Bill Thompson III may be the first man to walk through the lobby of 300 West 57th Street, the Hearst Corporation's headquarters and home to one of the largest concentrations of fashion editors on the planet, with binoculars around his neck. It's not the kind of statement fashion magazines typically feature.
But that's fitting. Thompson is, in a sense, going against the fashion of the day. He's trying to inspire children to go outside and to pick up a book (his, the Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North American) and that means inspiring them to put down their iPods, their Wii controllers, their cell phones (you get the point). He's the latest crusader against Nature Deficit Disorder, and for the No Child Left Inside mantra.
"The only outside time kids are getting is soccer practice," Thompson lamented during an interview with The Daily Green.com. "My big concern is we've got a generation or two of kids that don't have a connection to the natural world on their own terms, and they won't care to conserve it."
That's where the Young Birder's Guide comes in. It may be the first nature book for kids that was focus-grouped by kids. Thompson's daughter, Phoebe, and her classmates in three successive classes at Salem-Liberty Elementary School in rural Ohio, helped define the best way to go about writing a field guide for kids.
"They said, 'We don't want baby books,' " Thompson recalled. They didn't want to see tired images of bald eagles with "big fierce eyes and bloody talons." They didn't want a boring recitation of dull facts.
What they wanted was big pictures and "cool things" like the fact that vultures protect their personal space by, uh, vomiting caustic stomach juice on passers-by. What Thompson wanted was a book that would reproduce his own early love affair with birds, which started when a snowy owl showed up while he was raking leaves at his family's home in Iowa one day when he was six years old. That surprising sight his "spark" in terms of the birding world led him to a guide book, which he started flipping through page after page, thinking, "I want to see that ... I want to see that ... I want to see that ... "
The result is a book that has similarities to a guide marketed at adults with all the field markings, range maps and other information you need to identify the bird that flies by or chirps nearby but more. There are both photos and illustrations, for instance; bird identification information organized with headings like "Look for," "Listen for" and "Remember"; and "Wow" facts like this one:
"Whip-poor-whils have been timed giving nearly one call per second for more than 15 minutes! That's 1,000 calls in a row without stopping. Don't try this at home!"
"The Loggerhead Shrike and its relative the Northern Shrike have the folk name of Butcherbird for their habit of impaling prey on thorns or fence wire as a butcher hangs out slabs of meat."
That's the kind of fact that engages the imagination and helps get kids interested in the way the world works, as much as identifying the next bird. It's the kind of naturl history information that is usually absent from adult manuals aiming to be comprehensive on the fewest number of pages possible. (The 200 birds featured in the Young Birders Guide represent about one quarter of the birds found in North America, and include about 158 that also appear in the Western U.S.)
For that reason, adults just getting into birding might find this book the best choice. If the title embarrasses, just use another bit of advice an elementary school student could give: Cover your book in a brown paper bag.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.