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To Bird Watcher's Digest: 1978-2021, the Best Little Bird Magazine Ever

Sunday, January 2, 2022


  

I shouldn’t be surprised at the intensity and duration of my grief at the demise of Bird Watcher’s Digest. It was BWD that brought me everything. I submitted my first cover painting, a ruby-crowned kinglet, in 1986, when I was 28, and no one could have been more excited than me when my first article, “Magnolia Morning,” was published in 1988. It was about being the only one awake in my sleeping dorm during final exams. I used to get up at daybreak and jump on my bike to go birding at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass, but I couldn’t go that morning because I had a huge exam. And there in the dark hallway was a male magnolia warbler, fluttering around after coming in an open window. I caught him and held that perfectly stunning little being in my hand. I knocked on my friend Nick’s door to wake him up and show it to him before we went to the exam hall. And we let it go out the window. It was a moment of grace, and that moment moved me to write. 

 

At that point, I figured I was a bird painter and illustrator for life, and writing was sort of a back burner thing. But being published in BWD changed things. I wrote a column for the magazine’s subsidiary publication, Watching Backyard Birds, for more than 20 years, and my first book, Letters from Eden, was a compilation of the best of those. Writing is a muscle, and only regular exercise will make it strong. BWD gave me that. I adored our first editor, Mary Beacom Bowers, a woman of arts and letters, with a refined grace that I strove to emulate as I read copy, scribbling things like, “This would curl a lot of reader hair” in the margins. And Mary, in her turn, advocated for my work. I’ll always be grateful for that. I finally got a column, “True Nature,” in the magazine proper in 2008. 


Mary Beacom Bowers, the magazine's first editor, center, with Elsa and Bill Thompson Jr.


 

 I woke up this morning thinking about that, and marveling that BWD’s first columnist was Roger Tory Peterson. Elsa and Bill thought to ask him, and he said yes, writing “All Things Reconsidered” and bringing his huge following to a modest little digest with big aspirations. At the peak of its popularity, perhaps in the mid 1990’s, BWD had 90,000 subscribers worldwide. Wonderful writing is much of the reason. 

Kenn Kaufman wrote a terrific column for years, taking up Dr. Peterson’s banner. Al Batt sprinkled the magazine with folksy pixie dust. Alvaro Jaramillo taught bird identification so gracefully. Diane and Mike Porter conducted exhaustive optics reviews and roundups that were illuminating and helpful, and Diane’s writing was poetic and powerful. Paul Baicich rounded up always-fascinating bits of research and conservation news. Dr. David Bird intrigued and amused with his spritely writing on bird behavior. Mark Garland took reader questions to deeper levels, ever the illuminator.  Pete Dunne imparted birding tips only a seasoned eagle-eye could. I greatly looked forward to reading each of Scott Weidensaul’s lyrically woven remembrances of a life spent in scientific inquiry. It’s been rich, so rich. BWD truly gathered a galaxy of stars, and I apologize to everyone I’ve not mentioned by name.


 

From there, I thought about how the magazine brought me everything else. After collaborating with him on a cover painting (his idea, my execution), I finally met Bill Thompson III in 1991—at the World Series of Birding in Cape May, NJ. He was there with a girlfriend (!) but was excited to meet me in person. Same. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be married, and I was pretty darn sure I didn’t want to have kids. In short order, he had talked me into both, plus a move to Appalachian Ohio. Yikes. We bought land and a house together in 1992, and were married in 1993. Such was the power of his persuasion. I am writing this under that same roof, and our wonderful kids are home for the holidays and still asleep. Ah, it’s so rich, to have created two such beings, and to see their father’s traits coming through, knowing that parts of him live on in them. 


 



Maybe the magazine should have stopped when Bill did. It was his energy that kept it going all those years, anyway, always goading and leading, always networking and brainstorming and pulling, pulling, pulling, like an ox in the collar he pulled, with everything he had. Of course, he always had the support of a fantastic staff, comprised of amazingly dedicated, energetic, creative people who gave their all to keep it going. That thought is a snapshot of his commitment, his indispensability. 

 

But here’s the thing. Nobody can tell someone who is dying that that his family's magazine will die with him. We all had to try to carry it forward. He had worked so blessed hard for most of his life to carry on his parents’ dream and business. His love of connecting people, his boundless energy and enthusiasm for helping people connect with birds and each other were a perfect match for the demands of the job. It was a job that became his entire identity. And his mom Elsa was still answering the phone, connecting graciously with subscribers, when a housefire took her life in May 2019, only two months after Bill left. I don’t think she ever tired of hearing the delight in subscribers’ voices when they realized they were speaking to The Elsa Thompson! So there was a legacy that the staff felt keenly was theirs to carry forward, as best they could.


