Flock of bird book reviews

Flock of bird books arrives this spring: Peterson, Heinrich, Kroodsma, Gilbert and Tallamy

Published April 5, 2020, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Flock of bird books arrives this spring.”

By Barb Gorges

            Spring is when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt likes to send out bird books to review—completely forgetting that as spring migration gets going, birders have less time to read. Maybe we’ll have more time to read this year. Luckily, birding in Wyoming, without Audubon field trips, is a solitary experience perfect for ensuring huge social distances.

            I’ve suggested that we all get social sharing our bird sightings on the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society group Facebook page and through the Wyobirds Google Group. By posting sightings on eBird.org, everyone can “Explore” each other’s Laramie County bird sightings.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Roger Tory Peterson (and contributions from others), 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 505 pages, $29.99.

This latest edition of the classic field guides follows the 2008 edition, the first to combine Peterson’s eastern and western guides in one book. And now the birds of Hawaii have been added.

            Peterson died in 1996 so additional paintings, range map editing, etc. are the work of stellar artists and ornithologists. Bird names are updated, now showing the four species of scrub-jays, except that I heard last month it was decided to drop the “scrub” from their names.

            But, to be a birder, one must regularly invest in the most up-to-date field guide.

White Feathers, The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows, Bernd Heinrich, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 232 pages, $27.

            If anyone can make eight springs of excruciatingly detailed observations interesting, Bernd Heinrich can. He wanted to know what purpose is served by tree swallows adding white feathers to their nests.

            Every spring, hour after hour, he observed the comings and goings of pairs using his nest box and noted when they brought in white feathers to line (insulate?) and cover (hiding eggs from predators?) the nest inside the box.

            Or, the white feathers might only advertise that a nesting cavity is taken. 

Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Your Guide to Listening, Donald Kroodsma, 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 198 pages, $27.

            Here’s where you can find out what a tree swallow sounds like when it starts singing an hour before sunrise.

            In fact, you can skip this book and learn a lot by going to the associated free website, www.BirdsongForTheCurious.com. There are multiple songs each of most songbird species, as well as ideas for collecting your own data.

            The book has chapters explaining topics such as: “Why and How Birds Sing,” How a Bird Gets Its Song” and “How Songs Change over Space and Time.”

Unflappable, Suzie Gilbert, 2020, https://www.suziegilbert.com/.

            I read the first chapter for free online and I think it will be a very entertaining novel. Here’s the synopsis: “Wildlife rehabber Luna and Bald Eagle Mars are on a 2,300-mile road trip with her soon-to-be-ex-husband and authorities hot on their heels. What could possibly go wrong?”

Nature’s Best Hope, A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, Douglas W. Tallamy, 2019, Timber Press, 255 pages, $29.95.      

            Tallamy first wrote “Bringing Nature Home” in 2007 where, as a professor who studies insects and ecology, he explains that it is important for all of us to plant native plants to benefit native wildlife.

            Thirteen years later, Tallamy can cite a lot more research making his point: native plants support native insects which support other native wildlife (and support us). For instance, almost all songbird species, even if they are seed eaters the rest of the year, need to feed their young prodigious amounts of caterpillars plus other insects.

            These caterpillars of native butterflies and moths can’t eat just any old plant. They must chew on the leaves of the plants they evolved with—other leaves are inedible. Good news: rarely does the associated plant allow itself to be decimated.

            Native bees, except for some generalists, also have a nearly one on one relationship with the native nectar and pollen-producing plants they’ve evolved with. You may see bees working flowers of introduced plants, but chances are they are the introduced European honeybees.

            What’s a concerned backyard naturalist to do? Become part of Tallamy’s army of gardeners converting yards and wasted spaces of America into Homegrown National Park, http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/. A link there will take you to the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder which lists our local natives based on our zipcodes.

            It’s not necessary to vanquish every introduced plant, but we must add more natives. The best way is by replacing turf. Here in Cheyenne, the Board of Public Utilities is encouraging us to save water by replacing water-thirsty bluegrass with water-smart plantings. Plants native to our arid region (12-15 inches of precipitation annually) fit the bill perfectly—and they aid our native pollinators at the same time.

            In next Sunday’s Cheyenne Garden Gossip column, I will discuss exactly how to do that here.

