The Family Life of Birds

An interview with Wenfei Tong, author of a fascinating book about bird behavior.

Posted Mar 04, 2020

"Bird Love looks at the extraordinary range of mating systems in the avian world, exploring all the stages from courtship and nest-building to protecting eggs and raising chicks...[it] is a celebration of the global diversity of avian reproductive strategies."

I recently read a fascinating, comprehensive, and beautifully illustrated book about numerous aspects bird behavior called Bird Love: The Family Life of Birds, and I'm pleased to post this interview with its author, Wenfei Tong. A summary of the book can be seen here. Wenfei is a biologist with a passion for understanding and conserving the natural world. She went to Princeton and Oxford as an undergraduate, and has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard, where she is currently a research associate. I wanted to know more about Wenfei and her outstanding book and I'm pleased she could take the time to answer a few questions. Our interview follows.

Princeton University Press
Source: Princeton University Press

Why did you write Bird Love?

Bird Love combines two of my greatest loves: birds and evolutionary biology. I have long wanted to contribute to nature conservation and to communicating science to a broader audience. Writing a visually striking and wryly funny book about the evolution and diversity of bird family life seemed like a good way to get people to relate to the natural world, and to engage with some potentially controversial science. My implicit intention is to advocate for conservation and science. The hope is to get readers to identify with birds, and through humour, enjoy learning about bird diversity in a personal way that will inspire them to pay more attention to the natural world and want to protect it.

How does it relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I grew up finding it much easier to relate to non-human animals. I was an only child, painfully shy with humans, and spent most of my time reading about the natural world and other species. My mother very obligingly encouraged me to read anything I wanted, so before being socialised with my own species and age group in school, I imprinted on books like The Call of The Wild, Black Beauty, Animal Farm (my mother had to explain allegories), and Winnie-the-Pooh. I also spent a lot of time reading about the biology of large mammalian carnivores and pretending to be a particular species. In school, this trend continued with books by authors like Gerald Durrell and the Yorkshire vet James Herriot. All this combined to make me see very little distinction between humans and other animals. 

I loved observing behaviour and trying to classify organisms. This urge eventually found an outlet in birding. It started with learning hundreds of dog breeds so I could identify pet dogs on the streets of Singapore, where I grew up, and naming various African antelope on the TV if there was a nature documentary showing. I was always classifying people as various species based on their personalities (and I still do this). When I was 12, a yellow-vented bulbul nested outside my bedroom window, and introduced to me birdwatching. I spent a lot of my free time in school wandering around on my own with binoculars, and one of my more sympathetic teachers allowed me to sit by the window so I could watch birds. She even let the whole class cluster near the balcony if I spotted a white-throated kingfisher. In high school, I found that I really enjoyed getting other people excited about birds, too, and volunteered as a guide at a nature reserve. That, and the Nature Society (Singapore) provided me with some key mentors and a community of people that found a way to enjoy the natural world even in a city-state like Singapore.

Birds and books also introduced me to the beauty of scientific ideas because I usually wanted to know why birds looked or behaved the way they did. Why, for instance, did the Asian koel, a species of cuckoo that dumps its eggs in crows nests so their chicks grow up alongside crow chicks, make such a racket during the rainy (also the exam) season? The sound of koel couples serenading like demented ambulance sirens always cheered me up in the middle of a big exam, but I knew they weren't very popular among the other students. In high school, I discovered books by evolutionary biologists, and still remember how transfixed I was by Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype. Another big influence was The Beak of the Finch, which one of my mentors at the Nature Society gave to me. I had never heard of Princeton until I read that book, but the notion that one could spend a lifetime watching wild birds and trying to understand how they evolved made me apply in the hopes of meeting Rosemary and Peter Grant. I had the good fortune to not just meet them both, but to take several classes from them and other brilliant biologists in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Who is your intended audience?

Anyone who enjoys a good story. I like to think that there is a lot of fuel for entertaining dinner-party conversation in this book. Of course, it will help if readers are not averse to birds, nature documentaries, or science. 

What are some of your major messages?

The main point I'd like to get across is that humans and birds share a lot in common, and that enjoying birds and understanding why they do what they do is a very fulfilling way to explore the natural world of which we humans are a part. 

The book includes a lot of examples that I’ve tested on students, friends, and family. I’ve noticed that people searching for mates are fascinated by elaborate courtship routines and aesthetic preferences. By contrast, the bits about who gets left tending the nest, or how offspring compete for care resonate with young parents. And many who live in an expensive city can relate to how young cooperative breeders often delay dispersal and stay on the parental territory for years because there is a shortage of available and affordable real estate. How much these grown-up children help or hinder varies.

At the same time, I want readers to see family life through the eyes of an evolutionary biologist. By drawing readers away from an anthropocentric way of viewing the world, I don’t mean to anthropomorphize or sentimentalize animal behaviour. I think there is a marvellous and rather uplifting beauty in the thought that all our emotions, from romantic love to family bonds (both the light and dark sides) are the products of evolution by a completely unconscious process like natural selection. For instance, I would argue that classic themes in human history and literature, such as the love family members can have for each other can exist at the same time as intense competition and rivalry. 

How does your book differ from others concerned with some of the same general topics?

There are some fantastic books, including your own, that explicitly blur the lines between humans and other animals. Frans de Waal and Donald Griffin are other authors that come to mind. But my book concentrates on birds. And it’s less personal than something like Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring. There are lots of fabulous books on bird behaviour, but many of them focus on bird intelligence, or on birdsong, or on the joys of birdwatching. 

What are some of your current projects?

I’m just adding the final tweaks to a second, more general book about birds that will also be highly illustrated, and includes various hidden literary references to Jane Austen or Shakespeare. This book includes other aspects of bird behaviour and evolution such as finding food or coping with the climate. The other books I’ve been working on are children’s picture books (I like painting in addition to writing), one on the natural and cultural history of the human relationship with grasslands, one on females in science, and a handful of others.

In the summer, I’m very much looking forward to being back in Montana to be a naturalist guide on a horseback pack trip in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I’m also hoping to find ways to raise awareness and funds for land and nature conservation either through public speaking, writing articles, or doing more guiding.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Wherever you are in the world, there is nature you can connect with. I love watching the rats in the New York subway; they are terribly clever. Everyone has a different way to find (for want of a better word) spiritual satisfaction. For me, birds are a constant source of joy. They help to root me, wherever I happen to be I just hearing an American robin, an Asian koel, a European blackbird, or an African red-eyed dove tells me where I am. They take me out of myself, connect me to other people, and remind me of all there is to wonder about and revel in in life. I hope this book helps others enjoy birds the same way.