 BT3 and his mom Elsa, who thought the whole thing up in the first place. 

August 2011, on our Indigo Hill.

 

                           The Bill's. Oh what sweet jazz they made together. How we miss their music!


So many times over the almost three decades he was working for the family business, I wished Bill could do something else, that is to say something that didn’t require his entire heart and psyche to keep afloat. It was never easy, and only for a few sparkling years during the Clinton administration was it profitable. Nor was it as simple as “If you have enough subscribers your magazine is successful, and you make money.” Ever. It was, “How are we going to deal with this latest increase in postage (paper, printing, fill in the blank…) How are we going to bring in more revenue just so we can keep printing and sending the magazine? How to pay this printing bill and still make payroll?” And so he swung deals and wrote books, and he got me to write parts of them for him, and the proceeds went to the magazine. I was briefly involved helping host Reader Rendezvous’, an idea hatched in 2014, until I realized it was more than I could take on and still hold down the fort at home. Somehow, the editorial and production staff split those duties and all that traveling and still managed to produce a bimonthly magazine! Superhumans.


My covers in chronological order, minus the most recent (yellow-billed cuckoo). There was an article accompanying each one. 

As Contributing Editor, I stuck to writing my column, editing and painting covers, providing photos, bird ID’s, and answers to reader questions, acting as a one-stop bird factotum. I’d read each issue for spelling and grammar and scientific accuracy. Then I passed it on to Bill, and later to Dawn Hewitt, our delightful editor of recent years.  And I am proud of that work, and my association with the magazine. For 35 of the 43 years it existed, I was contributing something. I was never officially on staff, but I stood beside these very fine people and supported them as best I could, especially in the last two years, when Bill, their idea factory and primary power source suddenly and sadly winked out. I’m proud of the 29 cover paintings I executed, proud of the thousands of words I wrote. Most of all I’m proud of a gallant staff that took a gut punch and somehow carried on for two more years, doing everything they could to carry on Bill’s and the Thompson family’s legacy. I am humbled and honored by their effort. 

 

But now I am grieving. Instead of fading away, the shock of having it all end four days before Christmas, of seeing the staff receive the news that it was over, has only grown. I had a major article written and Cover # 30 on the drawing board when everything screeched to a halt.  Please know this: Nobody among the staff saw this coming. Everything in me wants to soften the blow and make it better, but I have no way to do that. It’s taken me days to write this, because what I dread is making it worse.  I have to accept that the magazine’s demise is out of my control, and trust that the myriad details of bringing the curtain down on this many-faceted operation will be worked out in time. That you’ll hear back about the trip you signed up for or the gift subscriptions you bought. The only thing I can really do is share my sadness with you. Thank you so much for subscribing and supporting BWD for so many years. As the last leaf on the original tree, I feel a sharp sense of duty, as if my longevity with this magazine carries a responsibility to reach out, to try to soften the blow for you. 


 This magazine started at a kitchen table in Marietta, Ohio 43 years ago, from the notion of a newly baptized birder (Elsa Thompson) who looked around and saw that there was no publication devoted to birding. She decided to fill that void. She pulled in my father-in-law Bill Jr., my husband Bill III, his brother Andy, and sister Laura along the way. And it was a good idea, and a great magazine they created. I remember when the galleys were printed out in column-sized chunks and passed through a machine that applied hot wax to the back. The waxed columns were then manually positioned on boards, and photographed to produce the spreads. Bill would come home with words stuck to his forearms sometimes after using an X-Acto knife to make corrections. And slowly it went digital, and was ever so much easier to edit and proof and correct. There have been so many changes for the better.


Now 2022 is taking its first tentative steps forward, and I’m holding the newly arrived Jan/Feb issue, Vol. 44, No. 3, in my hand. I took it out of its wrapper with reverence. It’s so beautiful, with a cover by ace photographer Bruce Wunderlich, our Production Director who just lost his dream job. That makes me deeply sad, as does knowing that there will be no more magazines coming. I loved the direction it was headed, with such rich potential for connecting even more people to the joy of birdwatching.  I already miss Bird Watcher’s Digest, and the beautiful people who have worked so hard to carry it forward, more than I can say. Loss, we’ve had enough of you. 

