In an era when we can easily distract ourselves with our phones, birding (AKA bird watching) has found a new flock of supporters as a popular hobby to disconnect us from our gadgets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of self-proclaimed birders rose significantly, thanks in part to birding being an outdoor hobby that managed to connect birders with birds and fellow birders alike. For some, birding offered a new way to think about life.

Yet when I came across Amy Tan’s latest book – The Backyard Bird Chronicles – I was amused and perplexed as to the author’s decision to write a book about the hobby. I wondered how this book might fit into Tan’s long catalogue of novels on the Asian American experience. For those unfamiliar with Tan’s body of work, her books include The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which describe the experiences of Chinese American women in the U.S. during the 20th century and their relationship with their immigrant parents. Since their publication, her novels have spawned movies and have garnered Tan several awards including the National Humanities Award. They have received extensive praise and criticism from fellow writers and academics, and have sparked extensive debates about the nature of Asian American literature.

Yet The Backyard Bird Chronicles is none of that – rather, it is one of the more intimate books written by Tan. As she tells readers, she has been fascinated with nature since her childhood, and venturing into the wild offers her a sense of relief. This, and her love of drawing, all offered escapes to her in the years following 2016, when the nation (and the world) became increasingly plagued by polarized politics and racism. After reaching a low point, she embarked on this project at the nudging of her editor, who encouraged her to explore a different writing project that would showcase her growing interest in art.

As readers will discover, The Backyard Bird Chronicles is many things. First and foremost, it is Tan’s five-year journal of the birds she observed in the vicinity of her Marin County home. Beginning on September 16, 2017 and ending on December 22, 2022, Tan gives readers individual accounts of the birds she saw that day, accompanied by reflections of the day. Each entry examines a different bird species and tells a story of how the bird was found.

Aside from being a catalogue of her discoveries, Tan’s diary of events chronicle her joy of birding. Perhaps one of the lessons from Tan’s book is that journaling as a practice is often rarely neat. Rather than following a daily routine of documenting her bird observation, Tan put together several years of individual accounts to weave together a collection of her bird observations. Each entry invites the readers to follow Tan as she befriends the birds who meet her. She humorously shows how an Anna’s hummingbird can get territorial with nectar, or recounts how an inquisitive Hermit Thrush gets stuck in Tan’s worm feeder cage. At times, Tan becomes a mother figure to her feathered friends, like the Oak Titmice who enjoy the mealworms she leaves behind (at one point, her fridge was teeming with thousands of mealworms meant for the birds). When a bird dies after hitting a window, it offers a more solemn moment (it should be noted that Tan donated the dead bird, a Hermit Thrush, to the California Academy of Sciences).

What makes Tan’s entries all the more enjoyable are the accompanying illustrations. Inspired by her friend, naturalist John Muir Laws, Tan delights readers with dozens of sketches and watercolors of birds, accompanying her journal of events.  The beautiful watercolors and sketches are animated by Tan’s description of each bird with accompanying text, imaging how the birds think of Tan as a viewer. Some, like her profile of a Great Horned Owl, give the birds a great sense of character. While the Backyard Bird Chronicles is Tan’s first foray into visual art, it reveals an impressive level of talent on Tan’s part

A nice departure from her regular work, Tan’s The Backyard Bird Chronicles entertains readers and educates them about the joy of birding. Most of all, it shows how the joy in birding can be found in its capacity to surprise. Unlike her novels, Tan’s journal shows the unpredictability nature of daily events, as birds come and go from her garden. Be it a red shoulder hawk that swoops by or the return of a small hummingbird that had disappeared, it is full of surprises surprise that remind readers of the happiness each day can bring.

Will it fly off the shelves? Who knows. You’ll just have to see for yourself.

Previous articleMu Pan’s monograph features intricate drawings of bestial creatures and war-torn settings
Next articleWing Luke Museum workers walk out, saying exhibit falsely equates Palestinian liberation with anti-Semitism