Rufa red knot B95 is no stranger to long commutes. Every year he makes a trip from Argentina to the Canadian Arctic and back, and he's been doing this for at least 20 years, even as his species suffers a dramatic decline in numbers.
While the rufa red knots face extinction, birders and casual onlookers alike cheer on this amazing creature. Phillip Hoose, author of the sublime The Race to Save the Lord God Bird and a longtime conservationist, follows the trek of B95, otherwise known as the titular Moonbird, to experience for himself the wonder of something so small doing something so big. Here he answers questions about his hero.
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I'm almost afraid to ask my first question. Has the Moonbird been spotted in 2012?
Yeah, he was spotted on May 28 at Delaware Bay, and he was spotted by Patricia Gonzalez, who was the Argentine biologist who originally put his B95 band on. It was a wonderful sighting that just sent elation through the birding community. It even made the New York Times. He's quite the bird, quite a celebrity.
Why has he become such an icon?
He's the poster boy for shorebirds, for sure. In 1995, he was captured in Argentina, and they ran out of orange bands, so they improvised and fitted a black band on the lower right legs of several hundred birds that day.
Year by year by year, birds with that black band have died out, but this one bird kept showing up. It was opening eyes that this bird had survived even while 80 percent of the red knot population had disappeared. I think that he's such a survivor and so remarkably adaptable and has such stamina, that's why he's attracted the attention of the world.
This is a serious book about serious issues, but it's also a great story with great characters.
That's the hope you always have as nonfiction writer! Nonfiction has a great advantage over fiction in that it's really true, you can tell readers it really happened. But to compel a reader, you have to use the same old tricks that storytellers have always used, from Shakespeare, the Bible, anyone. You need characters and interesting relationships between characters, villains and heroes and so forth. I want B95 to be my Katniss Everdeen! The only job a writer really has is to induce the reader to turn the next page, and you do that through time-tested devices.
Why is it important for people to read about individuals trying to make a difference, even when the odds are against them?
I think that extinction is a really important topic, but it's not always easy to talk about. Why should you give up a stretch of beach so the shore birds can feed there? Why should you make any sacrifices, why should you care? But this shore bird I wrote about is a success story. All his features and attributes are products of trial and error that incredibly fascinating. I think you enlarge your humanity by looking hard and learning to care about creatures that are not human. We learn this with our dogs and cats, and in a way I admire wild creatures even more, when I think about how tough and adaptable and strong they have to be to survive. To deliberately allow a life form to vanish forever—that's a really tough thing for me.
You did a lot of traveling for your research—why is traveling a good thing to do?
Traveling is wonderful, it expands your vision, opens your eyes, teaches you about yourself. It teaches you how to adapt like B95. When you're trying to communicate with people on a beach, trying to get a cannon net set and all the language is in Spanish and people are telling you go here, go there, lift the net with your legs, roll it against your stomach—you have to be adaptable and have some street smarts. It makes you a richer person.
How does your hands-on research inform your writing better than just reading about your subject?
It's a big advantage to the reader if the writer had direct experience. I took part in several banding operations, where you crouch in the grass with a bunch of people and wait for a cannon's boom that pulls a net over the shoreline and traps birds. It's your job to run down and get the birds out of the net so they won't drown, then sort them out and put them in shaded boxes to calm them down.
When you do those sorts of things, you change. Your life changes, your heart just moves. You're holding in your hand a creature that weighs 4 ounces, just a little bird whose heart is thumping. But you're also holding one of the toughest creatures in the universe. He goes from the bottom of the world to the top, from penguin country up to the snowy owls. I found myself very moved. And I think having gone through that, and having an intimate connection, makes me better able to write about it.