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio, named for the small blue buntings that have sung there for Julie and her husband, Bill Thompson III, ever since they arrived in 1992.
Julie’s posts about her observations of nature are written in a style as charming as they are visually presented. They appear on a background that looks like a spiral-bound notebook, surrounded with collages of her artwork, snapshots of her children and a “Click on Me” tag to learn about Chet Baker, Julie’s Boston terrier that she named after her favorite jazz musician. They’re just entrancing.
That evening, Julie was the featured speaker during a meeting of the Worthington Garden Club, an organization that has created plantings and lamppost hanging baskets along High Street in Old Worthington, plant auctions, nature hikes and more since its founding in 1929. What else would you expect from an organization presided over by Steve Herminghausen, the lead librarian at Worthington Libraries’ Northwest Branch, who brings along books on the topic to be discussed of each club meeting?
Ever since Mr. Herminghausen heard Julie on NPR talking about getting ready for the Big Sit!, an annual, international, noncompetitive birding event, he wanted to learn more about this person who opened her garage door and noticed a fowl odor. (To understand what he’s talking about, click here to listen to “Learning from a Bird: ‘The Big Sit,’” which aired on NPR on October 3, 2006.)
We all learned a lot more about Julie that evening, as she introduced us not only to herself, but also to her new book about birds, wonder, curiosity and absorption: Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest.
You can learn a lot about a person by browsing their bookshelves. In Julie’s case, you can trace the root of her desire to be an illustrator to her favorite books from childhood: Indians and the Old West: The Story of the First Americans, adapted from the pages of American Heritage by Anne Terry White; Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known; Holling Clancy Holling’s books, including Pagoo, Minn of the Mississippi and Paddle to the Sea; the artwork of Louis and Lois Darling, who illustrated Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Beverly Cleary’s series of books about Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins; and A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America, by Edward Howe Forbush, with illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Allan Brooks and Roger Tory Peterson. Later, while working as a young illustrator of field guides, greeting cards and Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine covers, Julie found inspiration in Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady and Robert Clem’s illustrations for The Shorebirds of North America, by Peter Matthiessen.
And then it hit her. After she illustrated Jonathan Pine’s Backyard Birds, she determined to write and illustrate her own books. Writing about what she knows, she has published Backyard Birding: Using Natural Gardening to Attract Birds; Letters From Eden: A Year at Home, in the Woods; and The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds.
This time around, Julie decided she wanted to share the magic that she’s observed during the past 13 years of observing nestling birds, from bluebirds in nest boxes to Carolina wrens nesting in a basket on her porch.
How many times have you heard not to touch bird nests because the mother bird will pick up your scent on her babies and she’ll abandon them? Well, that’s for the birds, Julie says. If you know how to handle baby birds and return them to their nest, as long as the nest is protected from a predator, you can observe their development too, especially if you have the necessary permits to handle migratory birds.
Every day, Julie borrowed a hatchling, painted its portrait, and replaced it in its nest, creating more than 400 watercolors that record the daily development of 17 bird species from egg to fledgling. All but one of the species she painted were nesting right there on her property. Surprisingly, depicting nestling growth in day-by-day paintings from life has never been done before. In fact, Julie said, the book is unusual, like a throwback to the days when well-bred ladies like Edith Holden spent their days wandering meadows, picking flowers and collecting birds’ nests and eggs to paint in their journals.
Julie shared some memorable stories of her experiences, like explaining how a cinereous mourner chick that looked like a poisonous flannel moth caterpillar made her wonder about Batesian mimicry, where a species evolves to imitate the warning signals of a harmful predator. Click here to see what I mean.
And then there was the pair of day-old yellow-billed cuckoos nesting in a tangle of honeysuckle who stood up in their nest and made noises like a snake. Julie set her camera to video, pushed it through the honeysuckle, pointed it down into the nest, and then…
“By chance, the camera bumped a twig, and the weird, reptilian chicks instantly transformed, lifting themselves high on their haunches,” Julie wrote in Baby Birds. “They flapped their paddle-stub wings rapidly as they opened cavernous gapes. Brilliant red mouths, studded with white protuberances called ‘pearls,’ opened wide. Two heads waved wildly as the chicks emitted a sizzling rattle that startled me.”
Just like the video I watched in Columbus Audubon’s beginning ornithology class about Estrildid finch chicks, who have fluorescent mouth markings to help their parents find their mouths and deliver their food in their dark nests, I thought! (To see what I mean, watch this video of a Gouldian finch feeding chicks in a nest.
Finally, Julie introduced us to Harper, Cletus and Melba, a trio of brown thrashers who arrived in a shoebox after their Cincinnati hedgerow home was cut down. Julie fed them, photographed them, sang to them and taught them how to pick up food.
“These gifts keep falling from their nests, right into an amazed and grateful heart,” Julie wrote. “The stories keep coming, and I have to keep telling them.”