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.
In stores now is Richard Crossley's newest field guide to birds: The Crossley ID Guide -- Raptors. It's similar to his first field guide, but better. It deals with a family of birds well suited for his idea of setting many photos of a species against a large photo background.
His first book covered all of the bird species of eastern North America. This book deals solely with raptors. Crossly's initial effort, published in 2011, was called revolutionary for the way it presented its photos. Each species was presented on full pages with multiple photos, birds seen from every conceivable point of view. Crossley wanted to duplicate your field experiences.
The raptor book makes the most of this idea. Raptors are often, perhaps most often, seen flying. Crossley's photos of birds in the air -- birds soaring and gliding and swooping -- would be better only in video. The book's photos do match what you see in the field; they are very pertinent. There are raptors near and far, high and low, raptors perched, raptors overhead.
Raptors are special because it's possible to make accurate identifications at a distance, when plumage details are not easily seen. How are the bird's wings set? Is it bulky, or slender, large head or small? The physical attributes of the bird, perched as well as aloft, can spell its name. Crossley has captured this well. His idea really works with raptors.
Supporting the hundreds of fine photos is text on each species, the particulars similar to what you can find in other guides but more extensive. There are range maps. And if you want to hone you raptor ID skills, Crossley provides several pages of quiz photos. They show a mix of raptor species in various poses at various distances, what you might see in the field. This is a wonderful idea, a true test. He does provide answers, for which I was grateful. (I need raptor work.)
Crossley's had collaborators for this effort, well-known raptor experts Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. All of the photos used were taken by these three men.
"The Crossley ID Guide -- Raptors" is soft cover, 285 pages, extensively illustrated with double-page photo spreads, glossary index, $29.95. The book is another in the fine series if bird guides published by Princeton University Press.
Below is one page of the two-page spread for Cooper's Hawk.
Owls of the World, a Photographic Guide, Heimo Mikkola, Fireside Books Ltd, hard cover, 510 pages, heavily illustrated, with maps, explanatory text for each of the 249 owls species covered, index, and suggestions for further reading.
Someone has seen each of the owls shown in this book, obvious by the photos (and the museum specimens used when photos of live birds could not be found). I wonder if anyone has seen them all? Owls are found world-wide, except for Antarctica. Two-thirds of the species live in the southern hemisphere. Most are forest-dwellers, susceptible to the rampant deforestation seen today. Many species are threatened.
From the owl photos you can see that, basically, an owl is an owl is an owl. They are different, however, in size, coloration, food habits, and habitat preferences. Distribution of some species might be surprising. The Burrowing Owl, for instance, occasionally seen in Minnesota, and fairly easily found on prairies to our west, is resident into South America all the way to the tip of the continent.
Our Great Horned Owl can be found in South America. The range of the Great Gray Owl, eagerly sought in northern Minnesota by birders seeking to fill life lists, has a range that stretches across Scandinavia and Russia. Snowy Owls, making a small incursion south from their polar range this year, are circumpolar in distribution.
Owls have long been regarded as omens of impending ill fortune, if not death, according to the author. Those low or screaming voices coming from the forest were not welcomed. Today, Mikkola says, we should welcome owl calls as evidence of their continued presence. It is the silent forest that speaks of ill fortune.
Twelve Owls, Laura Erickson and Betsy Bowen, University of Minnesota Press, soft cover, 68 pages.This book on owls is local, its Minnesota focus but one of several ways this book so charmingly differs from a purely scientific, world-wide outlook.
Two of our most accomplished artists -- Laura Erickson, Duluth writer, and Betsy Bowen, Grand Marais artist -- have combined talents to give us "Twelve Owls," a guide to the owls native to our state.
The artwork, from cover throughout, could be deceiving, tagging this book as a "picture book" meant for young readers. Hardly. The beautiful illustrations compliment the highly informative text.
“Trash Animals: How We Life with Nature’s Filthy, Feral, Invasive, and Unwanted Species.” That’s the title of a new book soon to be on the shelves of the Hennepin County library. The library’s summary of the book tells us that the various authors, each examining one species, will contrast the reality of the animal with “assumptions widely held about them.” We will be challenged to “look closely at these animals, to re-imagine our ethics of engagement” with them.
A good premise, a useful book I’ll bet, but what an awful title. If the essays are to polish the reputations of these critters, it’s misleading. Either they are trash – and no animals are – or they aren’t. Nor are they filthy, or necessarily unwanted.
The book tells us we regard pigeons, carp, wolves, coyotes, gulls, magpies, prairie dogs, other animals, and, in my case, squirrels, with less than an admiring eye. I suppose someone ill-informed and unfamiliar with wildlife could so consider. Speaking for birds, pigeons, the entire broad family of gulls, and the clever and well-dressed magpie -- all are beautiful animals, each with its own place in our birding history, on our lists, in our guidebooks, and sometimes in our aspirations.
All God’s children have a place in the choir, as the song goes. In most cases, we have created invasive and unwanted species and whatever negative images exist by introducing animals to places they don’t belong. We alter habitat to give competing animals lesser chance at prosperity. If there is a trash issue here, we should examine our careless behavior with non-native species and our disregard for the needs of native species. That’s the trashy part.
The book is being published by the University of Minnesota Press.
