Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: Bird Watcher's Bible

This fascinating book is aimed at beginning to intermediate birders. It would make a great holiday gift for a young person just beginning to show interest in birds. While not quite the "complete treasury" of "science, know-how, beauty, and lore" as hubristically noted on the cover, the book does present a competent, well-written, and entertaining introduction to birding. 

The color photographs in this book will inspire would-be birders to take to the field. Two especially caught my eye. A Black Skimmer, in silhouette only, leaving a trail of splashing water behind its elongated lower mandible, is exquisite. Another stunner is a close-up of a Peregrine Falcon carrying a still-alive Willet. 

The book is edited by Jonathan Alderfer and contains seven chapters written by several authors. The paragraphs that follow give an extremely brief and non-comprehensive review of some of what is covered in these chapters.

Chapter 1, "The Anatomy of a Bird," by Kimball Garrett, gives a superficial discussion of avian anatomy and physiology. For example, two bird skeletons are illustrated but none of the bones are labeled. The book is full of odd lists. The list in this chapter is the completely subjective "Top 12 birds with the Best Plumage." How can you limit the world's most beautiful birds to 12?

Chapter 2, "Birds through the Ages," is by Catherine Herbert Howell. She takes us from ancient Egypt and aboriginal America to the mid-1900s. Along the way we meet such subjects as a pet Starling that mimicked Mozart's music and a pigeon that won a medal in World War Two.

Chapter 3, "The Life of A Bird," is by Kimball Garrett and discusses avian development and ecology. Included in this chapter are descriptions of the "top 10 amazing bird nests." Courtship and eggs are also discussed, as are birds that have adapted to the human landscape.

Chapter 4, "Science Discovers the Bird," also by Catherine Howell, talks about paleontology, banding and tracking, and human commercial use of birds. Another of those lists names the top 10 most common bird blogs. My blog is not listed (sniff). Art as science is an odd discussion that takes the reader through Peterson but omits any living bird artist. This book includes an abundance of antique bird illustrations. A few of these golden-oldies are fine, but such numbers supplant space that could have been used to showcase more modern artists. Finally a few current avian studies are recounted in "Breaking News."

Chapter 5 is called "To be a Birder." Curiously the author is not cited. Two pages are devoted to National Geographic's Birds of North America. Had this really been a birder's Bible, other current field guides would have also been highlighted. Optics and birding hotspots are described. A sort of out of place chart of bird body parts is also included here.

Chapter 6, by Scott Weidensaul, briefly discusses the mechanics of flight and migration. You can read about flyways, weather and fallouts, as well as banding and telemetry. As you might guess, there is a list of the "top 10 long-distance migration champs."

Chapter 7, again without author citation is about attracting birds. Beginning birders will learn about "food and feeder basics," bird houses (complete with a martin house design), attracting hummingbirds and bluebirds, and even a list of the "top 10 birds that live in bird houses." Water features are mentioned, followed by pages on landscaping in the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest, but not in the Midwest.  The Chapter includes a discussion of Citizen Science.

Finally comes Scott Weidensaul's "Birdographies."  This list is relatively poorly illustrated and includes a paragraph about each of Scott's favorite birds. The book ends with a short list of further reading. I'll end this review by asking my readers to guess the 10 top-grossing films about birds.  Hint: The Big Year is not among them. The answer is in yet another list in this book.

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