This has been an exciting year for books about birds. In addition to the pleasure and utility of the publication of the second edition of David Sibley’s North American guide, the new crop of books explores not only what and where birds are, but how they have been a part our environment, our culture and our lives for thousands of years. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Penguins: The Ultimate Guide,” (Princeton University Press, $35)
They don’t come in flocks, it’s crowds. They’re not pairs, they’re couples. And we don’t marvel at their behavior, but their antics. Penguins can seem like an animal group unto themselves, neither bird nor mammal nor fish. At one time or another, they behave like all three. At times, they remind us of ourselves. All of that is captured in this coffee-table book, with text that’s informative and entertaining and photos that are so good you’ll enjoy “Penguins” even if you never read a word. By Tui De Roy, Mark Jones and Julie Cornthwaite.
“Birds and People” (Jonathan Cape Publishers, $65)
We eat birds (early Romans favored parrot tongues); they are part of our medicine and magic; we keep them as pets. Birds are more important to us than we might realize — now, and in the past. That’s the takeaway message from this impressive book by Mark Cocker, which presents all the bird families of the world in keen biographies, then examines each family’s relationships with humans and its impact on culture.
“Welcome to Subirdia” (Yale University Press, $30)
Author John M. Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, explores the subtitle of his book: how we share our neighborhoods with wrens, robins, woodpeckers and other wildlife. He does so by drawing on both his professional knowledge and his personal experience.
“Hummingbirds: A Life-sized Guide to Every Species” (Harper-Collins, $30)
I’ve never seen a book like this before, so it’s likely you haven’t either. It not only features all 388 species of hummingbirds, it does so with life-size, lifelike photographs in vivid colors. The book also includes brief biological and plumage information as well as range maps. Only the humming sound of the wings is missing. By Michael Fogden, Marianne Taylor and Sheri L. Williamson.
“The Three-Minute Outdoorsman” (University of Minnesota Press, $17.95)
This perfect stocking stuffer is full of unexpected and entertaining stories from an ornithology professor, our own Dr. Robert Zink from the University of Minnesota. Zink explains everything from magnetic deer to mumbling carp in this book, which I think of as science dressed in camouflage clothing.
“National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, Second Edition” (National Geographic Society, $40)
Illustrated with paintings as well as photographs, this is an essential book for your birding library. It answers most — if not all — of the common birding questions, and covers more than 1,000 species of birds. All in all, it’s a considerable improvement on the 2005 first edition.
“Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening With Native Plants to Attract Birds” (University of Wisconsin Press, $35)
About once a year, I receive a book purporting to help birders design a landscape to attract birds. This is the first book that delivers fully on the promise. Even better, it’s focused on the Midwest and contains hands-on projects explained by someone who has dirt under her fingernails — author Mariette Nowak.
“Rare Birds of North America” (Princeton University Press, $35).
Lavishly illustrated, with text offering far more information than the usual field guide, this book focuses on 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. All bird identification books should be this good. By Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell.
“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt and Co., $28).
We are eliminating species at a pace a thousand times faster than in the past. This is part of our “unnatural history,” and, unfortunately, our legacy. This important book researches the history of what has been, what has disappeared and the extinctions in process today. By Elizabeth Kolbert.
“Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds” (Columbia University Press, $16.95).
Edited by poet Billy Collins with paintings by David Allen Sibley, this unassuming book contains an intelligent assembly of poems that take us places where prose cannot go. It’s a reminder that everything important about birds can’t be found in guide books or scientific papers.
“Latin for Bird Lovers” (Timber Press, $24.95)
More than 3,000 scientific bird names — Latin and Greek — are explored and explained in this book. (Thankfully, phonetic pronunciations also are provided.) It also includes a dozen profiles of an eclectic selection of birders, including the late Phoebe Snetsinger, a New Brighton woman who went on to become one of the top birders in the world. By Roger Lederer and Carol Burr.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.