Bird of Mouth is spreading

    Jennifer Knox doing a group poetry writing entry for the Iowa Bird of Mouth project in Osceola.
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    Since February happens to be National Bird-Feeding Month, here’s some food for thought: 432 of all 1,154 bird species in North America need “urgent conservation action,” according to a 2016 report from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative. That means a third of all the kinds of birds on the continent could disappear unless we take major steps to protect them.

    That’s one of many things you can learn from the Iowa Bird of Mouth project, which Iowa Artist Fellow Jennifer Knox hatched last summer to encourage people to pay more attention to all the birds that flit in and out of our lives every day. The project lives on a website where folks can write poems about a new bird each month, like October’s Ring-necked Pheasant or this month’s Northern Cardinal.

    Jennifer has published work in the New York Times, The New Yorker and American Poetry Review, teaches at Iowa State and runs a small spice business, called Saltlickers, on the side. (Mixing the right amounts of ginger and oregano is “really like balancing a poem,” she told the Register last year.)

    Iowa Bird of Mouth.
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    She grew up in southern California, and when she moved to Iowa, she was surprised by how many Iowans talk about birds.

    “Just chatting with a check-out clerk, for example, I’d hear amazing stories about crows, cardinals – you name it! – stories that were intimate, animated and magic,” she wrote on her Bird of Mouth blog.

    She was telling a friend from Muscatine about this phenomenon when his phone interrupted with a cardinal’s song ringtone.

    That’s when she decided to start the Bird of Mouth project, an open-sourced writing project that could appeal to all sorts of people – kids, grown-ups, city folks, country folks, birdwatchers and conservationists.

    Jennifer Knox doing a group poetry writing entry for the Iowa Bird of Mouth project in Osceola.
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    “But that’s been my biggest lesson so far,” she said the other day on her drive to Ames from her home in Nevada. “I originally thought, ‘Oh, everybody can do this, but everybody doesn’t want to. The people who want to are writers.”

    The list of contributors includes writers of all levels, from a National Book Award nominee to preschoolers, from Iowa and beyond. Nobody has to sign their name, so it’s hard to tell who they are, but collectively, they’ve written some “knockout” stuff every single month, Jennifer said.

    She especially likes some of the November poems about crows, like this one:
    a sharp-eye wingnut // a shadow friend // followed me through a fog backyard // a one foot dance over purple play set sand // I tossed out a bread heel // shadow friend spied the writing on the basement wall first // we shared a telepathic moment // a metaphorical clink of glass // a warning, a prayer // a caw, a stare down // the furnace broke the next day.

    “It’s as much about ‘I saw the bird’ as ‘the bird saw me,’” Jennifer said. Many of the poems tend to focus on that moment of connection, when the birdwatcher becomes the bird-watched.

    'Eastern Screech Owl,' by Polyphony Bruna of Ames.
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    The Bird of Mouth project started with the school year, last September (American Goldfinch), and will continue through August (Great Blue Heron). The project’s logo was based on a drawing by 2015 Iowa Artist Fellow Kathranne Knight, and a monthly series of bird portraits are being created by an Ames artist named Polyphony Bruna.

    Some volunteers with Story County Conservation plan to bring a Trumpeter Swan to a special event called Bird-a-palooza on April 1 at MacFarland Park in Ames.

    And at the end of the year, the project may inspire even more collaborations. An Ames composer would like to turn some of the poems into a dozen short songs for children.

    Meantime, Jennifer keeps bird- and word-watching as the poems pile up. She keeps four songbirds at home – lovebirds Jack, Piggle and Derpy, and a parakeet named Uzi – and she sees them differently now.

    “You know, the deeper I get into this project, the more silly I think they are,” she said. “It’s like if you were studying wolves and you had a pink poodle in the house. (The songbirds) have toys, they have peanut butter. Meanwhile, there are Eastern Screech Owls out there tearing it up.”