Year of the Bird celebrates Migratory Bird Treaty Act

Painted Bunting.

This Painted Bunting was Jack Rogers’ Audubon Photography Awards entry in 2015. Photo courtesy National Audubon Society.

Year of the Bird celebrates 100th anniversary of Migratory Bird Treaty Act

By Barb Gorges

This is the Year of the Bird. It’s been declared by four august organizations: the National Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdLife International. A hundred other organizations have joined them.

My husband Mark and I have been members for years of the first three, and I’m on the email list for the fourth so I’ve heard the message four times since the first of the year.

The Year of the Bird celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects birds. Read the act at https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php (remember “take” is a euphemism for “kill”).

The Year of the Bird is also about advocating for birds. Today you can go to the National Geographic website, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird/, and sign the Year of the Bird pledge. You’ll receive monthly instructions for simple actions you can take on behalf of birds. The official Year of the Bird website, www.birdyourworld.org, will take you to the National Geographic page, and the other sponsors’ websites will get you there as well.

You may not be aware of National Geographic’s bird credentials. When the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America came out in the 1980s, it was a must-have sensation. You can find the latest edition at local bookstores and online.

The National Audubon Society, http://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird, is your portal to these articles so far: How Birds Bind Us, The History and Evolution of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The United States of Birding and Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report. My favorite–Why Do Birds Matter? – quotes dozens of well-known authors and ornithologists.

BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/worldwide/news/flyway, offers ways to think about birds. When you see your next robin, think about where it’s been, what it’s flown over. Think about the people in other countries who may have seen the bird too. Think about the work being done to protect its migratory flyways.

On the other hand, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology begins the year addressing bird appreciation. At one of their websites, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/6-resolutions-to-help-you-birdyourworld-in-2018/, Hugh Powell recommends getting a decent pair of affordable binoculars after reading this guide on how to shop for them, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/six-steps-to-choosing-a-pair-of-binoculars-youll-love/.

Powell also recommends CLO’s free Merlin Bird ID app to get to know your local birds better (or see http://www.AllAboutBirds.org). Then you can keep daily bird lists through CLO’s free eBird program, including photos and sound recordings.

While you watch birds from your kitchen window, drink bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee. There’s an in-depth article at https://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Or play CLO’s new Bird Song Hero game to help you learn how to match what you hear with the visual spectrograph, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org.

Finally, Powell suggests “pay it forward”—take someone birding and join a bird club or Audubon chapter (locally, I’d recommend my chapter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/).

Here in Wyoming our lone U.S. Representative, Congresswoman Liz Cheney, has attempted to take the teeth out of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act with H.R. 4239. She thinks protecting birds should not come at the expense of business.

Earlier threats to birds caused conservationist Aldo Leopold to write in his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanack, “We face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

I would say that people who appreciate birds are not a minority. And many of us agree with biologist and biodiversity definer Thomas Lovejoy, “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.”

If it is too cold for you to appreciate the birds while outside, check out National Geographic’s January issue with photos by Joel Sartore. More of his bird photos for National Geographic’s Photo Ark project, studio portraits of the world’s animals, will be in a book coming out this spring written by Noah Strycker, “Birds of the Photo Ark.” Strycker will be speaking in Cheyenne May 14.

Now go to www.BirdYourWorld.org and take the pledge and find out each month what simple action you can take on behalf of birds.

Addendum: Because the paragraph about Liz Cheney was omitted from the column when it was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, I submitted a letter to the editor that was published four days later:

Migratory Bird Treaty Act under attack

Dear Editor,

2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The U.S., along with co-signers Mexico, Canada, Japan and Russia, agree to protect birds that cross our borders and theirs.

A hundred years ago there was a battle between conservationists and industrialists and the birds won. Industry is now held accountable for “incidental take” – birds killed unintentionally during the course of business. That has included birds hooked by long-line ocean fishing, birds attracted to oily evaporation ponds in oil and gas fields and birds hit by wind turbines.

These kinds of hazards can add up and make a population-threatening dent. Instead, the MBTA has forced industries to pay fines or come up with ingenious solutions that save a lot of birds.

