The secret language of birds
If you’ve ever wondered—or tried to explain—what birds are saying as they flit about in trees or preen on their perches, help is here: Lita Judge’s new book, Bird Talk: What Birds Are Saying and Why, is a wonderfully illustrated compendium of bird behavior and communication for young readers.
The talented author-illustrator of 10 books and counting (including the recent picture books Red Sled and Strange Creatures), Judge knows what our feathered friends are up to—whether a series of caws or a sudden flurry of poop-missiles—thanks to a childhood spent immersed in nature.
Born on a small Alaskan island, Judge and her family traveled wherever her father’s soil-scientist jobs took him. Home base was in Wisconsin, where her grandparents, who were both ornithologists, lived on a remote farm with no TV or running water, but plenty of bird-centric chores to be done. “When I was young, I thought everyone had eagles and owls in the house,” she says in an interview from her home in New Hampshire.
At age 14, the author was accepted for two summers of work on a dinosaur dig in Canada, and after college, she became a geologist. She eventually quit her geologist job to work as an artist—mostly painting landscapes for galleries—but never stopped feeling a pull toward books.
“I always had a huge desire to be a writer and artist, but I didn’t have role models to show me it could be done professionally,” Judge says, adding that she spent some time wishing she’d gone to art school. But, she says, “I’ve realized I am who I am because of my past. I believe really strongly my background in science taught me a lot about art.”
She explains, “To get birds to look fluid and gestural and come to life when they’re essentially made out of graphite, you have to know anatomy and behavior; you have to spend a lot of time watching them. Geology is a science of observation, and as a kid, I spent hours on the marsh with my grandparents. I would write and draw what I saw, but I didn’t see it as art—more as a contribution to what they were doing.”
Her grandparents were “strong disciplinarians, and I spent hours and hours in blinds being absolutely still. To make a book takes so much patience and contemplation, and that training gave me a peaceful stillness and the ability to observe subtle things.”
In addition to her childhood adventures, Judge says she draws inspiration from the wildlife that surrounds her home. “I spend a lot of time outside going for hikes, where the inspiration comes, and I do the work in my studio. It’s a regular thoroughfare here because we have feeders everywhere. At any one time, we have 40 wild turkeys circling the house, bears looking right in at us, foxes, bobcats and lots of deer.”
The creatures that populate Bird Talk are a delight to behold, from the elegantly arched neck of the Indian Sarus Crane to the tensed body of a striped American Bittern who’s hiding in tall grass—but risking a yellow-eyed peek to see if his ruse is working.
And Judge’s eye for color will help young readers connect the fascinating images and facts in the book with what they see in real life, whether gazing up at flashes of blue or red in a tree, admiring vivid plumage in the bird-house at a zoo, or clicking through bird photos online.
“I wanted every child to have a bird they could identify from their backyards. I also wanted to include those really bizarre things kids just love. So, it’s a healthy mix of birds I’ve seen firsthand and those I remember being thrilled by,” Judge says.
The Sage Grouse will not disappoint (think: blowfish with feathers), and the charm of the Blue-Footed Booby belies its name. A bird-guide and glossary, plus a list of references, will aid curious kids in learning more about bird appearance, behavior and habitat.
Through her books, Judge says she hopes to convey the thrill—and value—of being around animals and exploring nature. Based on her visits to schools, there is a receptive audience: “The average kid is much more articulate [than kids of decades past] about the consequences we have on the environment.”
She adds, “They don’t have to be watching wild animals personally to care about them. I find they’re all heart and want to make a difference, but at the same time they have a lack of knowledge about just how complex the natural world is. One thing I want to do with this book is hopefully fuel kids’ natural inborn curiosity and love for animals, and give an appreciation of how complex animal behavior is.”
Bird Talk is just the vehicle to spark, or enhance, that appreciation: Judge’s expressive illustrations and textual translations add dimension and personality to the feathered creatures we see and hear every day. Her deep knowledge of and affection for nature is evident—not to mention her delight in at last becoming the author and artist she was meant to be.
“When I finally switched to children’s books, and to doing what I did as a kid with writing and visuals working together to tell a story . . . it felt like falling into myself,” she says.