Phillip Hoose, whose Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice was a 2009 National Book Award winner and a 2010 Newbery Honor book, spotlights an extraordinary creature in his latest work of nonfiction. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 tells of a red knot shorebird called B95 (for the number on his identification band) by scientists, who have also nicknamed him Moonbird. Each March he joins a flock that flies more than 9,000 miles from Tierra del Fuego to breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, and then in August begins the return journey. The birds fly non-stop for days before touching down to refuel and rest. Though most of his species perish along this hemispheric circuit and the red knot population has been reduced by nearly 80 percent since Moonbird was first banded in 1995, the four-ounce Moonbird has persevered for nearly 20 years, far surpassing his life expectancy.
How did you come to write about this remarkable migrating bird?
I’ve known about shorebirds for a long time, since I’m a birder and have worked for the Nature Conservancy for many years. I knew I wanted to write a book about extinction and to make the point that it is terrible, preventable, and worth everyone’s attention. But to do that, I wanted to find a specific creature to write about that commanded that attention.
What made you settle on Moonbird as that creature?
A friend told me about this particular red knot that had lived far longer than he should have. I became intrigued, since it turns out that about half of red knots do not survive the arduous 18,600-mile migration in their first year of life. If they can survive the first year, they can learn to use navigational tools like the stars and land forms and maybe live six or seven years. But here was a bird who had lived almost 20 years. Scientists have nicknamed him Moonbird because if you tally up his frequent flier mileage – his annual migration multiplied by the number of years he’s been doing it – this bird has migrated a distance that exceeds the distance between earth and the moon, and halfway back.
How did you tackle your research for Moonbird?
Most of the info came from primary sources – and that of course doesn’t mean from the bird himself! I interviewed many scientists and others who know about shorebirds and track their migratory circuit. I accompanied them and traveled to the bottom of the world, Tierra del Fuego, and worked with bird banding crews. I was able to obtain a lot of first-hand and statistical information from scientists throughout the world.
You’ve obviously written about extinction before, notably in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. What specifically about extinction do you hope readers take from Moonbird?
I first want them to realize that beautiful and fascinating creatures are in real trouble, and I want them to get to know this bird and admire him for all that he goes through and all the ways he prepares himself for what he has to do. And I want readers to identify with him so that they care enough to learn more about birds and join in the effort to conserve them. Red knots and other migratory birds need food to be available in their traditional stopover places, their larders.
And this is happening less and less frequently?
Yes. In Delaware Bay, for example, where the birds have traditionally fed on horseshoe crabs, there are many fewer available, since the crabs are being chopped up for use as bait. And in South America, beaches are increasingly cluttered with people throwing Frisbees, playing with their dogs, and driving dune buggies. We need to work out ways to share the beaches with these birds and make sure that all their stopover stations are in good shape.
Aside from its conservation message and story about one extraordinary bird, what does Moonbird teach children?
Educating through nonfiction is very important to me. Moonbird, though driven by the story of a single heroic character's journey, functions on a second level as an ornithology primer. There is sidebar and text material on many topics, including birds’ speciation, navigation and orienteering, reproduction, banding, the rationale for migration, and predator evasion strategies. Likewise, the book’s biologist profiles provide role models – women and men – who are not always in white lab coats, but who are almost as rugged as the birds themselves. It's a little sly, but I'm out to teach, baiting my readers with a Katniss Everdeen of a bird on a harrowing journey from the bottom of the world to the top.
Your books have explored a range of topics, including history, sports, and conservation. Where do your inspirations come from?
My books are always rooted in a deep-seated passion. I’d say that they are all personal and are about subjects I care deeply about. Also, I get out and about a lot, I read a lot, and I have a wide network of friends. And it’s from all these sources that my book ideas come.
Would you ever consider writing fiction?
Yes, though I have no immediate plans to do so. I am a storyteller, and I apply time-tested tricks to writing nonfiction that are also used in fiction. In a way, I don’t see a big division between the two, though of course with nonfiction there is the standard of factual truth. I think that readers of both fiction and nonfiction need a protagonist, and I held off writing Moonbird until I could find one particular bird I knew readers could identify with.
The same was true with with Claudette Colvin. I wanted to write about the civil rights movement and how terrible the Jim Crow era was, but I needed to find the right protagonist. These books are successful if there’s a personality in them, and if there are compelling characters, drama, heroism, and villainy. Readers of nonfiction should have the same opportunities as readers of fiction. I set out to tell a good story, but a true story.
Returning to Moonbird – in the course of researching and writing this book, did you ever spot B95 yourself?
No! On my travels tracking his migratory path, I was one of many who were always a day behind him. He was last sighted on May 28 on Reeds Beach in New Jersey – by Patricia González, the very biologist who added his B95 band to his original leg bands around 2001. She went out on her deck, looked through a spotting scope, and there he was. People around the world were worried about him, because he hadn’t been spotted since the previous November in Tierra del Fuego.
Will you continue to look for Moonbird?
I’m sidelined for the moment, since I’m soon to go on tour for Moonbird [the book]. But I’d love to finally see him. I’ll have to hurry, because even Moonbird can’t live forever. He’s just finished the breeding season in the Arctic, and let’s hope he’s a new dad. Before long he’ll take off for South America and fly across the Atlantic during hurricane season, when there is all the more turbulence. How he has made it year after year is incredible. He has such toughness, savvy, luck, fortitude – whatever it takes, he has it.
Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 by Phillip Hoose. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21.99 July ISBN 978-0-374-30468-3