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.
Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds, edited by Billy Collins with paintings by David Allen Sibley, Columbia University Press, paperback edition, 268 pages, $16.95. When I read the hardcover release I wrote, “An intelligent assembly of poems that take us places where prose cannot go.This little book is a reminder that everything important about birds can’t be found in guide books or scientific papers.”
Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, Tim Burkhead, Jo Wimpenny, and Bob Montgomery, Princeton University Press, hardcover, 524 pages, illustrated with photos and artwork, with notes, references, and index, $45.
Here in summary is everything we know about birds told through the achievements of the people who made the discoveries and did the science. You will recognize some of the names, but probably not all of them. You will be impressed, however, with the work of all of them. The book begins with yesterday’s birds, and ends with tomorrow’s. Discussed are the origin and distribution of species, ecological adaptations, form and function, instinct, behavior, sexual selection, and population studies. Twenty-four other histories of ornithology are briefly described in an appendix, offering opportunity to fill in the few blanks that one might find in this very accomplished examination of bird science. A second appendix offers very brief biographies of 500 ornithologists. You know birds. With this book you will know the people and work that made that knowledge possible. Chances are, you had no idea.
Eighteen books about birds that belong in a home birding library, in no particular order:
1. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, Thor Hansen, Basic Books. How and why.
2. Egg and Nest, Rosamond Purcell, Linnea S. Hall, and Rene´ Hall, Harvard University Press. The beauty and mystery of bird beginnings.
3. Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build, Peter Goodfellow, Princeton University Press. You should know this much about your home and how to build it.
4. Owls of the World: Their Lives, Behavior, and Survival, Dr. James R. Duncan, Firefly Books. A look at the world’s most fascinating birds.
5. The Unfeathered Bird, Katrina van Grouw, Princeton University Press. Bird mechanics and movements revealed.
6. Birds and People, Mark Crocker with photographs by David Tipling, Random House. An extraordinary look at people’s relationships with birds throughout history around the world.
7. A Guide to Bird Watching, Joseph Hickey, illustrated by Francis Lee Jaques, Oxford University Press, out of print. Find a copy if you can. This 1943 publication is timeless, as informative today as the year it was published, 1943. It contains many things you don’t know you should know.
8. Alex and Me, Irene M. Pepperberg, HarperCollins. Let a parrot show you just how smart birds can be.
9. The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner, Vintage Books. Two scientists spend 20 years studying Darwin’s finches on an island in the Galapagos archipelago. They see and document evolution in action.
10. Peacocks of Baboquivari, Erma J. Fisk, W. W. Norton Co. Possibly out of print. A widow moves to remote mountains in Arizona and more or less by accident becomes an award-winning naturalist, focusing on birds.
11. The Dictionary of American Bird Names, Ernest A. Choate, The Harvard Common Press. Bird names explained, common and Latin. Who, for example, is Poor Joe?
12. In the Company of Crows and Ravens, John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, Yale University Press. These birds just might be the smartest neighbors we have.
13. The Birdwatcher’s Companion, Christopher W. Leahy, Princeton University Press. A single-volume encyclopedia, birds A to Z. Here are the answers to most of your questions.
14. National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, edited by Jonathan Alderfer, National Geographic Press. Six-hundred and sixty-two pages of informative text punctuated with illustrations. If Leahy can’t answer your question, the answer should be in this book.
15. Manual of Ornithology, Avian Structure and Function, Noble S. Proctor and Patrick J. Lynch, Yale University Press. Bird Biology 101, birds from the inside out.
16. The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation, Mike Unwin, Princeton University Press. An abbreviated and well-written look at everything bird. It moves from bird beginnings to conservation, which is about preventing bird endings.
17. Birds of the World, Les Beletsky, The John Hopkins University Press. Original paintings of 1,300 species from all the bird families of the world, with text explaining how and where.
18. The Birding Life: A Passion for Birds at Home and Afield, text by Laurence Sheehan, photos by William Stites, Clarkson Potter Publishing. Think “Architectural Digest” for people who love birds.
David Allen Sibley’s new book, “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” second edition, is a fine book. I like it. I have one. I use it.
Why? I like Sibley’s artwork, first of all. I do find the text helpful. I even like the range maps (more on that in a moment).
Artwork: Birding is a visual game, to state the obvious. I believe that most people choose a field guide based on their reaction to the illustrations. You either like the art/photos or you don’t. I don’t believe that attraction to text or anything else overrides reaction to the art.
