Birdwatching: New Field Guides. Dec 00 | Two New References Make Wonderful Gifts


A few seeds scattered in the yard in winter are bread castupon the waters. By such small gifts we attract a whole world of beautiful,colorful birds. The icier and snowier the weather, the more enthusiasticallythe birds flock to the yard.

Scarlet cardinals against the snow, blue jays whose colors remind us of summerskies, and all the bustling of birds at the feeder are enough to make wintera time of cheer. But for me, being able to put the name to each bird doublesthe pleasure of watching the birds in the yard. For this end, the watcher atthe window needs a bird book, or field guide. I like to keep a field guidehandy, next to the binoculars by the window.

There are many field guides to North American birds, but there’s alwaysroom for a new one. As our knowledge of birds keeps getting more refined, newbird books are published that incorporate the advances. Two wonderful new fieldguides came out this fall. If you’re thinking of investing in a birdbook, both of these would be good choices. They’re also sure-fire giftsfor anyone interested in wild birds. I’ll try to give you enough informationabout them to help you decide which one to elect. Many birdwatchers vote twiceand get both.

Birds of North America, by Kenn Kaufman (HoughtonMifflen, paperback, $20). This compact book slips easily into your pocket,so you may find yourself taking it along on walks as well as keeping it nearyour window. It includes all the birds you’d expect to find in NorthAmerica.

Kenn Kaufman is a legend among birders. At the age of 16 he set off on a yearlongodyssey. He hitchhiked North America in search of wild birds, and he brokethe world record for the number of species seen in America in a single year.A keen observer with a prodigious store of birding experience, Kenn tells usin a succinct paragraph what to look for—what we need to see to be sureof each bird’s identity. For example, of the northern cardinal (the brightred bird of our feeders) he says it’s “our only red bird with acrest.” Then he refers us to the pages for other red (but uncrested)birds so we can compare for ourselves.

He tells us where and in what kind of landscape each bird is found, whetherit’s common in woods, parks, and yards (like the blue jay) or whetherit hides in forest thickets by day and probes damp fields for worms at night(like the American woodcock). He gives a short, evocative description of eachbird’s song, usually something we can get a hold on and remember, suchas the American robin’s “rich caroling, cheerup cheerio cheerup,often beginning well before dawn.” A map shows what part of the countryto look for the bird in, with color coding to show where the bird is in eachseason.

For years, birders have argued about which make better bird illustrations,photos or paintings. Paintings allow the artist to show the idealized bird,emphasize the bird’s field marks, and eliminate the vagaries of lightingand pose inherent in photography. For these reasons many birders prefer fieldguides illustrated by paintings. On the other hand, to some people photos seemmore convincing, because they record what was actually there at some particularmoment, rather than an illustrator’s interpretation.

An accomplished bird artist himself, Kenn has made a leap and gone whereno field guide has gone before. He collected over 2000 good photos and thencomputer-edited each one, to emphasize the identifying characteristics, toeliminate confusing backgrounds and misleading shadows, and to compensatefor inequalities of lighting. The resulting illustrations combine the discriminationof draftsmanship with the authenticity of photography. The well-organizedbook is easy to find one’s way around in. Similar birds appear on thesame or close pages.

This friendly, economical little volume is ideal for anyone interested inbirds, but I particularly recommend it for beginning birdwatchers. One lastthought: if you get this book, I hope you’ll read the short (not boring)introduction. It tells when, where, and how to look for birds, and how to goabout identifying them.

The Sibley Guide to Birds, written and illustratedby David Allen Sibley (Knopf, paperback, $35). It’s a sensual pleasureto read this 544-page, lavishly illustrated softcover book. The paper and printingquality are excellent. After just a little breaking in, the book lies opennice and flat. Generous white space and an uncluttered layout give the bookan elegant, leisurely feeling.

And each page is beautiful. Author and artist David Sibley has created 6600illustrations, by far the most in any modern field guide to North Americanbirds. Each bird appears in several poses, an average of eight pictures perbird. Why so many? To show the differing ways a bird appears depending on itsgender and age, on the season, and on the area of the country where it’sfound. Most pages show two species, but many birds, such as Red-tailed Hawkand White-breasted Nuthatch, get a whole page to themselves.

Nearly every bird is displayed in flight, both from above and below, showinghow the top and bottom of the wings look. No other American field guide hasever done that. And while most field guides show birds only in profile, thisbook shows, in addition, many birds perched nearly head-on to the viewer, especiallysparrows and other small birds that we often see from that position. Davidhas done something wonderful here, for while all his pictures are rich in information,each one is also a work of art.

Each account includes a good-sized map of where the bird is found in all seasonsand a detailed description of its songs and calls. Small silhouettes show howa bird’s wings change shape in flight. Notes next to the illustrationspoint out the birds’ identifying characteristics.

As in all good field guides, the author groups similar and related birds foreasy reference. Furthermore, David begins every family of birds with an overviewpage, showing all the members of the family together and to the same scale.To look at the owls’ introduction, for example, is to get a sense ofwhat owlness is—the big head, the front-facing eyes, the no-neck body,and so on. The ability to recognize what group a bird belongs to is a primaryskill in identifying birds, and this book does the best job I’ve everseen at helping a new birdwatcher form a concept of each bird family.

The Sibley Guide to Birds weighs over 2-1/2 pounds and measures 9-3/4by 6-1/2 inches. That might be more than I want to carry in a pocket, assumingit would fit in a pocket at all, but I’d be tempted. I certainly likehaving it in my car, by the window overlooking the bird feeders, or by my bed.In fact, I find I’ve been carrying it around with me. Since it was released,in October 2000, birdwatchers have been buying it with an enthusiasm that borderson fanaticism, and discussion about it has dominated Internet groups dedicatedto birding. Anyone who fancies birds will love this book.

Copyright 2000 by Diane Porter.