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Author Amy Tan's 'backyard bird chronicles'

Bird watchers look through their binoculars at a bird pointed out by naturalist Doug Hitchcox during the weekly bird walk at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Bird watchers look through their binoculars at a bird pointed out by naturalist Doug Hitchcox during the weekly bird walk at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Celebrated author Amy Tan doesn’t just write best-selling novels.

She’s a passionate birder, too.

Her new book on birding describes the wonder she sees looking out her window.

Today, On Point: Author Amy Tan’s ‘backyard bird chronicles.’


Amy Tan, New York Times bestselling author of many books, including “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Valley of Amazement.” Her new book is “The Backyard Bird Chronicles.”


Part I

AMY TAN: This is Amy Tan. It’s March 4th, 2023. Listening to birds in my yard in Sausalito. That was a great horned owl. (OWL HOOTS)

It’s the end of the day, almost dusk. So the only birds you’ll probably hear are hummingbirds and the owl.

The scratchy sounds are the Anna’s hummingbird. 

You might be able to hear the sound of the hummingbird’s wings next to us.

He’s making little clicky sounds and he’s only about a foot to two feet away. He just chased away a competitor.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That’s best-selling, celebrated author Amy Tan in her backyard last year, and today she joins us on the show. Amy Tan, welcome to On Point.

AMY TAN: Thank you. Good to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh my gosh. It is such a thrill to be able to talk with you.

And we’re going to talk about the title of your book in just a second, I hope you don’t mind if I share this. I purposely did not listen to that sound until just now, along with everybody else. And as I did, I just, this huge grin came to my face.


CHAKRABARTI: I almost stopped breathing because you like, lean into the moment.

And then I like, looked up when the sound of the hummingbird’s wings came up. It’s completely transformative.


CHAKRABARTI: How did it feel being there and actually witnessing these things?

TAN: It was totally spontaneous too, there. It seemed like it was choreographed. It’s like ‘Hoot,’ and then this is Amy Tan as though I queued in these birds and I didn’t.

It was all in one take. And but I see the hummingbirds and they do that. They come so close. Sometimes they land on me, but the owl, to have both of them in the yard at that moment. How perfect. One of the biggest birds out there and one of the smallest.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And I love how the hummingbird’s just chasing away a little.

Yeah, exactly.

TAN: Sorry. Excuse me. They’re, taken off for a short while.

CHAKRABARTI: My spot. Yeah. So obviously everyone, this is Amy Tan, bestselling, phenomenal author of books like The Joy Luck Club, The Valley of Amazement. But today she joins us to talk about her new book. It’s called The Backyard Bird Chronicles.

And not only did Amy write it, boy, did she illustrate the heck out of it. I did not know you were such an accomplished illustrator. Have you always been an artist as well?

TAN: Thank you. As a kid, I loved to draw, and I secretly wanted to be an artist, but my parents would have been horrified at the thought.

And my high school teacher actually wrote in a report card that I had no imagination and/or drive necessary to a deeper creative level. And I thought, okay I guess I shouldn’t go into the arts. Yeah, no imagination. So I love to draw, but I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t draw for, I don’t know, every few years, I would draw.

And then I, for a while, I drew cartoons of my dogs or cartoons of roaches and, just funny things, but not nature drawing.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Oh my gosh. It just shows you the power of those early influences in life. But I’m actually, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Can you tell me a little bit more, first of all, just still thinking of that moment from March of last year.

When you’re observing or just sitting there being part of that space that is your backyard and you see the birds coming through, what does it feel like? What does it almost feel like in your body as you’re experiencing these moments?

TAN: It’s your entry into another world. And because they acknowledge you and it’s though you’re, for the moment, accepted.

I know I’m not their friend, but they don’t seem to be wary of me. They don’t leave. And that counts for something. I’m just thrilled, like anybody else. I have adrenaline. Every time I see a bird looking at me or coming close to me or acknowledging me. I get that shot of what is the hormone that makes you feel great?

That’s what it is. Bizarre.

CHAKRABARTI: Why do birds do that, do you think? Because I don’t know of many people. Maybe there’s some out there, but I don’t know of many people who go like deer watching.