My first field guide was the Peterson, eastern version. Of course, when I bought it there were but two real choices, Peterson and the “Audubon Land Bird Guide: Birds of Eastern & Central North America From Southern Texas to Central Greenland” text by Richard Pough, illustrations by Don Eckelberry, the title alone worth the purchase. Eckelberry drew his birds with more flare than Peterson. Eckelberry’s birds were shown in realistic poses; they had movement.
Peterson’s art won the day, however. As a beginner, I loved the little arrows that pointed to the critical field marks on his perfect profiles.
I never went to a bookstore to buy a field guide, and made a choice based on text. No. It’s how you feel when you open the book and look at the pictures.
Over the years I've acquired about three dozen other field guides, some general for North America, some east only, some west, and others for warblers, raptors, shorebirds, and seabirds.
I have these because I thought I would find them useful. In most cases they have been, if only now and then. The book in the bird box in the van, though, and the one on my desk, those are Sibley’s. Because I like his artwork.
Sibley’s painting pleases my eye. Plus, of course, his illustrations, the text, his maps, they all do the job.
Of the other books, one stands out: Crossley’s, that strange guide with pages of flying, perching, swimming birds. He has given each species a display page filled with photos of that bird in every conceivable pose. If you take photos, and come home with birds unidentifiable because you missed the best shot, Crossley likely has a picture — on purpose — that mimics yours, clueing your ID.
About those range maps: many book designers, when they come to range maps, choose to delineate nesting, wintering, permanent, and migration territories in soft pastel colors. They lean heavily on subtle shades of brown and red and green. I do not see those colors well, my eyes, like those of about six percent of American men, short-changed on red/green receptors. Those range-map colors cannot be told one from another, making the maps pretty much useless.
Sibley’s designer, however, or maybe Sibley himself, has chosen brighter, bolder colors with a greater degree of separation. Hooray for him. It’s another reason he’s my favorite.
Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds, Mariette Nowak, University of Wisconsin Press, soft cover, 335 pages, index, heavily illustrated, $34.95
About once a year I receive for review a book purporting to guide birders to a yard/garden/landscape that attracts birds. This book, “Birdscaping in the Midwest,” is the first to deliver fully on the promise, plus more.
It covers far more topics than other books I’ve seen, in greater detail, with better text. It has illustrations not only beautiful (check the Tufted Titmouse photo on page 161) but also helpful. It has diagrams that show you not only which plants to use but how to place them in a garden for best effect. There are lists for everything, and sources for everything, the latter including books and websites.
If the book was a bird it would be a big bird. If it was a flower it would be a gorgeous flower.
The author, Mariette Nowak, is a professional, leader of a native plant and landscape group and for the Lakeland Audubon Society in Milwaukee. She is a public speaker on landscaping, native plants, and birds. Before retirement she was director of the Wehr Nature Center within the Milwaukee County park system.
The book offers an education on native plants and birds. It would be interesting even if you have no plans for a garden. However, once you’ve page through it, the urge to make a plan and find a shovel could be strong.
Here is the table of contents:
Birds and Plants: an ancient collaboration, going native, the case against exotics.
Gallery of Bird-habitat Gardens: photos.
Native Habitat for Birds — the basics: getting started, planning and design, site prep and planting.
Bird-habitat Gardens for Specific Birds: gardens for hummingbirds, prairie birds, migratory birds, winter birds, and birds of the savanna, woodlands, wetlands, and scrublands. Plus birdbaths and water gardens.
Midwestern Plants that Attract Birds: trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, sedges, and rushes.
Maintaining and Enhancing Your Garden, with information on bird housing and bird feeding, and advice on solving problems should they occur.
Have you ever bought a packet of assorted wildflower seeds? I have. Bad idea, Ms. Nowak tells us. She writes of tests that have shown the average such packet to contain as much as 30 percent exotic-plant seed (you don’t want these!), and germination rates as low as 40 percent. The author advises buying seed from nurseries that specialize in native plants.
There is a particular article discussing a Minnesota yard, one cursed with buckthorn. The removal and replacement is clearly and thoroughly discussed. I read this with interest. I’m in the midst of buckthorn removal, given the almost 100 percent viability of every seed in every berry, a project that might last a lifetime.
The book would be valuable for a gardener who has no pointed interest in birds as well as birders, even those who don’t garden but want to know more about habitat, a key to finding birds. I suspect it would lead either in the direction of the other. There is almost as much information here about birds as there is about plants. This book deserves a place on the shelf next to your favorite bird guide book.
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