Tag Archives: birding

Best Bird Book Of the Year So Far: What The Robin Knows by Jon Young

There was a dead rabbit in the middle of the road today. I suspected such a thing, nearby, just out of sight, and edible, because I noticed some crows taking off whenever a car went by. Then, when I went over, I could see the rabbit that they were feasting on between drive-bys.

I had been looking for rabbits lately, because of this: the cat had switched to hanging out by the upstairs window, the better to observe the just arriving Juncos (snow birds, it is fall). She had previously spent most of her time observing rabbits from the lower, ground level windows, until just the other day when, rather suddenly, all the rabbits disappeared. Until then, there was always a rabbit or two. In fact, the entire city had been recently invaded by rabbits, according to several reports, and now they seemed to be disappearing quickly. This, I assume, means that the coyotes finally got busy. Or, an epidemic of tularemia. Either way, something happened.

I once had a cat that was partly outdoors on Cape Cod. Well, the cat was indoors, but would escape. We’d go looking for it and always find it in a bush (a different bush every time) surrounded by no rabbits. All the other bushes would have rabbits nearby. But not the one with the cat in it. (Until, again, the coyotes showed up and ruined the rabbit-test method of finding the cat!)

Have you seen the film Dead Birds? See it if you can. This is a very important ethnographic film, of the old style, by Gardner, of a place in Highland New Guinea. Part of the story actually has to do with live birds, not dead ones, and how they are used by sentries at the outskirts if the village lands, during times of conflict, to detect the arrival of enemy combatants. You watch the birds, and you are watching the hidden predators.

Or you can listen to them. Or you can listen to the monkeys. Anything with an alarm call. I could engage you with story after story, if you and I both had the time, of finding very interesting and elusive critters out in the bush, mainly in Africa, by following up on the predator avoidance behavior of primates or birds.

And, this brings us to what I think is one of the best bird books ever.

What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World by Jon Young is an exploration of nature based on this premise: the robin knows everything about its environment, and this information is regularly conveyed via the bird’s call, or its behavior. By observing that behavior or understanding the robin’s vocalizations, you can poach that information and also know a lot about the immediate environment, which may be your own back yard, the area near your camping site, the wooded gully the enemy may approach you by, or a nearby park.

And, of course, it isn’t just the robin, it is all the animals including birds, insects, and everything else. But Young is talking about birds, and it is certainly true that in most or possibly all habitats, it is the birds that, owing to their diurnal and highly visible and sound oriented nature, are telling you all this information about your mutual surroundings as well as about the bird itself.

To me, birding (and nature watching in general) is not so much about lengthening one’s list (though that is always fun) but, rather, about observing and understanding behavior. Young explores this, teaches a great deal about it, and places this mode of observation in the context of countless stories, or potential stories, about the world you are sharing with the birds you are watching.

This is a four or five dimensional look at a multidimensional world. Lucky for us humans, as primates, we share visual and audio modalities, and mostly ignore odor, and we have overlapping ranges in those modalities (to varying degrees). But birds fly (most of them, anyway) and are small and fast and there are many of them. In many places we live, we are the only diurnal visually-oriented non-bird. Indeed, while I’m sure my cat communes with the rabbits at a level I can’t possibly understand, I’m pretty sure I get the birds in ways she could not possibly get her paws around. (Which is why we don’t let her out of the house. She would prefer to eat them, rather than appreciate them!)

From the publisher, about the author:

Growing up near the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, Jon Young studied as a tracker and naturalist. For three decades, he has taught and mentored children and adults, combining Native skills practiced worldwide with the tools of modern field ecology, emphasizing the nearly lost art of understanding bird and animal language. The founder of OWLink Media, 8 Shields Institute, and the Shikari Tracking Guild, he consults with programs around the world. Jon has written or produced numerous books, audio, and multimedia projects. His website is www.birdlanguage.com. Married with six children, he lives in the woods above Santa Cruz, California.

Lots of science in this book, well documented and referenced. Simple black and white but very engaging graphics. So far my favorite bird book of the year.

The Birdman of Lauderdale

The Birdman of Lauderdale is a collection of essays by birdman Clay Christensen.

Clay writes the popular “Birdman of Lauderdale” column for the Saint Paul Park Bugle, and leads birdwatching field trips in the Twin Cities area.

This is a collection of updated and edited essays from that publication, most about bird watching, or the birds themselves. Is it OK to hate cowbirds? What is it like to witness the takeoff of a mob of cranes? How do birdwatchers find birds anyway? What is bird banding all about? These and other burning questions are addressed in engagingly written snippets.

I really enjoyed this book. If you are a bird watcher, or thinking about becoming a bird watcher, you will enjoy this book. Or, maybe you are looking for the perfect gift for someone who is into birds, especially in the upper midwest or plains.

Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: Beautiful new book

There are three kinds of books that count as animal (usually bird) guides.

1) A pocket field guide of the critters of a reasonably circumscribed geographical area, like the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. This is a small book that can fit in a big pocket, and a classic guide like this one is something you’ll want to have with you while bird watching in the eastern or central US.

2) A big book, not suitable for pockets, of the critters of a reasonably circumscribed geographical area. A great example of this is The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds . It covers the same geographical area as the aforementioned Peterson guide, but the book’s authors and publishers sacrifice portability for other characteristics like richness of detail and more book real estate for many more images.

3) A book, larger or smaller, that focuses on a specific geographical area but covers most of the visible wildlife including, often, plants, and maybe including additional information for the traveller. A recent example of this is the just published Wildlife of the Galapagos.

4) A book that covers a large taxonomic group, but over a vast geographical area. Carnivores of the World is an example of this. It covers all of the non-aquatic carnivores, everywhere on the planet. This particular book is a pocket field guide, but in a way that is kind of funny because you’d have be on quite a trip to need a pocket guide for the Earth for a given type of animal. I quickly add, however, that while it might seem a bit silly, the Carnivores of the World is actually a fantastic book.

barrowsgoldeneye640hThe book, Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide, by Sébastien Reeber, overlaps with some of these categories. The title could be rewritten to say “Temperate and Subtropical Waterfowl of the Northern Hemisphere,” though that would be a bit misleading because a large percentage of these birds migrate long distances, so really, it is more like “Waterfowl of the world except the ones that stay in the tropics or otherwise don’t migrate north of the tropics,” but that would be a silly title.

Also, Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is large format. The up and down and back and forth dimensions are not as large as Crossley’s bird guides, but it is way bigger than a field guide, and thick … 656 pages. The plates start on page 32 and the detailed text and photograph rich species accounts run from pages 177 to 616, to give you an idea of the balance and expansiveness found in this volume.

This book is organized in a unique way. There are two main parts. First, 72 plates show peterson-style drawings of all of the birds that are covered, with the drawings arranged on the right side, with basic ID information, range maps, and references to other parts of the book on the left side. This allows the user to find a particular bird fairly quickly. Importantly, the pictures cover both sex and age variations.

The second part of the book significantly expands on the plates, and is cross referenced by plate number, with extensive text and multiple photographs to add very rich detail.

So, when it comes to your preference for drawings vs. photographs, you can have your cake and eat it too. Also, when it comes to your need for a basic field guide vs. a more in depth discussion, you can have your cake and eat it too there as well.

easternspot-billedduck640hAside from these two main sections there are sections on how to use the book, basics of taconomy and systematics, the physical anatomy of birds and how that relates to identification, important information on moulting and plumage variation as well as age and sex, which as you probably know are key in identifying waterfowl because this varies so much. There is an extensive section on hybrids, which, again, is a big deal with many waterfowl, and a very large number of hybrids are addressed in the book. (There is a separate hybrid index.)

The book is extremely well produced and presented. I love this book.

Since Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide is brand new, if you’ve got a birder friend or relative with a birthday coming up soon, this is the perfect gift. Meanwhile, migrations are underway. You need this book now.

The Ultimate Holiday Gift Guide to Birding Books

This is a summary of several of the better books I’ve had the opportunity to review here, organized in general categories. This is written from a North American perspective since most of my readers are North American (though many of you live to the west of the “Eastern Region” … but you probably know that). So, when not specified, a book with a regional focus is likely to be for that area, and the “Outside the US” section is labeled thusly.

Everybody needs a basic field guide. If you need more than one field guide because you are a family of birders, or because you like to keep one in the car and one by the feeder, than make your second (and third?) guides different from your first, because there will be plenty of times you will want to look something up in more than one place. A field guide is a good starting point, but the “How to be a birder” section includes books that you will be very glad you read once you read them, and if you are going to pick one “how to” book for yourself or as a gift, make it the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding. If you know a young person getting interested in birding, the National Geographic Birding Essentials is essential, and if they are in the Eastern US, the Young Birder’s Guide is perfect.

I’ve not covered bird song here, other than the one, rather spectacular iBook.

Field and Identification Guides

How to be a birder

Categorial Guides

Regional Bird Guides Outside the US

Academic or Topically General Books About Birds

Bird Song (and more)

  • Music of the Birds Volume 1 is an experimental book, in iAuthored iBook format, focusing on a handful of selected species in Eastern North America.

Children’s Books

Also, don’t forget to read ALL of my posts at 10,000 birds! There’s some other good posts there too.