However, Wyoming’s Congresswoman Liz Cheney is backing U.S. House Resolution 4239 which would remove the requirement to take responsibility for incidental take. Here we are, 100 years later, fighting the battle again.

If you would like to speak up for the birds, please call Cheney’s office, 202-225-2311. The polite person who answers the phone only wants to know your name, address and your opinion, so they know which column to check, anti-bird, or pro-bird and the MBTA.

Barb Gorges


Bird books worth reading

Published Mar. 12, 2017 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books worth reading.”

By Barb Gorges

If you are the books you read, here is what I’ve been this winter.

2017-3Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, c. 2016, Penguin Press

This was a Christmas present from my daughter-in-law, Madeleine, who teaches cognitive psychology. It’s an enthralling overview of the latest studies that show how much smarter birds are than we thought, sometimes smarter than us in particular ways. They can navigate extreme distances, find home, find food stashed six months earlier, solve puzzles, use tools, sing hundreds of complex songs, remember unique relationships with each flock member, engineer nests, adapt to new foods and situations. They can even communicate with us.

2017-3GoodBirds“Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White, Passionate Birders Share the Joys of Watching Birds,” edited by Lisa A. White and Jeffrey A. Gordon, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The previous volume, in 2007, was “Good Birders Don’t Wear White, 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders.”

One of my favorite essays is by our Colorado friend Ted Floyd, “Go Birding with (Young, Really Young) Children.” Having frequently accompanied him and his children, I can say he does a terrific job of making birdwatching appealing.

Many of the essays start out with “Why I Love…” and move on to different aspects of birding people love (seabirds, drawing birds, my yard, spectrograms, “because it gets me closer to tacos”), followed by tips should you want to follow their passions.

2017-3ABACalifornia“Field Guide to the Birds of California” by Alvaro Jaramillo, c. 2015

This is part of the American Birding Association State Field Guide Series published by Scott & Nix Inc. The series so far also includes Arizona, the Carolinas, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Each author writes their own invitation to the beginning birdwatcher or the birder new to their state.

While a few birding hotspots may be mentioned, the real service these books provide is an overview of the state’s ecological regions and what kind of habitats to find each species in, not to mention large photos of each. I’ll probably still pack my Sibley’s, just in case we see a bird rare to California.

2017-3PetersonGuidetoSong            “Peterson Field Guide to the Bird Sounds of Eastern North America” by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2017, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

While including the usual bird pictures and range maps, this book is about learning to identify birds by sound and corresponding audio files can be found at www.petersonbirdsounds.com.

Bird songs are charted using spectrograms, graphic representations of sound recordings.

You can think of spectrograms as musical notation. They read from left to right. A low black mark indicates a low-pitched frequency. A thin, short line higher up indicates a clear sound with few overtones, higher pitched and short-lived. But most bird sounds are more complex, some filling the spectrogram from top to bottom.

Pieplow explains how to read spectrograms, the basic patterns, the variations, the none-vocal sounds like wing-clapping, and the biology of bird sounds.

Once you can visualize what you are hearing, Pieplow provides a visual index to bird sounds to help you try to match a bird with what you heard.

Taking a call note I’m familiar with in my neighborhood, the one note the Townsend’s solitaire gives from the top of a tree in winter, I find that Pieplow categorizes it as “cheep,” higher than a “chirp” and more complex than “peep.” It’s going to take a while to train our ears to distinguish differences.

2017-3WarblerGuide            “The Warbler Guide” by Tom Stephenson and Scott White, c. 2015, Princeton University Press and The Warbler Guide App.

Spectrograms are a part of the 500 pages devoted to the 56 species of warblers in the U.S. and Canada.

The yellow warbler, whose song we hear along willow-choked streams in the mountains in summer, gets 10 pages.

Icons show its silhouette (sometimes it can be diagnostic), color impression (as it flies by in a blur), tail pattern (the usual underside view of a bird above your head), range generalization, habitat (what part of the tree it prefers) and behavioral (hover, creep, sally, walk).

Then there’s the spectrogram comparing it to other species and maps show migration routes and timing, both spring and fall. We can see the yellow warbler spends the winter as far south as Peru.

Forty-one photographs show all angles, similar species, and both sexes at various ages.

