Allison's Book Bag

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose

Posted on: March 8, 2014

Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose is not just your ordinary nonfiction book. It’s not even your average book about birds or endangered animals. Rather it’s on multiple lists of the best books of 2012, which is where I first encountered it. Moonbird is also the recipient of The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal Honor, which is why I first decided to read it. It has even won several awards for best science book.

Hoose focuses on an individual bird: B95, a red knot who is also known as Moonbird. Moonbird first gained the attention of scientists in 1995. At the time, the bird was just one of over 850 red knots to be banded in Tierra del Fuego in South America as part of research into migratory routes. Records show that Moonbird had adult plumage, which means he was at least three years old. Six years later, in 2001, one of the birds from that banding was snared again, just miles from where he had been originally caught. The inscription on his band read B95, so labeled to represent the series (out of A and B) and the number from the first banding expedition. When he turned up again at Tierra del Fuego in 2003, the entire rufa subspecies of red knots were plunging towards extinction, which made Moonbird more than an extraordinary pilot who could find his way back to migratory routes year after year. It also made him a survivor.

The choice on Hoose’s part to focus on an individual bird was deliberate. Hoose had previously written a book about the ivory-billed woodpecker. A fellow conservationist knew Hoose was looking for another bird species to write about; in particular, Hoose wanted one that was in danger of becoming extinct but for which there was still hope. Hoose’s friend suggested the red knots, which take unbelievably long migration routes. Hoose wasn’t convinced. Stories need characters. And then his friend told him about a bird who scientists kept seeing year after year. The bird had by then flown so far that it had earned the nickname of Moonbird, having flown in its lifetime the equivalent of a journey to the moon and back. And because Hoose picked an individual bird, he could weave passages like this one: “B95 can feel it. A stirring in his bones and feathers. It’s time. Today is the day he will once again cast himself into the air, spiral upward into the clouds, and bank into the wind….”

Obviously, an entire nonfiction book probably isn’t going to be written in the style I quoted above. And Moonbird isn’t. That said, in focusing at times on an individual bird, Hoose did afford himself the opportunity to spin Moonbird’s story into one of suspense. In 2009, as part of his research into B95’s story, Hoose flew to Tierra del Fuego. The next morning, he joined a research team that was attempting to catch, band, and study red knots. He hoped among those red knots to find B95 — who would be at least seventeen years old. B95 had been captured four times previously, always in the Tierra del Fuego area and in the summer. As the research team hid themselves and waited, many of them wondered: “Can B95 still be alive?” In the end, 156 knots were captured, but none were B95. The question had to be asked: “Has his time finally come?” In subsequent chapters, Hoose steps back to explain the physiology of red knots, the nature of their breeding grounds, and the importance of crabs to their survival, to name just a few topics. He also at times steps forward to update readers on additional red knot sightings, all the while continuing to hope that B95 is out there “somewhere safe and comfortable as the night hurries by”.

I must compliment the book for having all the perks one would expect of a well-written nonfiction book. The photos, varied in size, are beautiful and captioned. There are sample sidebars and profiles, with the latter focusing on pioneers in the field of shorebird research and other notable conservation efforts in the story of the red knot survival. Young people should find inspiring the biography of Mike Hudson, who at age ten formed Friends of the Red Knot, a group which started with about fifteen to twenty members. For cynics who think that letters to officials and other petitions are pointless, Hudson’s efforts will prove them wrong. The group researched the law and knew the red knot could meet the criteria for being listed as an endangered species. The group wrote postcards every day to the secretary of the interior, created a display at the Nature Center at Delaware Bay, made presentations, and testified at hearings. Through their efforts, they gained the support of their city council. Last, the book includes a section about what the average person can do to help, along with extensive source notes and a bibliography.

To end my review, I’d like to share Hoose’s thoughts on an all-important question: “Why should you care?” First, plants and animals keep us alive and improve our lives. For example, most of our medicine and foods come from them. They also inspire feats such as human aviation and teach us about functions we take for granted such as how we see. Second, each life form is fascinating and mysterious in its own right. Each species with which we share the earth is a success story. Consider B95. His species of the red knot are still at a dangerously low level, but B95 was nearly twenty years old and still being spotted. As such, he is a symbol of hope for those throughout the world who love shorebirds. Let’s hear it for this amazing bird and for author Phillip Hoose who has captured Moonbird’s incredible story in a must-read book.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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