National Geo's Birding Essentials

Are you interested in birding but don’t really know much about it? Did you just put a feeder outside and noticed that birds are interesting, or did you finally get around to stopping at that wildlife refuge you drive by every week on the way to the casino and realize that walking down to the swamp to look at birds and stuff is both better exercise and cheaper than playing slot machines for nine hours straight? Or have you been birding in a casual way for a while, using your Uncle Ned’s old binoculars and a tattered and torn Peterson you found on the sale table at the library, and want to find out which aspects of birding you are missing out on? Filling in the blank spots in your knowledge of birding is easy given how willing birders and writers about birding are to tell everybody else about birding, and it is probably even easier to do with a book like “National Geographic Birding Essentials.”

(Full disclosure, I write for National Geographic’s Science Blogs, sure, but really, I have nothing to do with this book. I didn’t even get it as review copy, someone gave it to me for Christmas last year.)

As you know, in the beginning of almost every bird guide is a chapter (or two) on how to do the whole birding thing, some more extensive and some less extensive. The most extensive and useful for the novice that I know of is the front matter in The Young Birder’s Guide, which I highly recommend for middle school or so aged potential birders. Well, Birding Essentials is like that first chapter but in the form of a whole book. Here’s what you need to do to see if you should get a copy of this book and spend a few hours with it. Look at the following list of topics and see if you feel like you know enough about most of them, or not:

<li>Binoculars, how to chose one and how to use them.</li>

<li>Field guide basics, how to use them, etc.</li>

<li>Understanding status and distribution of a bird species</li>

<li>Details and terminology of migration, nesting, and other patterns of movement and migration

Parts of the bird. Here’s a short list of parts. If you don’t know them, you don’t really know the parts:

  • lores
  • eye line
  • supercilium
  • lesser and greater coverts
  • tertials
<li>Colors and patterns.  Bird color terms are atypical.</li>

<li>Methods of identification using field marks</li>

<li>Variation in bird features (sexual dimorphism included)</li>

There’s more, including strategies for approaching the field adventure that is birding, and dealing with rare variants, and so on.

Excellent birdy bedside reading, but mainly for the novice birder. If you work with bird watching in a science classroom, this is probably a good volume to have handy; tell your librarian to get it.

Spring Break Birding!


If you are a birder and you are going on Spring Break (from the US), don’t forget that there are birds where you are going. And, probably, there are bird books that cover your destination.

One of the really cool things about North American birding is that when you do go down to tye Yucatan, Caribbean, or Central America you’ll see birds that are migratory and familiar, but in their other home (but just on their way back). They’ll be surprised to see you!

I just got a copy of Birds of Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire, though I’ve got no personal travel plans for Aruba and environs at the moment. This field guide by Bart de Boer, Eric Newton and Robin Restall is small format and uses a Peterson like format with 71 plates of drawings (which are quite good) on one side and brief descriptions on the other. Since the guide covers the three rain forest islands located in the southern Caribbean (near the Venezuelan coast) maps are not really useful, but there is a comprehensive checklist in the back of the book that indicates which of the three islands each bird appears on.

Compared to the other true field guides that cover this area, well, this seems to be the only one. The list price is seemingly a little high at 28 bucks, but it is much cheaper on Amazon. I’ve seen it available from another publisher as well, but I think that may be out of print.

If you happen to be going to the West Indies instead of the southern Caribbean, this other book is the one you want.

Birding Binoculars

What kind of birding binoculars do you use? How do you chose a good model?

Obviously, the best way to pick out a pair of binoculars is to try them out, but in doing so, I strongly urge you to try at least a couple of pairs that are beyond your budget, and work your way down from there. Not knowing what an excellent pair of binoculars is like makes it difficult to judge among the lesser forms that you will ultimately have to pick from. Putting it another way, if all you know is the $50 special, and you use a pair of them for a season or two, then the first time you bring a nice pair up to your eyeballs you’ll realize that you had no clue what you were missing. By trying the higher quality binoculars you will understand the necessity of getting the best pair you can afford. Fortunately, the difference between the $50 binoculars and the $200 binoculars is probably much greater than subsequent increments of several hundred dollars. Truthfully, though, the binoculars you want and can actually afford if you save up, and if good binoculars are really important to you, are probably in the $300 – $500 range.
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New Bird Book: Birds of North America and Greenland

Face it. Half the time … most of the time, really … you use your Peterson (or some other favorite “field guide”) as a checklist. You see a bird and you pretty much know in your head what it is, but you need to look it up to see what the three or four similar ducks or woodpeckers or whatever are in your area in order to be sure that it is a Common Merganser or a Red Headed Woodpecker or whatever. All you need is a basic picture (drawing preferred for this sort of thing) the names of the birds and basic range maps.
Continue reading New Bird Book: Birds of North America and Greenland