Bird-watching is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the country, and these new spring books will bring pleasure to millions of amateur and experienced birders alike.
Identifying a bird fluttering away from the feeder, fence or branch is one of the most frustrating challenges of bird-watching. Birds of North America: The Complete Photographic Guide to Every Species, edited by Francois Vuilleumier, is a massive, authoritative reference book that belongs in every birder’s library. Sections on the anatomy and flight, courtship and mating, nesting, migration and identification of birds are followed by the huge species guide, broken out by bird order and family and written by ornithologists from the American Museum of Natural History, which is currently organizing an ambitious program to reconstruct the “avian tree of life” using DNA technology.
More than 650 common North American bird species (plus a chart of “vagrants” that occasionally take up temporary residence) are represented in a one-bird-per-page format illustrated with a large-scale annotated color picture. Each bird’s entry features common name, plumage variations, distinctive shapes and markings, a drawing of flight pattern and an illustration of the bird in flight, plus information on feeding, voice and behavior to help birders identify the flutterings and songs among species. Nesting and habitat facts and color-coded maps that show the bird’s migration and summer and winter distributions, and insets with illustrations of similar species are extremely handy for differentiating birds with slight variations. Each bird’s status is also listed, to raise awareness about vulnerable and declining “oracle” species like the “sweet tinkling” Baird’s sparrow, heard on the mixed-grass prairie of the Northern Plains, but quickly losing its habitat to intensive agriculture and other environmental factors.
Birds can be traced to prehistoric times, but their modern role as backyard companions is sweetly uncovered in The Armchair Birder: Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds. Writer and editor John Yow cites marvelous tidbits from Audubon, Arthur Cleveland Bent, Rachel Carson and other noted ornithologists and scientists, but gives equal weight to what he sees from his own vegetable patch or front porch in the Georgia countryside. When he raises his binoculars or turns the pages of a reference book in these short, illustrated essays, Yow lets his gentle ruminations and finely observed truths lull the reader toward a quiet adventure into the “ordinary” birds around them. Broken out by season, each essay highlights some behavior or habit of birds so common—is there anyone not familiar with the cardinal, the blue jay or chimney swift?—they become new again.
Yow explores the pileated woodpecker’s role in the propagation of the magnolia tree, how the crimson cardinal got its name and the history of robins on the American dinner table. Often humble, droll and gently political with soft sarcasm pointed at policies that have decimated some species’ entire habitat, Yow is the ultimate gentleman birder, highlighting the omnipresent glory and understated miracle of these feathered friends.
Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds is the story of Phoebe Snetsinger, a frustrated 1950s housewife who became one of the few women in the world to have observed almost 85 percent of all living birds in her lifetime. Award-winning journalist Olivia Gentile brings this achievement into sharp focus, starting when a neighbor invited 40-something Snetsinger to watch the “pretty” birds in her backyard.
Snetsinger blended life as a Midwestern wife and mother with that of amateur birdwatcher until she received a terminal cancer diagnosis. Traveling some of the planet’s most remote and dangerous areas, she defied the odds and spent the next 18 years adding to the nearly 8,400 species on her “life list,” a record that landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records and was only recently surpassed by two (male) British birders. While it may be difficult to relate to a woman with the financial resources (legendary Chicago ad man Leo Burnett was her father) and emotional detachment that allowed her to leave her husband and four children for months each year, Snetsinger emerges as dedicated and focused as the best—dare it be said—Ivy League male scientist, a generous leader of her fellow birdwatchers and an advocate who brought attention to the world’s glorious birds and their shrinking habitat.
Deanna Larson fills 10 bird feeders in her Nashville backyard.