Baking the Bird Cookies of North America

Would you try baking detailed and accurate bird cookies of every species in the field guide? Sarah MacLean is taking on the challenge.

Birders love lists. They keep track of birds they’ve seen, birds they’d like to see, birds in their backyard, birds they’ve photographed; you name it, and a birder probably keeps track of it. But there probably aren’t too many birders keeping track of birds the way Sarah MacLean of Bird on the Move is – by baking bird cookies.

Bird Cookies Bird on the MovePhoto Credit: Sarah MacLean
Photo Credit: Sarah MacLean

Sarah is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, where she uses historical data from old field journals to understand the impacts that changes in climate and land use have had on California bird populations. It’s the kind of work that keeps her busy in the field, so when she’s home, she likes to unwind the same way many folks do, by baking. But Sarah’s baking has a twist. Since August 2017, she’s been baking her way through her Birds of North American field guide, creating accurate and detailed bird cookies for every single species listed.

“One batch of dough can make about 30 cookies,” Sarah says. “Making them all is a day long endeavor of mixing batter, shaping all the home made cookie cutters, baking, and the most time-intensive of all, laying them all out on the table and decorating with the icing.”

BotM Bird Cookies LayoutPhoto Credit: Sarah MacLean
Photo Credit: Sarah MacLean

Sarah posts each cookie on her blog, Bird on the Move, one species per day. Each post contains information about the bird as well as an illustration for comparison. Sarah creates these illustrations herself, as she is currently working to develop a business as a scientific illustrator.  Her blog also has posts on field work she’s done, along with the recipe and instructions for baking your own bird cookies (including how to shape your own cookie cutters).

We caught up with Sarah to find out more about her project. Here’s what she had to say.

BotM Sarah MacLean Bird CookiesPhoto by Sarah MacLean
Photo by Sarah MacLean Scientist-artist-baker Sarah MacLean

What sparked your interest in birds?

I became interested in birds as a child. I’ve always loved nature, but I grew up in a suburban area of southern California where the great outdoors was hard to come by. I decided to fill this void by starting a simple garden in my backyard when I was about 10 years old, and in my head, any proper garden needed a bird feeder – my goal wasn’t even to attract birds at first, I just built a little feeder because it felt like it belonged. Then, of course, the birds started coming. I got my first field guide, started learning to identify them, added more feeders, added more bird-friendly plants, and I was hooked.

Birds were special to me because they were a window into the natural world that I could connect with, even in my little suburban garden. The great thing about birds is that many of them can live right alongside us – they’re a beautiful component of nature that’s accessible during our everyday lives.

BotM Bird Cookies DecoratingPhoto Credit: Sarah MacLean
Photo Credit: Sarah MacLean

Why bird cookies? How did it start?

For the past seven years I’ve had a tradition of baking bird cookies at Christmas time. It started while I was an undergraduate at college, during the first year I had an apartment and an oven. It was finals time, I needed to relieve some stress, and I wanted to say thank you to all the wonderful new friends and colleagues I’d met, many of whom also studied birds. My family has always baked to show affection, so making bird cookies seemed natural. Even once I moved to California for grad school, I still mailed cookies back to my east coast friends each Christmas. This past Christmas, my usual cookie recipients received a sampling of seabirds.

As for the fate of the cookies outside of the holiday season, my boyfriend kindly volunteers to take most of them to work. He is a planetary geologist at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and many of the cookies have gone to meetings of the team that oversees the Mars Rovers. Most of them aren’t bird people, but so far they’ve thoroughly enjoyed the cookies and learning about which bird species are represented.

BotM Gunnison Grouse Bird Cookies

What’s been the most challenging species so far? What’s been your favorite to bake?

By far the most difficult cookie so far has been the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. The tail has so many thin, pointed feathers which are extremely fragile in cookie form, and the markings on that species are so intricate that I could never hope to do them proper justice with icing.

It’s so hard to pick a favorite. I love birds that have a little extra color or pattern to them; sharp-tailed grouse turned out really nice for that reason. Mountain Quail and California Quail were also fun to bake, since I had to make little topknots separately.

In my most recent batch I made a California Condor, which is an incredibly special cookie just because it’s an incredibly special bird. I can’t wait to feature it and talk about its amazing conservation success story.

BotM Bird Cookies CondorPhoto by Sarah MacLean
Photo by Sarah MacLean California Condor cookie

What’s your favorite bird? Have you baked it yet?

During my first seven years of bird cookies I always baked a set of species that was relevant to my research or geographic location at the time. Those were all very special to me, even though choosing a favorite would be like choosing a favorite child.

Raptors are my favorite group of birds, and I’m excited to be baking those about a month from now. I recently got to bake one of my favorite bird species in the world, the Northern Gannet. I’ve always thought they were beautiful birds, and I’m awe-struck by the amazing plunge diving they perform while hunting fish.

BotM Bird Cookies GannetPhoto by Sarah MacLean
Photo by Sarah MacLean Northern Gannet

What have you learned about birds by baking your way through the field guide?

Distilling a bird’s shape and markings into a cookie is incredibly challenging, and has definitely brought me a new perspective on identification. On the one hand it’s a unifying exercise as I try to find commonalities amongst the species I’m baking: Which ones are similar enough in shape that they can share a single cookie cutter? What are the most common colors, so I can consolidate how much icing I have to mix?

At the same time, to make a species identifiable, I need to zero in on what makes it unique. All the markings have to be simplified substantially to make them work in icing without me pulling my hair out, but the key markings have to be there: the whiter face on a White-Faced Ibis as compared to Glossy Ibis; the extra scalloping on the breast of a California Quail as compared to a Gambel’s Quail; the slightly different shape of white on a Common Goldeneye compared to Barrow’s Goldeneye.

BotM Bird Cookies GeesePhoto Credit: Sarah MacLean
Photo Credit: Sarah MacLean

Aside from bird cookies, what’s in your future?

I’m planning to finish my PhD this coming May. Once I graduate, I’m hoping to pursue a career in science education. I love getting people excited about birds and the natural world; the cookies have been an excellent way to do that so far.

I am also currently working hard to develop and market my new business as a scientific illustrator. Just as I’m attempting to bake all the birds of North America, I am simultaneously drawing all of them as well. (Note: You can see more of Sarah’s illustrations on her other website, Bennu Birdy.)

Follow Sarah’s day-by-day progress on her blog, Bird on the Move, by clicking here.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.