Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Rare Birds of North America

Rare Birds of North America by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington and Will Russell is a fascinating book that most birders will enjoy. The bulk of the book consists of large, lavish, color illustrations of the approximately 262 birds that have appeared in North America five times or fewer. This total is a tad confusing, since the authors consider a flock of rare birds seen but once as a single occurrence. The book also includes a few records that are not officially accepted by the ornithological community.

This coverage presents something of a conundrum since most birders are unlikely to encounter any of these rare species. But browsing this book presents a perfect opportunity for armchair birders to daydream about rare birds and about traveling to where the birds might be found. Presumably by knowing what rare birds look like, birders will be prepared to identify them if the birds are found. On the other hand, having all these illustrations may make it easier for birders to make mistaken identifications.

Species accounts include a summary of where these birds have been seen, their taxonomy, and their distribution. Field marks and similar species are also discussed. Finally short statements about the birds’ habitat and behavior are included.

The 41-page introduction (out of 428 pages in the book) makes for interesting reading. Highlights include a long discussion of the definition of a vagrant bird. Vagrants may be typed into seven classes (e.g., drift or overshooting). These definitions come complete with world maps with hypothetical routes rare birds may have taken to North America. The result is illustrations of paths that look eerily like routes taken by lost jetliners.

Another fascinating graphic indicates those areas areas in which vagrants are most likely to be encountered. Best areas to look for rare birds? Alaska, British Columbia, and the Pacific Coast of the United States. The Northeast Coast is good for rarities too, but, surprisingly second to Minnesota and the Canadian provinces directly to our north. Where do these rare birds originate? If you answer “Latin America,” as I did, you would be wrong! Fifty-one percent come from the Old World, almost twice as many as the 33% from the New World. Pelagic species come in at a distant 16%.

This hardback book costs $35.00, but can be bought on-line at a substantial discount. An eBook version is also available. Both formats can be accessed by clicking the graphic above this post. (I receive no profit from sales and have not been paid by Princeton University Press for writing this review.)

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