 

I haven’t been able to sleep much lately—there are far too many thoughts banging around in my head, needing to be let out. Writing this personal account of my time with the magazine has helped some. Perhaps, by sharing this history and just a few of the million complex and difficult feelings I have, then opening comments on the blog, I can give you a place to express yourselves as well. Closure is so very important, and I’m looking for a little by writing to you. Maybe you can find a little, writing back to me. Thank you so much.


 

 


35 comments:

I grieve with you,Julie Zickefoose, as I did when Chet Baker passed on, as I did learning of BT3's excruciating pain when we all knew how much more he had in mind to live.
You have all been brave beyond belief. This is not how I wanted to start 2022.


Thank you, Julie, and thanks to the host of dedicated people who brought us so much. I discovered BWD in 1980, when I moved to Detroit and bumped up my casual birding to a serious weekend escape from the city, and found Audubon to be pretty but useless in the field. It has been a joy to know you all since moving to Marietta.

Oh, damn, I am in tears. I can only imagine how you must be feeling, Julie. I Bill's parents' magazine has touched so many. I saw the notice of BWD's cancellation a few days ago and wondered how you were holding up. How I wish there were a way to help. I've also responded to your Facebook post that brought me here.

Oh, Julie, I too am so sad to hear this news. I've enjoyed every issue of BWD and recently sent the next to last issue to my daughter in Spain because there was an article recounting the fact that some North American birds actually cross the Atlantic! All my issues are in a small stack and have been enjoyed over and over. Thank you for sharing your story here with us. I'll miss your beautifully written bird stories.

BTW, I have your Baby Birds book and the one about Jemima. I know you wrote a follow-up about Jemina but now I can't find the article. (I like to tuck such articles into the pages of the original book.) Can you direct me to that article?

Posted by Florence W January 2, 2022 at 5:52 PM

I am so sorry, Julie. There have been so many losses lately, as a people and as individuals, that I just cannot deal with it anymore. Fortunately, there is alcohol. (Not a productive way to deal with things, but I just have to do what I can.)

Posted by mimimanderly January 2, 2022 at 5:53 PM

Brilliantly written Julie, as always. Lately it seems we are grieving over and over again, about so many things. I found myself listening to the podcast yesterday when Bill, with just a couple weeks left in his life, insisted on interviewing me, and he did it with his characteristic grace and professionalism. Lump in the throat, tears on the cheek. Big, big hugs to you, my dear friend.


Wow!, so sad, but of course so representative of what is happening all across the land to magazines, newspapers, long form writing in general… and generations are being raised on acronyms, abbreviations, memes, GIFs, emojis, TikTok, shorthand of all sorts; will reading (and writing) real sentences even be a thing in the future; I wonder.
And of all days, I wrote you a rare note today about a near random thing, and you so kindly answered immediately; little did I know of the sadness you were experiencing. Bless you!

Such a sad time, Julie. I was a small-time contributor to BWD; my seventh article was on hold and planned for publication in 2022. Such a good little magazine, and with so many people's hearts wrapped around it. The end came as a blow to me. How much worse it was for you and Mark and Scott and Dawn and the other dedicated participants in its publication. Best wishes to you--I'll miss your articles, though I have a couple of your books on my shelves.

Cecily Nabors

Julie, you, Bill, Laura, and BWD were so helpful in launching our little product, the Alpaca Fleece-filled Bird Nesting Ball. Bill's review in April/May 2011, gave us the legitimacy and exposure that we needed, as two sisters who breed and raise alpacas, to introduce the Nesting Ball to the birding community. With that little article, came numerous customers over the years...backyard birders who enjoy watching their chickadees and titmice. And with the article, came a friendship with you and Laura, and a decade of exchanges of warmth and empathy. You believed in what Julie and I were doing and continue to do. I will treasure this issue in your hand. Mine has arrived. There are BWD collectors out there. A lovely, elderly lady living on the California coast, called me a couple of weeks ago to order nesting balls for her friends for Christmas. She was holding a 2018 issue of BWD and saw our ad. Ten years of advertising in BWD connected me with so many wonderful people who love learning about birds, and learned that alpaca breeders love birds, too.

This is such sad news, Julies not unexpected, but so sad nonetheless. Oh when these eras end, the heart breaks even when it is expected.

Hi Julie I love in Cincinnati I have no idea if this will reach you I have always loved your paintings and writing about Nature You have inspired me so many times I hope my words help a little!!! Keep strong!!!!!

