Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.


Book reviews: beginning birding, songbird silence, falcon fever, extraordinary encounters

Finding Your Wings

Finding Your Wings, by Burton Guttman

Published April 2, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Authors explore our fine feathered friends.”

2014 Update: All four books are still available, though you may have to look online.

By Barb Gorges

Frequently, this winter I filled frigid weekends and long dark evenings reading four books about birds. And since we can still expect a few blizzards between now and June, I thought you might want to look for and read one of them yourself.

No matter your taste in literature, one will suit you. The first is a “how to,” the second a “what to do,” the third is historical/travel and the fourth, spiritual.

Finding Your Wings: a Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers

By Burton Guttman, Houghton Mifflin, available March 2008, softcover, 75 color photos, 224 pp, $14.95.

This addition to the Peterson Field Guides series is not a field guide. It really is a workbook in which you are expected to write and draw. Drawing a rudimentary bird is a way to note distinctive features of an unknown bird to help you identify it later with a field guide.

Most of the workbook exercises require having either the “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” 5th edition, or “The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds,” 3rd edition (1990).

An example is Exercise 5-18. “Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles [E317 (eastern guide, p. 317) or W313 (western guide, p. 313)] are very similar and for a time were considered a single species. How do the wings of the males differ?” The answer is at the back of the book.

The three other kinds of activities are field exercises, such as studying crows in flight, quizzes and games.

Guttman, longtime teacher of birding workshops, wanted to write a book that will help people get to know and love nature so they’ll protect it.

He says beginners need to work on three goals at once: learn how to see as a birder sees, learn about the categories of birds, and learn as many of the easily identified common birds as possible.

My birding “sight” needs restoration after a long winter so I think I will work through the exercises myself.

Silence of the Songbirds

Silence of the Songbirds by Bridget Stuchbury

Silence of the Songbirds

By Bridget Stutchbury, Walker & Co., 2007, hardcover, 256 pp, $24.95.

A review copy of this book arrived in my mail last fall and it took me months to get past the ominous title and read it.

Stutchbury, a professor at York University, holds a Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology and divides her time between homes in Ontario and Pennsylvania.

Her book is a chapter by chapter description of songbird perils: deforestation, forest fragmentation, shade-grown versus sun-grown coffee, pesticides, lights, windows, cats and cowbirds. Adding her personal experiences highlighted by her animated prose style, Stutchbury explains exactly how each hazard affects birds. The facts are much more interesting than what the popular press has time for and the book is much more cohesive than a collection of journal articles.

Unlike other science writers, Stutchbury’s sentences do not need diagramming in order to extract their meaning. The citations for the underlying scientific studies are quietly listed in the back of the book, along with an index.

In the epilogue, Stutchbury reminds us how important birds are to people as pollinators, insect eaters, scavengers and nutrient recyclers.

Most importantly, helping readers avoid a feeling of hopelessness, she gives us a “to do” list: buy shade-grown coffee; buy organic if the produce is from Latin America where so many songbirds overwinter; and buy organic or try to avoid crops that are the greatest pesticide risk to birds: alfalfa, blueberries, celery, corn, cotton, cranberries, potatoes and wheat.

Also, buy wood and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; buy toilet paper, paper towels and tissues made from recycled paper to protect the northern forests where so many songbirds nest; turn off lights at night in city buildings during migration; and keep your cat indoors.

Be brave, buy the book and read it. Through the York Foundation, Stutchbury is donating proceeds to support research on migratory birds. Or don’t buy the book and borrow my copy. Then with the money you save, make a donation to a bird conservation organization. Or spend it on organic cotton handkerchiefs and shopping bags.Falcon Fever: A

Falcon Fever

Falcon Fever by Tim Gallagher

Falcon Fever: a Falconer in the Twenty-first Century

By Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin, available May 2008, paperback, 336 pp, $25.

The first thing you’ll recognize is that author Tim Gallagher is the one who recently wrote “The Grail Bird,” about his experience finding the ivory-billed woodpecker. However, you’ll get little insight into that venture here, even though the book begins in the autobiographical mode.

In mid-20th century in California, a 12-year-old Gallagher could read about falconry, roam the woods searching for hawk nests and meet adult falconers who generously offer to mentor him. In his teen years, reminiscent of Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway,” he might escape home and drive a rattletrap with a friend to a national falconry convention a thousand miles away.

Despite this idyllic life (not counting a truly tough home situation), Gallagher longs to be a contemporary of Frederick II, 13th century Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire known for the quintessential book on falconry still consulted today. Frederick was once accused of letting hunting with his hawks interfere with attending to a crucial bit of warfare.

While the beginning of the book is autobiographical, the latter part is travelogue, in which Gallagher spends a year visiting other falconers and makes a pilgrimage to Frederick’s Italian castles.

One chapter of interest to Wyoming folks documents Gallagher’s visit to falconer and filmmaker Steve Chindgren’s hunting lodge near Eden to witness hawking sage grouse.

Chindgren’s name may sound familiar since his sagebrush/sage grouse movie was shown at the Cheyenne Audubon meeting in March.

Falconry is a very different way to enjoy birds. You’ll know much more about it by the end of the book–its centuries of history as well as its modern day incarnation.



Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Sam Keen

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

By Sam Keen, illustrated by Mary Woodin, Chronicle Books, 2007, hardcover, 114 pp, $14.95.

Perhaps this book could be classified as a spiritual autobiography in essay form, in which Keen’s encounters with birds are the prompts for musings on the various elemental philosophical questions.

Keen is a former professor of philosophy and religion and now a lecturer, seminar leader and consultant. He is also a storyteller, evoking his childhood among staunch Presbyterians, as well as an historian. Consider this partly tongue in cheek sampling from the last essay.

“Careful observation has convinced me that birders, far from being just quaint old ladies in sensible shoes and nerdy zoology students, are involved in something strange, archaic, and clandestine–something more like a pagan religion than a hobby….I suspect that the growing number of enthusiastic birders are converts to an ancient cult of bird worship….”

And then Keen explains that bird worship goes back to the Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Egyptians. “There is speculation that prior to 100,000 BCE (Before the Christian Era) a culture devoted exclusively to birds existed in America.”

Things haven’t changed much. For instance, the miracle of spring migration is still celebrated. The more science explains it, the more awe inspiring it is.