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 www.gerritvynphoto.com.

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.

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Book reviews: Scott Weidensaul and David Allen Sibley

Birder's Miscellany

“The Birder’s Miscellany,” by Scott Weidensaul

Published Aug. 22, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bird books cover similar turf in different ways.”

2014 Update: All three of the books mentioned can be found for sale on the Internet or through used book dealers.

By Barb Gorges

One of the pleasures of travel is visiting used book stores, especially in university towns and large cities.

Buying secondhand books saves money, but it also gives me a chance to acquire books sometimes too obscure for the local bookstore or library to carry, such as one I found in Albuquerque, N.M., last month.

“The Birder’s Miscellany, A Fascinating Collection of Facts, Figures and Folklore from the World of Birds,” by Scott Weidensaul (Simon and Schuster, 1991) is a slim 135 pages.

I was attracted to the title as well as the name of the author. Last winter I read Weidensaul’s “Living on the Wind, Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds” (North Point Press, 1999). I started out with the public library’s copy, but soon determined I needed my own, both because I enjoyed the writing style and because it’s a good reference.

Unfortunately, “The Birder’s Miscellany” is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy through Barnes and Noble or Amazon’s out-of-print sections of their Web sites, or through an online catalog such as bookfinder.com.

It’s worth finding this compendium of odd facts and figures to answer questions such as, “What’s the biggest bird?” That answer, says Weidensaul, needs to be qualified.

The heaviest and tallest living bird is the ostrich (350 pounds, six feet). The heaviest bird that can fly is the mute swan (up to 50 pounds). The bird with the longest wingspan is either the marabou stork of Africa, or the wandering albatross of the Southern Hemisphere (12 feet).

Did you know the domestic turkey’s heart rate at rest is 93 beats per minute, compared to 480 for the blue-throated hummingbird? In flight, that hummer from Mexico has 1,200 heart beats a minute.

Besides exploring the range of physical attributes, Weidensaul also explores bird behavior and birds in folklore and history in a style that invites reading his book cover to cover.

Sibley Guide to Bird Life

“The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,” illustrated by David Allen Sibley

In contrast, the 600 pages of the “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior” (Knopf, 2001) could be used to press a few wildflowers, and though just released last year, it was already available at a Boulder, Colo., used book shop in June.

It is a companion to “The Sibley Guide to Birds” (Knopf, 2000), which, compared to all other field guides, has excellent illustrations of each species’ various plumages, but no information about behavior or habitat, two things which sometimes help clinch identification.

Evidently David Allen Sibley was saving that stuff for the second book.

I thought “Bird Life and Behavior” might be similar to another book I have, Kenn Kaufman’s “Lives of North American Birds,” but it isn’t.

For this second volume, David Allen Sibley is the illustrator and one of the three editors. The other two, Chris Elphick and John B. Dunning, Jr., along with 46 other expert birders and biologists, contributed articles for the text.

Where Kaufman systematically provides a photo and an account for each species, this book starts with a 120-page introduction to basic ornithology, including biology, behavior patterns and bird conservation issues.

This first section is more technical and thorough than Weidensaul’s book, but not as much fun to read.

The remainder of “Bird Life and Behavior” is divided into 78 chapters, one for each North American family of birds, from “Loons” to “Old World Sparrows.”

Any birds pictured are meant to illustrate a particular bit of information, so when the text refers to a species you aren’t familiar with, you may have to grab a field guide.

If you want to know more about mountain bluebirds, for instance, you look in the table of contents for “Thrushes.” Otherwise, back in the index, under “Bluebird, Mountain,” you are referred to pages 459-60, 461 and 464.

The first reference compares mountain bluebirds to the other bluebirds, stating that they “occur at high elevations, throughout the western mountains, often in recently burned areas.” We also learn that they like to winter in open, arid grasslands and that their populations have benefited from the increasing numbers of nest boxes provided.

After finding the specific references to mountain bluebirds, you can read the whole chapter for general and comparative information about thrush species (including the robin) under various subheadings: taxonomy, habitats, food and foraging, breeding, vocalizations, movements, conservation and accidental species. Each chapter is set up the same way.

The thrush chapter is written by John Kricher and in the “Author Biographies” section you can read his list of credentials.

As with any encyclopedic tome, I’ll be reading this new Sibley guide, bit by bit, as questions come up. And bit by bit, I hope its overwhelming amount of information will seep in and stick to my brain.