Size matters in the bird and publishing world


Bigger is always better, right? Cities and countries compete to build the tallest buildings. Gardeners vie to raise the biggest pumpkin. Anglers long for that monster bass. In the February 2011 issue of Pennsylvania Game News Mike Raykovicz writes, “The emphasis today seems to be on antlers, and the bigger they are the better.”


Size matter

Children marvel that 1,321 Earths could fit inside Jupiter, and 926 Jupiters could fit inside the Sun. Someday I’d like to see Hyperion, the name given the California redwood that reaches 379 feet into the sky. Hikers aspire to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail. Mountain climbers aim for higher summits. Every deer hunter dreams of a 10-point buck.

When I took my daughters whale-watching, we almost ignored 20-ft. minke whales when a 70-ft. long finback showed up. (I doubt I could have plugged its blowhole with my leg.)

Even birders succumb to the “bigger is better” syndrome. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been with a group of birders watching a hard-to-find warbler when a relatively common red-tailed hawk or pileated woodpecker flies by. Suddenly all eyes shift to the bigger bird. And of course, competitive birders strive to add to their life lists.


ize grabs our attention

Even young children respond to size. Sesame’s Street’s Big Bird was one of my daughters’ favorite characters.


In some cases size is a trophy – the biggest fish, the highest mountain, the largest rack.

One reason we value size is its rarity. There are a limited number of big rivers, big mountains, and big trees. Large plants and animals take years to achieve their enormity. Big trees are ancient; some predate Christ. We value that. It’s why my heart breaks at the thought of mountain top removal as a method to mine coal. Mountains that took hundreds of millions of year to form scalped in just a few years.

Ironically, though, it’s often the little things that matter most in the grand scheme of things. Most of the species that have survived on Earth for eons are small – bacteria, algae, insects. And these are the building blocks of every ecosystem.



Sometimes size is difficult to measure

A person’s personality is one example. Some people’s personality “fills the room.” So it was with Bill Thompson, Jr.

Loss to the bird world

Thompson, 78, died earlier this week from complications of pneumonia. Though he wore many hats, I remember Bill best for his contributions to birding journalism.

Back in the early 1970s, Bill was vice-president of development at Marietta Collage in southeastern Ohio. Eventually, he and his wife Elsa wanted to start a business, something that might become a family enterprise.

After much thought and research, they created BirdWatcher’s Digest (BWD; in 1978. Elsa was a birder; Bill was not. But Bill had a background in journalism. They made a perfect team.

For five years they published the fledgling magazine from their home and relied on help from family and friends. Today, BWD is the godfather of birding magazines.

By the time I met Bill in the mid 1980s, the magazine had a home of its own in Marietta. Whenever I’d visit the magazine or run into Bill at a birding event, he always greeted me with a big smile. He’d shake my hand, slap my back, and ask what I was doing and where I had been recently. He made me feel important. That’s how his personality filled the room.

When Bill retired from his position as co-publisher of the magazine in 1993, he returned to Marietta College.

Many talents

Bill was also an accomplished jazz pianist. I learned of his musical talent at birding events when the Thompson family band would entertain the crowd. His eyes sparkled and his fingers danced at the keyboard.

And after we had known each for a few years, he told me it was his musical talent that had led him to Elsa. “She was a fantastic cabaret singer,” he said, “and we teamed up many years ago. The rest is history.”

My condolences to Elsa, sons Bill, III (now BWD editor), and Andy (now BWD publisher), daughter Laura Thompson Fulton (now BWD circulation director) and the rest of the extended family. Bill, Jr. was a giant, and I’m proud to say he was my friend.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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