A Rock Pigeon, below, our garden-variety pigeon, a beautiful iridescent bird that is not trash in any way. Watch a flock of pigeons wheel through the air. Consider the wonderfully odd way they walk, head bobbing with each step. Why, and how do their eyes adjust to the constant focal change? Or, enjoy their company by tossing them bread crumbs or popcorn on your next visit to a city park. Few bird species are as accepting of us.
Here from the book are three views of a pigeon: skeleton, bones fleshed out, and bird with skin and feather sheaves.
You can't tell a bird by its feathers alone.
Your Sunday chicken looks one way in the coop, another way when its plucked. Without feathers you have a better idea of how the bird is made. Roasted and eaten, the bones that remain tell the rest of the story (a story more easily read if you reassemble the bird).
In her amazing book "The Unfeathered Bird" artist and writer Katrina van Grouw has with great skill disassembled birds for us, and then reassembled them. Her drawings of dozens of species chosen from six orders and families show us birds from the inside out. It is a very different and informative perspective.
We are greeted by the image is a Southern Cassowary, bulky skeleton plodding out of its dark Australian jungle habitat. Second largest bird in the world, this fruit-eater looks more reptilian than avian. Its feet are those of a dinosaur.
Then comes the trunk of a Common Moorhen, skinned, an egg-shaped mass. Cover the caption and it's hard to know just what this is. Clear text answers the questions.
Here is the breastbone of a Mallard, then its vertebral column and pelvis, long and snake-like. Here is the head of a Woodpigeon, head with skin removed, skull, tongue, a cross-section of its eyeball. Then more skulls, feet, legs, wings and tails presented in large, simple drawings, the beautiful sketches she worked for 25 years to produce.
"Five years of innocent research," she writes in the introduction, followed by 15 years trying to convince a publisher that this was a good idea, and then "several more years of very hard labor."
Fortunately, she found a home for the project, Princeton University Press. Princeton has put Ms. van Grouw's art and text in almost handsome book, 12 inches top to bottom, 10 inches wide, 287 pages, designed by the artist to offer an illustration on almost every page. This makes turning each page an adventure. Particularly welcome is the large size with which many images are so boldly presented.
Full skeletons, bones finely drawn are shaded to create three-dimensional images. Some appear unbird-like. This is not how we see these animals. Put flesh on them, draw individual muscles, and the need for feathers to complete the picture remains. Feathers are what we know, bones and flesh the entire story revealed.
Storks and herons have similar basic shapes -- long legs, long neck, long bills. Plucked, however, as Ms. van Grouw does, there are distinct differences created by the needs of each species. Herons have evolved to hunt with wet feet, sliding a narrow body between reeds as they hunt, lunging with bill. I've watched a Great Blue Heron stab into the water, rising with an impaled bullhead. Herons are musketeers of the marsh. Storks have evolved to hunt where bulky bodies work just fine, slimmness not a necessity. They snap at prey found.
Form has followed function, as Ms. van Grouw illustrates. Anatomy is destiny.
These drawings tell many stories, answer many questions. On the foot of a heron is a middle toe, its claw pectinated -- comb-like, a grooming tool. The feet of grebes, as big as a hand on the page, resemble baseball gloves, webbed to provide propulsion. The grouse drawing shows a very deep breastbone, its keel, large to accommodate attachment of the strong muscles that allow these birds to jump into rapid flight.
And here is Willie Loman from "Death of a Salesman," a Little Penguin, its flesh removed, slouching home after a bad day at the office. The preen gland, something all birds have in common, plus tail and wing feathers remain, vague clues.
We began with a chicken. Here it is, on page 213, a Cornish Broiler, feathers gone, near oven-ready. It has the body and thighs of a bird two or three times its size, awkward looking, completely lacking the grace of other birds. We have created something grotesque. (That, however, does not affect flavor.)
It's early in the year, but I doubt if 2013 will see a book published that is more interesting or fascinating or better done than Ms. van Grouw's. It is $49.95, worth every penny, a world-wide birding expedition like no other.
A Love Affair With Birds : The Life of Thomas Sadler Roberts by Sue Leaf, to be published by the University of Minnesota Press. The Hennepin County Library has five copies on order. Here is the summary of the book as offered by the library.
“Imagine a Minneapolis so small that, on calm days, the roar of St. Anthony Falls could be heard in town, a time when Passenger Pigeons roosted in neighborhood oak trees. Now picture a dapper professor conducting his ornithology class (the university's first) by streetcar to Lake Harriet for a morning of bird-watching.
“The students were mostly young women--in sunhats, sailor tops, and long skirts, with binoculars strung around their necks. The professor was Thomas Sadler Roberts (1858--1946), a doctor for three decades, a bird-lover virtually from birth, the father of Minnesota ornithology, and the man who, perhaps more than any other, promoted the study of the state's natural history.
“’A Love Affair with Birds’ is the first full biography of this key figure in Minnesota's past. Roberts came to Minnesota as a boy and began keeping detailed accounts of Minneapolis's birds. These journals, which became the basis for his landmark work” The Birds of Minnesota,” also inform this book, affording a view of the state's rich avian life in its early days -- and of a young man whose passion for birds and practice of medicine among Minneapolis's elite eventually dovetailed in his founding of the beloved Bell Museum of National History.
“Bird enthusiast, doctor, author, curator, educator, conservationist: every chapter in Roberts's life is also a chapter in the state's history, and in his story acclaimed author Sue Leaf -- an avid bird enthusiast and nature lover herself -- captures a true Minnesota character and his time."
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