Posted by Janet Raczynski January 2, 2022 at 7:03 PM

Many years ago, Bill Thompson showed up at the Allegheny Nature Pilgrimage in Allegany State Park, outside of Buffalo New York. He brought a box of old BWD’s and gave them away. It was the first time I had seen one and after that and also several bird trips where Bill helped me me find a “life“ bird I became a birder. My husband Frank has given many gift subscriptions over the years to many of our friends and family. Thank you for sharing, so eloquently (as you always do) the story and the grief and loss. It helps.
You are quite the woman JZ 💜

Oh my goodness. So heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this sad news and history.


Julie,

I wrote a bit on Instagram and though I need to crash for the night I want to say again how terribly sad this news makes me. I don't know how long I have been getting BWD but I can say I always looked forward to it and so enjoyed reading every inch of it. I loved all the writers for their writing personalities. I loved all the pictures and paintings/sketches especially yours (honest). I am so very surprised and sorry that this has happened. I am so sorry for you and Phoebe, & Liam because it's so personal. So thinking of you with care & compassion.

Take care,
Lucy (Troy, Ohio)

Posted by Anonymous January 2, 2022 at 8:46 PM

Julie, I really appreciate you reaching out to talk about this and to share in the grief. I cannot imagine how this has affected you. I was not nearly as invested BWD as you but I was so looking forward to working with the magazine again as an artist and maybe even write some stories. I was gutted at the news. It's a huge loss for wildlife artists and writers, as well as the little businesses who relied on the magazine to reach their customers. And the staff! I cannot even imagine. Dawn was planning on retiring next year, just had her car totaled and recently bought a house! I know these women, they are good people who were dedicated to BWD, and my heart aches for them. I'm also worried about our Costa Rica trip. All three of us were going and now I have no idea what's happening with that--and that was a big chunk of change. And the news came on the 3rd anniversary of my father's death, as well as the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. It's a day with some seriously bad juju. Hugs to you and to everyone heartbroken by this news.

So sorry to hear this sad news. End of an era.

I didn’t write a follow up about Jemima other than the epilogue of the book.

Sending lots of love to the entire crew of BWD. I still have every issue I got and refer to them always! They are truly a treasure I value! Thanks so very much for this post and know I pray for the staff and those who worked, wrote, photographed and set up for this gift of birds for so many people!
Blessings to all.

The news about the demise of BWD certainly *must* have come as a shock, since there's no mention of it in either your blog post about BWD last month or what we now know is the final issue itself (which I received last week). But I'm grieved to the soul not only for the magazine itself, but for all the excellent staff members you mention by name--and especially for you, Phoebe, and Liam, who have endured so many losses these past few years already. I'm glad that both Phoebe and Liam were home with you when you got the news, though.

This news hurts, and so many are sharing your pain, and that of the wonderful BWD family & staff. I remember first seeing BWD at my mom’s house (we all teased her for being interested in birds, how corny! And guess what, all of her kids love birds), the issue with the screech owl cover.

It is not all gone forever, though - there are seeds in the ground, and they will spring to life and push up through the soil and will bear lovely flowers. The legacy of BWD will live on, and bear new life.

The world just shifted a little...and we feel it.

White-throated Sparrows are keeping me company scratching in the leaf litter outside my office window. A White-breasted Nuthatch just landed on the side of the screen and let me know he's there...

Watching nature has been a lifelong passion and we credit BWD with helping us appreciate the wild beings outside our windows more by teaching us their names, habits and voices. We had really hoped that the national "turning our gaze to our backyards" of the last two years would've helped. 

BWD was one of those fine little mags that we collective band of birdwatchers could count on for solid science as well as entertainment. It was the inspirational mag you could cheerfully pick up at bedtime or anytime and glean a few gems that made you go "wow, what a bird!", or, "hey, I know (insert him, her, them)!", or "I've gotta get to that festival one day".

A little reminiscing...when my dad Arthur was the first national marketing exec at Droll Yankee (1978-81 ish), he took off by car to market the bird feeders. And by took off, I mean cross country from east to west, north to south. He believed in the old school method of showing up and pressing the flesh and he did it well. One of his stops was to Bill and Elsa's BWD, and I'd have to ask my mom, but I know this also involved a meal at their home. They were gracious and encouraging, and really impressed my parents with the 25 Cardinals feeding outside the on the Ohio ground. ;-)

Fast forward to 1986 and Jerry and I find ourselves diving into the birding business with the help and encouragement of not only my parents, but the many birders in CT and further afield who miraculously appeared on our doorstep (including Julie and friends). We even sold copies of BWD on our shelf! Not to mention the "Enjoying (fill in the blank) More" series, which we still order. The folks at BWD always seemed to have something more to give and we and our customers have always appreciated that.

