Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Sources of What I Know About Birds

I am a birding hobbyist. My interest in bird watching was stimulated by my wife and built upon a general interest in camping, hiking, and the natural environment. I do not have any formal training in ornithology, and in science only in a general way and long ago. To the degree that I have done anything related to academic research, it has been done in the fields of classical history and local history.

As a birder, I came rather late to the hobby and continue to play catch up in skills and knowledge. I still need lots of practice in identification and observation. Birds songs often drive me nuts, although each year one or two more songs finally click into place. Sometimes when I am birding with others, I wish I were birding by myself, because then some outrageous mis-identifications would be known only to me.

But I press on, because it is fun, fascinating, and a lot better than sitting in front of a television. I make new discoveries, see new places, meet new people, and then, remarkably, get to write about my experiences. One of the great benefits I derive from writing this column every week, is that I need to know something of what I’m writing about. I sometimes worry that someone who knows a lot more about birds than I do will catch me out in some glaring error. Since I have not received any telephone calls, e-mails, or snail mail letters pointing out a mistake, either I have managed to avoid them (the more outrageous ones anyway), or I’ve been dismissed.

To know something of what I’m writing about, and to build my understanding and appreciation of what I have seen when birding, I do a lot of research and reading. The internet is a terrific resource. But I come from a generation that did its research in libraries, pouring through books (often dusty and old). In my mind, it’s not real research unless I am turning pages and making notes. So I have been building up my home library of birding resources.

There are books that I return to again and again. Often in this column I have quotations and citations from other writers. Occasionally, someone will ask me for more information on a resource or for recommendations on books for their library. I’m off in the south this week, visiting new places, hopefully when the migrants are coming along and more hopefully finding some new birds. When I return home, here are some of the books that I am most likely to turn to for more information about what I’ve seen.

The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Sibley, 2000. This is as complete a North American home bird guide as you can find. I turn to Sibley when I want to have consistently good (though not perfect) illustrations, compare length, wing span, and weight, look at range maps, get scientific names and relationships, compare juvenile, winter and breeding plumage, compare sub-species variations, see in-flight illustrations, and more. There is a wealth of information to be mined from this guide.

Sibley has a portable western and eastern guide which I use in the field, along with Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, 2000. A tattered copy of Kaufman resides in my car; a neater version is near my desk to supplement Sibley.

Field Guides (even Sibley, which is cumbersome in the field), emphasize bird illustrations at the expense of text - rightly so. They are unable to provide much information about habitat, habits, food preferences, migration, nesting, eggs, or young. For this, I have two favored resources.

Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman, 1996, puts all of this information into a straightforward, compact format. Photographs and range maps are included for every regularly occurring North American bird and there is at least a mention of every accidentally occurring bird up to the date of publication.

Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion by Pete Dunne, 2007, is subtitled A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. It is all text; nary an illustration save on the title pages. The text on each bird has not been skimped. It is detailed, complete, and engagingly written. Even when I don’t learn anything new (which is rare), Dunne’s turn of phrase expands understanding and appreciation.

When its time to go beyond the basics and get the fascinating details, my favorite resource is A Natural History of American Birds by Edward Howe Forbush, revised and abridged by John Bichard May, 1955. The heart of Forbush’s three volume Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States, 1925, is contained in this one volume work. The volume presents the life history of birds found east of the central plains. Readable and often anecdotal, this book is a blend of science and literature which keeps company with America’s leading naturalists.

One of the first of those American naturalists was John James Audubon. I recently obtained the 1967 paperback reprint of The Birds of America, octavo edition issued in 1871. The reprint illustrations are all black and white, but the text is Audubon’s complete writing on the life of American birds. There seems little order to the arrangement of the seven volumes. When wanting to read Audubon’s account of a particular bird, I have to go through the contents of each volume one at a time. Audubon’s name for birds is often different from ours, so a reading of Forbush’s list of “other names” is a prelude to searching Audubon. In our day of binoculars, scopes, and digital cameras, it is often disconcerting to read Audubon’s accounts of collecting specimens - blasting them out of the air with his shotgun - and the tastiness of many species. But Audubon tells us about the bird life in a continent not yet tamed (or exploited). The wealth of materials he has collected, usually from first hand observation, is astounding, remembering that in most of his wide-ranging travels, he walked.

I am just beginning to discover Arthur Cleveland Bent’s “Life Histories” of North American birds. Published in 1968 in twenty volumes, the information collected on individual species is encyclopedic. He draws on the reports of hundreds of contemporary observers, as well as the writings of America’s great naturalists. You will probably see Bent cited more frequently in this column in the future.

The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birds by Christopher W. Leahy, 2004, is an all purpose handbook/encyclopedia. Here you can learn about the people who’s names are attached to many birds (Wilson, Cooper, Townsend, Baird), bird biology (crop milk, dust bathing), bird families, birding terms (good call/bad call), and much more.

The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds by John Terres, 1980, is an encyclopedic, one volume, coffee table sized book. On individual species (grouped by families), it does not have as much information as some other resources, but on the range of bird biology topics, it is comprehensive and reliable. In my library, it gathers into one large volume what is scattered through many smaller volumes.

So, I’ve just given you a few of the secrets of where my bird lore comes from. Let me know if you catch me in a mistake. Good birding!


Ben C. said...

Thanks for the topic on birding books.

I have most but not all of the books you discussed and wanted to mention an edition of Arthur Cleveland Bent's 'Life Histories' which you may find interesting. It is illustrated by William Zimmerman and covers the 'Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers' (deluxe edition).

The paintings are outstanding and it includes the expanded text of Bent. I've seen an edition of Bent in the library with abridged entries.

It would be a shame if people didn't know about the unabridged originals.

Thanks again.,

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog and really enjoyed your posts. Thanks,


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