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Ugandan Chimps to Chimney Swifts: Q&A with Charles Hagner

Charles Hagner

September 8, 2020

The Central Wisconsin Book Festival will take place Sept. 21-27, 2020. Before it happens, we want to share a bit about some of the guests, so we've asked a few to answer some questions from festival organizers about themselves and their work.

Below is a back-and-forth from Charles Hagner and CWBF committee member Chad Dally through email. Charles will join us virtually at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27 to tell us why Wisconsin is a great state to look for birds, and share some tips and techniques to identify birds. He’s the director of Bird City Wisconsin and author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin.


What's your background and how did you get involved with birdwatching in general, and Bird City Wisconsin specifically?

I grew up in Milwaukee and have been fascinated by birds my whole life -- or at least since my father and I hung a homemade bird feeder from the swing set in the backyard and I realized for the first time just how many different types of birds there were. I worked as a staff writer and editor for over a decade at Time Life Books in Alexandria, Va., and I was the editor in chief of BirdWatching, a nationally distributed magazine about wild birds and birdwatching, from 2001 to 2017. I wanted to continue working to conserve birds after that, so I was happy to become the director of Bird City Wisconsin. 


What is it about birds that interests you so much, compared to other animals like bears or monkeys or fish?

Don't get me wrong: I love bears, monkeys, and fish! (A chimpanzee high in a tree tried to pee on me in Uganda. How many people can say that?) But birds are special. Not only do I find them beautiful, but I enjoy the paradoxes they present. For example, most are tiny and lightweight, yet they can survive sub-zero temperatures. Some are as fragile as the eggs they lay, yet each year they migrate between nesting and wintering grounds that are hundreds, even thousands, of miles apart and sometimes separated by oceans. Other birds are so large you'd think they'd always be easy to spot, yet they still manage to disappear into their surroundings. And I will always be thrilled to find secretive species in heavily populated, bustling urban areas. It happens more often than you might imagine.


Many birders probably have secret spots, so we won't ask you to give that up, but do you have a favorite area in Wisconsin, the United States or even the world to where you’d like to return?

There are many wonderful birding locations in the United States and the world that I would love to return to, but some of my favorite places to look for birds are the urban county parks near my home in Milwaukee County. Estabrook, Lake, Whitnall, and other parks are beautiful places to visit, and full of migrants each spring and fall and breeding birds each summer -- so many that the Milwaukee County Parks were named an Important Bird Area, a high honor, in 2019. 


Do you have a favorite bird because of its colors, its song or even its behavior?

My favorite is not rare or colorful or even a good singer; it's the familiar Chimney Swift. The swifts' arrival from South America each spring is a sure sign of spring, and their departure in the fall tells me it's time to get the snow shovels back out. Before they go, dozens, even hundreds, gather in communal roosts in chimneys. Watching a flock circle and then funnel into a roost at dusk can be thrilling. 


Can you give us one surprising fact about birds the average person may not know?

Mostly because of habitat loss and degradation, nearly three billion birds have disappeared across the United States and Canada since 1970. The average person may have heard about the biodiversity crisis, but he or she may not realize that we've lost a more than a quarter of our birdlife in the last half century. It’s sad, but the science says it’s true.


Do you have an interesting story from your research into your book, "American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Wisconsin?"

When I was researching and writing my account about the Winter Wren, I tried to keep in mind a favorite spot where I see the bird almost every spring -- a low area covered by old logs and fallen branches in a county park not far from my home, close to the Milwaukee River in Milwaukee County. Anxious to prove that what I wrote was really true, I went back to the exact spot early this April, and guess what I saw? A Winter Wren. 


If I'm just starting out with my bird watching hobby, what are a few of the essential items I should bring? Do I need camouflage clothing? Fancy binoculars?

No, outside of a cap to keep the sun out of your eyes, no special clothing is required. And you don't need fancy binoculars (at least not right away). What I recommend is that you start by contacting a local bird club and asking if you might tag along on one of their birdwalks. I'm sure the answer will be yes. Always eager to welcome a new birder into the ranks, the members of the bird club will open your eyes to the world of birds, showing you what to look for, what to listen for, what you've been missing. You can go get yourself some fancy binoculars after that, and I hope you do. They're worth every penny.

Charles Hagner will join us for a virtual presentation and chat on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 10 a.m. Information on viewing the event will be available here and here soon!

Authors Books Central Wisconsin Book Festival Community History Nature Wisconsin

image credit: Used with permission from Charles Hagner (ref. Event Form: 1597954178).