The companion app, an additional $13, has most of the book’s content, and lets you rotate to compare 3-D versions of two warblers at a time, filter identification clues and listen to song recordings.

This is a good investment for birding in Cheyenne where we have seen 32 warbler species over the last 20 springs.

Much of birdwatching is bird listening


birdJam is another app useful for comparing recorded birdsong with birdsong heard in the field.

Published Oct. 3, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Much of birdwatching is bird listening.”

2014 Update: Obviously, this was written before the digital revolution and the multitude of apps for smartphones and other devices. Several items listed have been re-incarnated.

By Barb Gorges

My grandmother had a conch shell by her front door. We kids liked to put it to our ears and listen to the ocean. Later, we learned we were hearing our own sounds—our blood rushing through our heads. When my ears get stuffed up with a cold, the outside world recedes and all I can hear is the sigh of those inner tides.

I had my ears plugged up the other day for our family’s annual expedition to Pole Mountain to sight in our rifles. Little foam ear plugs aren’t as good as the headphone types, but they still block out the natural sounds I enjoy hearing.

Mark said, “See if there’s water in the creek,” and I was only 10 feet away before I finally heard it, full of water from recent rain.

High pitched twittering was missing too. Perhaps the shooting startled the birds, though I saw several, including a flock of Clark’s nutcrackers.

Even if they do protect my ears from the wind, I just can’t wait to pull those ear plugs out. I’m not looking forward to a decline in hearing as I age. Much of bird watching is actually bird listening.

There are dozens of companies providing binoculars and scopes to help birders see better, but only one company in recent birding magazines offers a product to help hearing.

The Orbitor resembles a small version of the equipment scientists use in the field to record bird song. It is an 8-inch parabolic dish with a microphone in the middle, hooked up to headphones, though it can also accommodate a recording device. It also has a scope built in to help you focus on the bird you are listening to.

One satisfied customer quoted in the advertising called it “binoculars for the ears.” You can read more promotional material at http://ramphastos.com.

For those whose houses are too well insulated, there is another device to bring the sound of birds at the feeder inside. The Nokida Naturescout (www.nokida.com) is billed as a “high fidelity stereo nature monitoring system for your home.” My feeder birds are close enough to the window that what I need sometimes is a way to turn down the volume on their incessant chatter.

Every spring as bird song fills the air, I realize I’ve let another winter pass by without studying bird song. If this is the year I finally get around to it, I have plenty of options.

First there’s the three-CD set from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Bird Songs of the Rocky Mountain States and Provinces” (http://birds.cornell.edu). Then there’s Thayer Birding Software’s “Birds of North America” CD (www.thayerbirding.com) with which you can see and hear your chosen bird at the same time.

Thayer and Cornell are advertising their new joint CD-ROM, “Guide to Birds of North America,” which includes 710 species’ songs as well as other identification information.

The Peterson field guide series’ “Birding by Ear” tape has been around for a long time and Dover Books (http://store.doverpublications.com) has Donald J. Borror’s “Songs of Western Birds,” also on tape.

The “Birdsong Identiflyer” (that’s not a typo) advertises in all the birding magazines and on-line, www.identiflyer.com. It is a hand-held machine which uses cards with pictures of 10 birds each. You insert a card and then push the button corresponding to the bird you want to hear.

There are several birding Web sites that include bird songs. To play sound files, most rely on RealPlayer software and explain how to download a free version of it.

www.naturesongs.com/birds — more birds than most sites, but no pictures.

www.naturesound.com – pictures and sounds for a few birds.

www.birdwatchersdigest.com/audio_index.html — sponsored by the magazine.

http://birds.cornell.edu/bow – Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird of the Week archives with songs from their Library of Natural Sounds, plus pictures and information.

http://birding.about.com/cs/onlinebirdsong/index.htm – appalling amount of advertising, but has links to sites featuring North American and foreign bird songs.

One of my favorite sites, which I’ve mentioned before, the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Ontario website, http://wildspace.ec.gc.ca/, has bird songs to go with photos, but it isn’t easy to get from bird song to bird song.

Sometimes there’s the problem of too much noise. Last week Art Anderson and Chuck Seniawski birded with Eleanor Grinnell’s science class from the Community Based Occupational Education high school program to survey birds at Kiwanis Lake at the Airport Golf Course and found 22 species.

