Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, Tim Burkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomerie, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 524 pages, illustrated, notes, references, index, two appendixes.
“Ten Thousand Birds” examines contributions and advances in the science of ornithology since Darwin, and the people who made them. Work is presented in various categories of study: origin and diversification, ecological adaptations for breeding, form and function, instinct, behavior, sexual selection, population, and a look forward. One appendix lists some histories of ornithology, the other offers a list of 500 ornithologists, living and dead. This is an impressive examination of work that continues. It is written for birders, not scientists. It won’t help with identification, but it will greatly expand one’s knowledge of the animals that provide us with so much pleasure.
The Stokes Essential Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America, Donald and Lillian Stokes, Little Brown & Co., soft cover, illustrated, 270 pages, $15.
This book is seriously mis-titled. How can a bird-identification book bill itself as “essential” when it contains information on only 254 of North America’s over 800 bird species? This book is pretty much useless for a serious birder, and would be confusing at best in the hands of a beginner. It is a pocket-sized book, which unfortunately might make it tempting. Of course, the reason it fits in pockets is because it's small because it's woefully incomplete. The price is tempting, too, only $15, low in today’s book market. But you know why the price is low. The Stokes have many books on the market, most of them competitive in style and content. I have no idea what they were thinking when this book was planned. Sixteen species of warbler? Eight species of sparrow? One grebe? C’mon!
Pterosaurs, Mark P. Witton author and illustrator, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 290 pages, amply illustrated, list of references, index, $35.
If you had been around during a very early period of Earth’s natural history —100 to 300 million years ago — and had a penchant for listing flying creatures, pterosaurs would have been perfect for you. One-hundred and thirty species known so far, with many distinguishing characteristics. No ID book at that time, but this book will do nicely now.
Pterosaurs flew, but they are not related to birds. They were flying lizards, reptiles with wings.
This is not light reading. Determination is required for the layman. You get to meet, however, a fascinating family of creatures that once dominated the skies. Witton, artist as well as writer, gives the reader a set of pterosaur portraits that draw heavily on supposition and imagination, given the lack of fleshed out models. The paintings are really cool.
And, they would have made a great show-off list.
(I have no photos.)
The Passenger Pigeon, Errol Fuller, 2014, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 178 pages, illustrated, index, $29.95.
If my Great-grandfather Charles Williams had lived a bit longer, and if I had had an earlier interest in birds, I could have asked him for a first-hand account of Passenger Pigeons.
He was born in Indiana in 1857, when if pigeon numbers were dropping there were yet so many that any loss went unnoticed.
His father had moved to Indiana from Kentucky, and he surely saw the flocks at their peak.
Both of them ate Passenger Pigeon, I imagine. Why not? They were tasty, and supply was no problem.
But Charlie didn’t live long enough to tell me those stories. Instead there is Errol Fuller’s wonderfully told so-sad story of the extinction of this species.
This is a handsome book, well-done in every regard. The sad story is made moreso by the photos and paintings in the book. They tell the story from the beginning of the slaughter to its end.
There are many photos of captive or dead birds in the book. The most graphic is a picture of Martha, the last pigeon alive, who died in the Cincinnati zoo 100 years ago. She lies under glass, on her back, feet to the air.
There are no authenticated photos, however, of live Passenger Pigeons in the wild, only photos of captives or preserved specimens. That is true in the book and in the results of a Google search.
Using Google I found a photo of a pigeon trapper, a live bird on his arm, like a pet, his traps at his side, and another of a railcar hung with strings of its cargo — pigeons being shipped east to be eaten. There is a photo supposedly of the pigeons, a huge pile of dead birds, with a man standing art the top. There is one photo on a Flickr page that shows a flock of birds large enough to darken the sky as it passed, as Passenger Pigeon flocks were said to do. There is no reference to verify its content, source, or authenticity, however.
At the end of the book is a short section of quotations from writings made by people who did see the birds: Cotton Mather, Pehr Kalm ( a Swedish botanist sent here to collect specimens), Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, James Fenimore Cooper, Chief Simon Pokagon, and Mark Twain.
They offer the first-hand accounts that Great-grandfather Charlie could have given me. If only.
There are many books written about this bird and the loss. This is the best one.
National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, Second Edition, edited by Jonathan Alderfer. Hard-cover, 744 pages, illustrated with paintings and photographs, index, list for additional reading, $35. Available on Oct. 7.
If there is one book I would consider essential for the library of any birder, this is it. If you have only one book besides your field guide, let it be this one.
As you might guess from the page count, this is not a book to be used in the field. This is the book on your desk, for reference before or after the trip or sighting.
It has very good identification information, both detailed text and helpful illustrations. It gives you information on similar species, voice, status and distribution (well mapped), migration and wintering, and population status. This is done for every species reliably identified before November 2013, the publication cutoff date. Over 1,000 species are covered.
This book replaces and improves upon the 2005 edition. Text for that edition was written 24 by the field ornithologists. This new edition contains additional text by additional authors, including 12 new avian family accounts and more than 60 new species accounts.
The species accounts introduce each family section, i.e. Ducks, Geese, and Swans; Sandpipers, Phalaropes, and Allies; Shrikes; Wood-Warblers; and so on. One might be tempted by skip these introductions, but shouldn’t. The overview of family structure, plumage, behavior, distribution, taxonomy, and conservation does a fine job of putting individual birds in perspective. Identification will be easier with this information in hand.
When asides are called for, when extra information would be helpful on separating species, for instance, clear, brief illustrated text gives the reader a leg up.
You might recognize some of the artwork. Most of it comes from the 2011 (6th) edition of the “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.”
I have collected shelves of books I always hope will answer any birding question I have. This book does not do everything those books do — there are limits to size, after all. But this book will be the place I begin my search for whatever. It is complete, complete and well-done.
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