Time has a way of flying and we still have not yet gotten to a birding festival. We turned our interests to international birding, instead. Jerry had the opportunity to go to Taiwan in '18, and finally got to be in the magnetic company of BT3 who left him impressed with not just his musical skills, but his amazing joke and story telling capabilities. Jerry's major regret is that this did not happen sooner.

The world of print has taken a lot of hits in 35 years, but nothing beats holding the printed page in our hands. Thank you BWD, for sharing all of the knowledge and for remaining relevant. 



Julie, our lives are intertwined and this marks a transition time but it does not mean goodbye…

OMG, my jaw is literally on the floor right now! I only recently finished reading the latest issue, which is on my desk next to me, and listening to the podcast in which Wendy and Dawn were discussing plans for the future. I hadn't heard that BWD was going to cease publication... Where was it announced? I'm a subscriber but haven't received anything in my e-mail.

Anyway, this is so terribly sad. BWD is a wonderful magazine. I save every issue. I love the articles, the illustrations, the photography, the podcasts. I will miss everything about it.

Very, very sad news...not only for BWD and its family & staff, but for the world of print magazines, journals, etc. It was comforting to read your eulogy, however, and I have hopes that perhaps something good will come of it for all your loyal readers, myself included. Have hope and stay strong!

I cannot believe this.....guess I had not read the magazine completely.....I always liked to stretch it out, to last longer...thank you for everything....

Oh this is too much. I am relatively new at birding and this magazine but it is too brutally sad that it is gone. No words.

Oh my, Julie. We met over 15 years ago, in Guatemala I think it was...and maybe saw one another and Bill once after that. I was doing bird filmmaking at that time for CLO.

I moved from Ca to Az a decade ago to take care of Dad, who'd just broken his hip at age 92. It became my full-time gig and I slowly lost connections with my CA birders, with birding in general. I was just so exhausted! Best thing I ever did in my life is move here and live with him for those years. He even introduced me to the sweet woman I'm now married to! Always the Good Man, he was.

Back to you. I remember how literally in awe I was of you and your attention to detail and your upbeat energy and connection to the All of it. Amazing! In one of my rare excursions to Facebook moments ago, I saw your hand holding up the Digest and read what was there, then clicked on the link and got deeply lost for a few minutes. Summing up all the contributions of the devoted people, the work you did there...all of it. It is a stunning read, Julie. You have had to deal with crushing losses recently, I think we all have in one way or another, but feeling the love and connection you had for Bill, the Digest, all those contributors/friends to the Digest, the impact of it...just reading that was beautiful. God Bless you, Julie.

Julie, this breaks my heart. I am so sorry that it has come to this. I have loved your contributions and others to this magazine. I am going to miss this. I am sorry for all who are affected by this. I wish you all the best in your continued journey through life.

This history of the magazine was fascinating to read - i'm so sorry it has to end for you all but the importance of it in the bird world will always remain as a graceful testament to the love you all have for birds. I love the story of grace with that magnolia warbler you saw.

Julie couldn't you get some of the staff and start a newer, similar magazine? I know it is easy for me to say but there might be enough people to start something new?

Dang Julie. I wasn't prepared to be sad this morning. to experience reverent awe. I'm stunned. So sorry for such a loss. Suddenly there's another legacy left. Grieve. Grieve. Grieve. ... Joy will come in due time. Love to you,

As many others are writing, I am totally stunned. I had just started reading the last issue with its forward-looking editorial content. Not a clue.
BWD was like getting letters from friends. How will I connect with the work of these terrific writers in the future?
It must have been hard but thanks for writing this eulogy. I think we all needed to hear it.

Marky Mark, I have not been able to listen to a single one of his later podcasts. Much as I would like to. It’s still too damn hard to hear that perfect reedy voice, the one that grabbed my ear in 1991. Hugs right back to you.

All I can do is groan, Marie. The Winter Solstice was not kind to us this year. Thank you for your kind thoughts.

Only online, in a notice on the BWD home page. I think about all the subscribers who aren’t online and shudder.

I just found this out and I am sad to hear that BWD is gone. I remember when it first started; my great uncle was a subscriber! I am saddened by this and will miss this little magazine. Wishing you all peace, and courage.

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