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 review: “Identifying and Feeding Birds,” by Bill Thompson III

2011dentifying amazonPublished Mar. 14, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Book Review: New field guide is so much more than its title implies.”

2014 Update: This book is widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Identifying and Feeding Birds (Peterson Field Guides) by Bill Thompson III, c. 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, paperback, 256 pages, $14.95.

“Identifying and Feeding Birds,” new in the Peterson Field Guides series, has a misleading title.

It is about so much more.

Author Bill Thompson III, also editor of BirdWatcher’s Digest, covers the four basics of what birds need: food, water, shelter and a place to nest. The chapter covering bird feeders and different kinds of bird food is what you would expect. He also talks about bird-friendly plants for your yard, the birdbaths rated most popular by birds and how to build a birdhouse and situate it properly.

Thompson writes in a breezy, fun-to-read style and includes his personal backyard bird experience, but he’s not afraid to point out it’s not enough to just hang the right feeder.

Birds don’t usually depend on us to supplement their wild food.

“Knowing (as we do now) that we feed birds so that we can enjoy them up close, we also need to understand that we owe it to our avian friends to feed them responsibly,” Thompson writes. “By this I do not mean simply that we feed them the proper foods in the correct feeders….Rather, I mean that we need to make sure our backyards—feeders and all—are safe for birds.”

Thompson covers safety issues such as cats, lawn pesticides and moldy seed.

Half the book is devoted to accounts, photos and range maps for 125 common backyard birds in North America. This means novice birders in Cheyenne need to check the maps before putting out food meant to entice a species we don’t normally see. Go to to get a better idea of birds in our area.

But otherwise, as someone frequently asked to give advice on attracting backyard bBillhighly recommend this book and Thompson’s catchphrase: “Feed more birds, have more fun.”