The very next day, Jim Hecker and I went out with another CBOE class, but that thumper truck was breaking up concrete right by the parking lot. We didn’t see as many individual birds as there were species seen the day before.

Even the Orbitor can’t help identify birds if all the birds have flown.

Hearing birds


Lang Elliot, author of “The Singing Life of Birds,” sports a SongFinder bird-hearing aid. Photo courtesy of SongFinder

Published Mar. 21, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Listening for birds doesn’t get any easier with age.”

2014 Update: Songfinder continues to be refined, www.nselec.com.

By Barb Gorges

Winter: a bit of icy snow crunching underfoot, a tiny breeze rattling dry leaves and the murmur of bird watchers on our field trip a couple months ago. When we stood perfectly still, straining our ears for a sound of bird life in the trees along Crow Creek, I finally hear the faintest whisper from a brown creeper, found the bird and pointed it out.

The creeper cooperated and everyone had a good look as it flitted to the base of a tree, spiraled up the trunk looking for dead and slumbering insects in the bark, and started over on the next tree.

Creepers have a very distinct, but faint call as they work and I want everyone to hear it, but almost no one else could, even though the 5-inch-long bird is close enough to see without binoculars, if you can pick out the bark-colored feathers from the bark.

I realized finally that nearly everyone on this field trip was older than me and perhaps they couldn’t physically hear the creeper.

A fact of aging is losing the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. It isn’t uncommon for an older birder to think that the population of kinglets in his favorite birding spot has decreased over time, only to discover it was his decreased hearing that diminished the number of the tiny, high-pitched voices he could hear.

Binoculars and spotting scopes are expected paraphernalia for birdwatchers. But if the birds aren’t out in the open, or if you don’t catch their movements flitting in the branches 50 feet overhead, hearing is the only way you’ll know which direction to point your binoculars.

Acute hearing partly explains the extraordinary abilities of hotshot young birders, especially if they have been too busy birding to ruin their hearing with loud music.

Unfortunately, many people pick up birding in mid-life. Optics make up for failing sight and field guides and all kinds of handheld devices make up for failing memory.

For failing hearing, there are a few choices. I don’t have any experience with any of these and if you do, tell me more about them.

The first step is to visit an audiologist and make sure the dearth of high-frequency birdsong can’t be attributed to a dearth of birds. Depending on the type of hearing loss, there are kinds of hearing aids that will help birdwatchers.

There are lots of ads in birding magazines for binoculars, but not for aids to hearing. One I came across is the Songfinder (see at http://www.nselec.com). It is a little case on your belt connected to slim headphones. It picks up sound and translates it to your ears at a lower frequency. You choose from three settings how much lower.

Songfinder presupposes the user can hear the frequency of the human voice well. At $750 it is cheaper than the audiologist’s special hearing aids mentioned by blogging birdwatchers. The drawback would be, if you’ve been birding for years, to suddenly hear a brown creeper sing alto, tenor, or even bass, relatively speaking.

The old-fashioned option is to get a parabolic microphone. You’ve seen photos of the scientist holding a big dish with a microphone in the middle connected to earphones. You can also connect it to a recorder so you can tell people you are recording birdsong and they will think you are a science nerd instead of hard of hearing.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is offering an eight-day course in wildlife sound recording in June out in California, but I found only one small advertisement for this kind of listening equipment in my birding magazines, http://www.stithrecording.com.

The problems with fancy microphones are you have to lug them around and they only amplify sound. You’ll get a lot of other amplified noise. But you’ll be in the same boat as the rest of us trying to pick out birdsong over traffic noise and wind.

There are bird sounds to be heard in winter. Some other soft, high frequency calls are Bohemian and cedar waxwings communicating as they search for another berry-full tree, the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets scampering high in evergreen treetops, and horned larks, blowing to and fro over country roads and fields.

When birds start thinking spring, they, mostly the males, bring out their songs for some practice. They need to be in top form if they are going to keep other males from invading their territory and also attract the attention of the best females.

Luckily for us, the birds still sing even after a spring snowstorm. Also luckily for us, when Wyoming’s state bird, the western meadowlark, projects its loud arias from roadside fences, it will be hard to miss no matter how old our ears get.