Jonathan Franzen has gone to the birds

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:10 pm on 14 February 2018

Literary luminary Jonathan Franzen doesn’t care that his his love of birds is uncool. They’re amazing, he says, and they matter.

Jonathan Franzen, DeLand, Fla. Nov. 22, 2010.

 Jonathan Franzen Photo: Flickr

The US author writes lyrically about the sheer  beauty, diversity, intelligence of birds in Why Birds Matter, the cover story for the January issue of National Geographic.

“The house finch outside your window is a tiny and beautifully adapted living dinosaur, he writes. “Birds aren’t furry and cuddly, but in many respects they’re more similar to us than other mammals are. They build intricate homes and raise families in them.”

Franzen, author of  The Corrections, Freedom and Purity,  saw his first North Island brown kiwi two weeks ago, on a night walk.

“It was a heart-stopping moment and then one of those things that just got more and more amazing the more I thought about it.

“The bird walked right up to us under the boardwalk and out the other side.”

Franzen’s interest started 18 years ago, in New York’s Central Park in May. It was migration time and suddenly he noticed “50 different birds that I had no idea were ever there".

“It was this dimension of the world I’d gone 40 years without being aware of.”

The author has ruffled feathers with his argument that climate change is only one of the threats to avian life and that others are more imminent, annoying the US bird charity the National Audobon Society.

“People say climate change will be hard on species – well that’s true but we’re doing plenty of damage to the bird world – threatening thousands of extinctions – without the help of climate change,” Franzen says.

“Many of them are these huge majestic creatures like the vultures in India and the vultures in Africa and we’re going to lose those if we don’t start paying attention right now.”

He says the two biggest killers of birds in the United States are habitat loss and cats.

“Obviously it’s important we try to do something about our carbon emissions, and obviously climate change is a huge global threat.” But the problem is, no individual can feel they’re doing anything about it, whereas small efforts to help birds have visible results.

“If I just do these little things – it can be as simple, in the US at least, as making your yard a little bit more friendly to birds -- they will respond, they will come back.”

His avian love affair finds its way into his novels, notably the fourth, Freedom, so by the time got to the next novel, Purity, he says he’d decided not to mention birds. “But finally, I got within 10 pages of the end and I couldn’t resist.”

Franzen accepts literary festival appearances on the basis of whether there are birds in the area he hasn’t yet seen.

Looking at and paying attention to birds is the first step towards positive action, he says.

“If you make the mistake of starting to care about birds, as I did about 18 years ago … there’s a whole suite of problems that you need to get involved with.

“But they repay it because they’re so wonderful.”

He recalls an encounter in northeast India, when at a camp in the Himalayan foothills, he heard a huge, pulsing, whooshing sound.

“You felt it in your lungs more than you even heard it”

The sound was of two great hornbills – huge birds with yellow and black beaks – landing on a fruiting tree placidly “clambering around, like these giant furry bears, with these amazing casques on their bill, and huge intelligent eyes … munching fruit.

“I realised that the sound I was hearing by then was me, crying out with joy.

“I have to say that was the most joyous experience of my life.”