TAN: Ah, yes.

CHAKRABARTI: But there’s something about birds.

TAN: They’re magical creatures in a way. For one thing, there’s so many different varieties. Their colors are spectacular, and they fly. And flying has always represented this great freedom that we long for, which is the reason, I think, why a lot of people think that when a beloved person dies, they might come back as a bird to say, Here I am.

I’m freed. So it’s also symbolic of so many things. But I think it’s the fact that they’re tiny. They can come toward you, and they can back away. And if they come toward you, you just feel amazed that this wild creature is there before you.

CHAKRABARTI: I think you put it so perfectly. Because they’re definitely a species, all wild species are like this, but especially birds, where you only are able to have the kind of experiences that you have, when they let you into their space.

TAN: Yeah. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s go back in time then. Why and when did you start doing this kind of intensive observation and journaling of what you saw in your backyard?

TAN: Yeah. Yeah. It was toward the end of 2016, and I had been enduring, like everybody else, listening to the news, it’s so divisive, and I also saw or heard this increase in racial epithets, all kinds of things being said, and it was so depressing to me.

The news was always bad, and I decided I had to do something to get my mind off of it. And I chose to do something, I promised myself from the time I was about 30 years old, that when I retired, I would go back to art despite what that teacher had said, and start learning to draw. And I said, this is the best moment.

I need to get out into nature, and I need to draw, and I will enroll in this nature journaling class taught by a guy named John Muir Laws. And that’s what I did. I would go to the class with all these other 30 people and sit there and do the practice and learn how to do certain techniques. But the great thing is that John Muir Laws, Jack, as we called him, his whole thing was about also feeling the bird, feeling what the life force, the bird was.

And me being the fiction writer just took that a little farther and I became a birder when I was drawing them.

CHAKRABARTI: I was just gonna ask, why did Amy Tan need to take a writing class?

TAN: Oh, it’s nature journaling class. That’s different. It was different because the whole point of it was to be in awe and to wonder and to ask questions, to be curious.

Curiosity never ending. And I didn’t get that. I was trying to draw the pretty picture and not doing very well. And I remember being next to a girl at a field trip. She’s about, just turned 13, and she was just asking questions all the time, why is the sky blue kind of question?

And I thought, what an annoying child to get away.


TAN: And I found out later, no, that’s the point of being here. You have to ask the questions. And then in future field trips, I would seek her out and sidle up next to her and peer over, and look at what she was writing, like cheating in a math test. Okay, she’s this childhood wonder, is what I needed to do to be in nature, to really see and be open to it. None of my adult so-called knowledge and conceptual understanding. No, that was out the window. I had to start over to the child level.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting, because this wasn’t the first time that you had turned to nature for that kind of healing and solace that you were seeking in 2016, right?

Speaking of children, yeah, go ahead.

TAN: I lived for a while, three years in Santa Rosa, and we lived next to a creek. And there were times that my mother would spin off into a rage and the creek was my refuge. And in those days, we could just go off on our own. Nobody worried, I was eight years old, nine years old in the creek, looking for snakes and frogs and tadpoles and centipedes or whatever was out there. And making forts out of vines, tumbling down the banks.

And this was some of the best memories of childhood that I had. Being alone, being in nature, wondering over every single thing and watching for hours, just looking at tadpoles. So that was so important to me. But the strange thing is I never really looked at birds. And I think it was because I was nearsighted and also I always looked down at the ground.

That’s where these bugs and creatures were.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more about what you gained by being out there?

Obviously, there was a respite and an escape, but a lot of kids in those same situations, they go elsewhere. They find other people or groups or whatnot.

TAN: I was with some friends at times, but they were interested, I remember a neighbor boy, he was more interested in killing frogs, ’cause I didn’t really want to be around him. But I would just go down and wander and there would be little pools. I would look inside and see what was going on there. And it was a world, in another sense, because I would try to build a kingdom, believe it or not, with little steps going up to it and then it would be time to go home.

My mother was a very volatile woman who also sometimes was suicidal. So I definitely needed to get away and think about something else. And I’d return and she would have sandwiches for me and all would go back to normal.

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