The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds
by Julie Zickafoose

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. ISBN 978-0-547-00309-2.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 06/16/2012

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Each chapter in this memoir of a life spent observing, drawing, and rehabilitating injured birds is named for a particular species of bird and a topic epitomized by Zickafoose's encounter with those particular birds. This may seem an odd way to arrange a memoir, but it works in the hands of Zickafoose, a consummate storyteller and talented artist whose sketches and paintings illuminate the pages, and for whom birds reveal much about life in general.

One of my favorite chapters, "Carolina Wren," subtitled "Kitchen Sink Ornithology," could serve as an introduction to the book and its author. As a fellow freelance writer who works from home, I laughed out loud at the beginning, which expresses all the hopeful optimism of our isolated creative lives:

Living in the middle of nowhere, working from my home studio, I have to confess that I'm fond of email. I've got an all-but-defunct account that I check sporadically, just to make sure there's not something important buried in the piles of spam that drove me away from it in the first place. And there, glimmering in the dross, was a week-old nugget from Louisiana State University's resident ornithologist-artist John O'Neill, inviting me to show some paintings at an upcoming ornithological meeting.

And then Zickafoose's self-doubt sets in:

My first reaction? He must be thinking of someone else. I'm no ornithologist; I'm a naturalist, a bird painter... Then I sat back and thought for a bit. Well, maybe I am an ornithologist. I do study birds, each and every day, in between meeting illustration and writing deadlines and fetching Popsicles for the kids. There's a pair of binoculars in every room of the house, sometimes three, and they are as necessary to my everyday life as water and air. I just had to interrupt this sentence to train them on a female Blackburnian warbler in the birch outside the studio window. To find a pen and write that arrival down in my nature notes. This, I think, is the heart of science. Seeing a Blackburnian warbler is nice, but it really doesn't mean much unless I write it down. (May 18, 2009. Arrived: Female Blackburnian in the birches. Had seen only males until today.)

And there is the heart of the book: Zickafoose is a thoughtful and intelligent observer who writes things down. Without that—no matter what her subject, whether memoir or mystery, she would have no material to work with, no stories to tell, no conclusions about the life of birds and the lives of we humans who share the planet with them.

As for the Carolina wrens of the chapter title, there were none nesting on the property when Zickafoose and her family moved there in 1992. By planting shrubs and trees and allowing bird-friendly tangles to form in the underbrush, they eventually transformed a "lone house on its naked lawn" to good wren habitat, through "eight years, a little planting, and much laziness on our part." Then come the "pioneering pair" of Carolina wrens and over subsequent years, as Zickafoose tells it, a fascinating and often hysterically funny story of wren life involving "catfights, a two-timing male, abandoned babies to be rescued [using wren songs on an iPod]... the drama keeps coming. Carolina wrens are tiny birds who live large."

Despite its title, which unfortunately may typecast the book, The Bluebird Effect is not just for those who watch birds or read nature writing. It's a memoir about our awareness and engagement in life itself, written by a very talented woman who sees the world through sharp eyes, a keen sense of humor, and a loving heart.

Julie Zickefoose began as an illustrator of natural history subjects as a college freshman at Harvard in 1976. A six-year stint as a field biologist with The Nature Conservancy's Connecticut Chapter proved a strong motivator both to learn more about ecosystems and to go back to drawing. Along the way, she began to write her own essays, studded with observations of birds and animals. Her writing has been featured in Bird Watchers Digest and NPR's All Things Considered. Some of her illustration credits include The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Spider, Cricket, Ladybug, and Country Journal. Julie's first book of illustrated essays, Letters from Eden, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006. Julie and her family—her husband is Bill Thomas III, publisher of the magazine Birdwatcher's Digest, live in a ranch house in eastern Ohio topped by a 42-foot-tall birdwatching tower, on 80 acres of land where they have observed more than 185 species of birds and 78 species of butterflies. Visit her website.

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