Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder

A memoir by Julia Zarankin.

Julia Zarankin

When Julia Zarankin saw her first red-winged blackbird at the age of 35, she didn't expect that it would change her life. Recently divorced and auditioning hobbies during a stressful career transition, she stumbled on birdwatching, initially out of curiosity for the strange breed of humans who wear multi-pocketed vests, carry spotting scopes and discuss the finer points of optics with disturbing fervour. What she never could have predicted was that she would become one of them. Not only would she come to identify proudly as a birder, but birding would ultimately lead her to find love, uncover a new language and lay down her roots.

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder tells the story of finding meaning in midlife through birds. The book follows the peregrinations of a narrator who learns more from birds than she ever anticipated, as she begins to realize that she herself is a migratory species: born in the former Soviet Union, growing up in Vancouver and Toronto, studying and working in the United States and living in Paris. Coming from a Russian immigrant family of concert pianists who believed that the outdoors were for "other people," Julia Zarankin recounts the challenges and joys of unexpectedly discovering one's wild side and finding one's tribe in the unlikeliest of places.

Zarankin's thoughtful and witty anecdotes illuminate the joyful experience of a new discovery and the surprising pleasure to be found while standing still on the edge of a lake at six a.m. In addition to confirmed nature enthusiasts, this book will appeal to readers of literary memoir, offering keen insight on what it takes to find one's place in the world. (From Douglas & McIntyre)

Julia Zarankin is a writer and lecturer based in Toronto. She made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Black-legged KittiwakeField Notes from an Unintentional Birder is her first book.

Why Julia Zarankin wrote Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder

"It began when I was transitioning between careers. I was at loose ends. I started auditioning hobbies. I tried pottery. I tried this. I tried that. I wanted something contemplative without having to do yoga and contortionist poses. And I happened upon an essay by Jonathan Franzen called My Bird Problem and I became hooked. And I thought, 'Maybe that's what I need! Maybe that will solve all my issues — a bird problem of my own.'

I saw my first red-winged blackbird and it completely changed my life. It made me see in a different way.- Julia Zarankin

"The first time I went birding, I went initially to stare at the birders because I had had a completely indoor life. My family didn't camp. My parents are concert pianists. We went to the symphony. We went to the ballet, opera. We didn't do the outdoors, so this is a totally different new world for me.

"I saw my first red-winged blackbird and it completely changed my life. It made me see in a different way. I had just assumed that this bird — which incidentally is one of the most common migrants — I had assumed it was exotic. My bird group was like, 'No, no, they're common.' Then I suddenly wondered, what else had I been missing all these years?

"It forced me to slow down and it forced me to look at the details of things. When you're watching birds, you're attuned to find detail. That forced me to embrace the present moment, to stop hoping that it would be something else and just be happy with what was in front of me."

Read more in her interview with CBC Radio.

Interviews with Julia Zarankin 

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