Monday, July 18, 2011

A Flock of New Books for Birders

Birds of the Puget Sound Region (Regional Bird Books)When I first got into birding, not that long ago, I did what I usually do with a new interest:  I read obsessively.  And quickly discovered that birds and birding are subjects about which much (unbelievably much) is written.  The first things I checked out were Field Guides, since they're everywhere.  Someday soon maybe I'll write a little about Field Guides and my experience with them.  For now, I'll just say that the guide I use most is Birds of the Puget Sound Region by Bob Morse.  It works nicely for almost all of the birds I commonly encounter and is a little more wieldy than some of the bigger regional guides.  I am very pleased with it and consult it almost daily.

But if there's one thing I love as much as birds and wildlife, its books.  So here are some of the best new birding books I've come across this summer:

The Joy of Birding: A Beginner's Guide (The Joy of Series)The Joy of Birding: A Beginner's Guide by Kate Rowinski is a book I would have eagerly welcomed when I stared out -- and it's still very rewarding now.  This is one of the best single volume introductions to birding I've seen.  She begins at the  birth of our fascination with birds, and with a perennial question:  Are you a Birder or a Bird-Watcher?  From there, Rowinski goes on to give us an introductory course in understanding birds, their behavior, habitats, food sources, calls, the basic families of birds and how they differ -- it's like Ornithology 101 with a passionate, knowledgeable and always entertaining teacher.  My one disappointment here was that her list of "25 Backyard Birds You Should Know" was slanted somewhat toward the eastern United States.  A lot of the birds she describes I will never see in my Seattle yard.  But she goes on to cover feeders, recipes for special bird treats (Passerine Power Bars and Christmas Brunch Bark, for instance), ideas for turning your yard into a sanctuary, creating your life list, and even bird photography.  (And as much photographing of birds as I do, I found her section very helpful.)  This is a book not just for the bare beginner, but for all of us who have become involved in birding and bird watching and are now ready to explore new possibilities.  Because it provides a good introduction to so many areas, I suspect that a lot of us will find something here to broaden and deepen our relationship to birds.

Backyard Birding: Using Natural Gardening to Attract BirdsAnd if your interest is primarily in backyard bird watching and how to turn your yard into a haven for feathered friends (and other wildlife too, possibly) a very good next step would be Julie Zickefoose's wonderful book Backyard Birding:  Using Natural Gardening to Attract Birds.  (This book was written along with the editors and writers of Bird Watcher's Digest).  As someone who knows very little about gardening -- or about plants for that matter -- I was a little bit intimidated by the prospect of this book.  My own efforts at gardening have been small and inconclusive so far. (Check it out here).  However, this is a delightful book, well organized, beautifully laid out and illustrated, which I think will appeal to both experienced gardeners who want to make their efforts more bird friendly and to birders, like myself, who might not know much about gardening, but want to attract more birds.  Zickefoose packs this book with a wealth of information about layers of habitat, kinds of feeders and food, seasonal variations, bird friendly plants (and discussions of the importance of native plants), and even a little philosophy about living more harmoniously with nature.  This is a great book to follow up the previous selection, going more in depth about these particular topics.  Whether you want to go all out in creating a sanctuary or just want to add a few plants and features that will make your yard more attractive to birds this book is a trove of ideas.

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides/Bird Watcher's Digest Backyard Bird Guides)Along the same lines, but more specialized, Bill Thompson III & Connie Toops have written Hummingbirds and Butterflies (also a Bird Watcher's Digest book and part of the Peterson Field Guides series).  It's a wonderful overview of two groups that seem very distinct -- hummingbirds, or course, are birds and butterflies are insects -- but that appeal to us for many of the same reasons and are attracted to the same kinds of habitat.  I know a little bit about hummingbirds and almost nothing about butterflies (although now I'm getting interested, and in another year or so I may have these authors to blame for igniting a new obsession) but I was absolutely enthralled by the information provided on both groups -- as well as the beautiful photography.  I think I learned as much about hummingbirds here as I have from any other source I've consulted.  And since I was a total ignoramus about butterflies, I got to gorge myself on new information (always one of my favorite forms of binging.).  In addition to all this, though, they have species guides that provide wonderful information in a format that will be familiar to anyone who uses field guides.  The book is probably a little too heavy to take into the field comfortably, but since it (like the previous books) focuses a good bit on creating an environment that will attract these beauties to your yard, it is an excellent home reference.

Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding (Kaufman Field Guides)Moving from the easier to the more advanced, I'd like to round out with two books that really push the edges of my competence as a birder and a reviewer.  The Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, by Kenn Kaufman, is an incredibly rich, dense collection of expert information on identifying birds.  Recognizing that birders today have a huge amount of information available to them in books, on the internet, even over their phones, Kaufman hasn't tried to produce another species by species guide -- rather, he has focused on learning the principles of identification that can make us expert birders.  He begins with the general, the principles and approaches that are common to all birding -- avian physiology, terminology, general techniques for recognizing types of birds, bird calls -- and then he proceeds to apply the same approach to almost every category of bird, showing us how to apply these principles in field situations, what to look for, where the common pitfalls lie, and how to overcome the challenges.  This is definitely not a book that you sit down and read straight through.  This is a book to be studied and re-studied over a long period of time.  Much of the information he presents is totally beyond my current level as a birder, but I've already found his ideas and approaches affecting the way I observe birds.  I'm sure this is a book that will continue to teach me and influence my birding for years to come.

Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species (Birds Ornithology)And finally, the most esoteric of the books I've looked at recently.  Bird Feathers:  A Guide to North American Species by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland.  This book was first recommended to me by a friend who is an expert tracker, and it definitely falls into the advanced category.  Last month, I reviewed Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson (you can see the review here) a book I enjoyed immensely, and this present volume would have been nice to have around for reference while I was reading that book.  The introductory section of Bird Feathers provides a great overview of feathers, their different forms, structures and purposes.  It also has a great section on flight -- the different styles of flight of various groups of birds and how their wings and feathers are adapted to that style.  It is one of the best general overviews of these subjects that I have ever seen, and if there was nothing else in the book, it would still (to me) be worth the price.  The latter part of the book, however, eludes me.  Not because of any faults in the book but because, quite frankly, I'm just not ready to make use of it.  This is a detailed field guide to the feathers of most North American species, with measurements and descriptions.  It would take a lot of study and experience for me to learn to make use of this part of the book, and many birders probably aren't ready to go that deeply into such a specialized pursuit.  For those that are -- or for those like me who just want a good overview of how feathers and wing shape and flight are adapted to the lifestyles and behaviors of different birds -- this is a great book.  And who knows, it might still inspire me to pursue feather identification more seriously.

If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

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