Reviewed by Cheyenne Marco
University of South Dakota
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am not a birder. But one doesn’t have to be to enjoy Larkin Powell’s Great Plains Birds. Written for a general audience, Powell’s work moves beyond the litany of lists and maps of a standard guidebook and expresses a distinct narrative voice that is entertaining as well as educational.
Despite its relative brevity, Great Plains Birds covers a lot of ground. Powell begins with his origin story, detailing the moment he gave his life over to the birds. He describes how, as a college freshman, he was deprived of a spring break in Mexico and forced to watch the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska. Initially peeved, Powell’s perspective radically changes as he watches the beautiful and deafening “well-defined chaos” of a flock taking flight (xix). Following this reflection, he promises to share more stories of the birds he’s come to call his own. What follows are detailed descriptions of common Plains birds and their behaviors, threats to their numbers, and efforts to conserve their populations. The book is more about the concept of birds rather than a comprehensive handbook of locations and features. The text is augmented by beautiful drawings, historical photographs, and relevant figures. Powell concludes the text with instructions for successful birding, along with an extensive list of where to find some Great Plains birds.
Powell’s writing is as colorful as the birds he describes. His accounts of Great Plains birds are descriptive and intimate. For instance, he characterizes the scissor-tailed flycatcher as “a proud breeding bird of the southern plains (figure 8), but they are rebellious at heart…Their unique tail and body form make the species easy to spot (figure 9) on fences or electric lines as you zip along the highway during spring and summer. If you find one, and slow down for a good look, you may quickly add them to your list of favorite birds because of their pinkish flanks, smooth gray head, and long black-and-white tail” (13-14). When describing Lek-based mating systems, Powell writes, “Think of a dance club for college students and remember back to the crazy dancing you did at that age. I apologize for brining that up, but now you understand the dynamic” (20-22). These details, paired with Powell’s good humor, make the birds come off the page. His willingness to poke fun keeps the reader on his/her toes.
Powell’s work engages the reader on a personal level. Throughout the book, he shares anecdotes of his travels through the northern Plains, using moments of memory to illustrate why birds are important—to everyone from the average Plains dweller to the most enthusiastic bird watcher. In a poignant scene in chapter three, Powell recalls a conversation he had with a rancher who had learned an important life lesson from watching a bird. As the rancher observed an eagle making a nest, the man surmised “he needs to think more like an eagle: plan ahead and think about the future, not just what is happening at the moment. That is one smart bird” (85). Birds become larger than life and offer something for everyone. As Powell underscores the importance of birds, he calls on readers to not just watch birds but support them. At the end of chapter four, he asks for involvement and encourages his audience to buy Duck Stamps, donate time or money to conservation and educational efforts, study conservation biology, and contact congresspeople—encouraging a sense of community and advocacy. Powell moves his work off the page and into practice.
Great Plains Birds is the latest installment of the Discover the Great Plains series and skillfully builds on the issues and themes addressed by previous authors. Powell expresses a deep connection to place, frequently addressing the misconception that the Great Plains are empty and barren. Again, utilizing personal narrative, Powell describes his own youthful angst about the boredom of the Plains but, through birds, matured to find complexity in the landscape. There is a lot of something beneath the surface of nothingness. Birds become a framework for the complex historical, environmental, and political conditions on the Great Plains. Like other books in the Discover the Great Plains series, most notably Dan O’Brien’s Great Plains Bison, Powell uses a relatively narrow focus to spark larger conversations, particularly about environmental concerns. Chapter five tackles climate change, making a global issue more immediately local. Powell recognizes “that landscapes of the Great Plains are changed as the result of personal decisions” and expresses concern over striking a balance between environment and economy, talking about these issues with the care and caution of someone with an investment in the place (xxiii).
In the book’s introduction, Powell explains that humans and birds are currently engaged in a tight dance. He declares: “We need to talk about that, so I hope you will turn the page” (xxiii). When it comes to Great Plains Birds, it is worth turning the page. The discussion contained within the text is one worth having, presented by an engaging voice worth listening to.
About Cheyenne Marco
Cheyenne Marco holds a PhD in creative writing and enjoys writing about the challenges facing the Northern Plains. Marco currently serves as a Lecturer of English at the University of South Dakota – CCSF. Her works have appeared in Quarterly West, Rathalla Review, Turk’s Head Review, and others.