Non-fiction Books

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America by Todd Henson

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National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

National Geographic Complete Birds of North America is one hefty birding resource. I’m not entirely sure what it weighs, but I wouldn’t want to drop it on my foot. It contains over 740 pages and measures approximately 7” x 10” and is about 1 3/4” thick.

You could think of this as a field guide on steroids, or perhaps a small birding encyclopedia. It has a layout and content very similar to most fields guides, but contains more information about each species. Some of the illustrations are smaller than in my Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, but with much more text about each species, providing descriptions, guides to identification, geographic ranges and variations, similar species, characteristics of voice, status & distribution, and breeding information. It contains maps, photographs, and illustrations.

Pages 200-201 of  National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

Pages 200-201 of National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

Pages 322-323 of  National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

Pages 322-323 of National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

Pages 354-355 of  National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

Pages 354-355 of National Geographic Complete Birds of North America

Many folks these days might not need a resource such as this, what with all the information freely available online. But I’ve always been a bit of a book lover, and I think this book would appeal to those of you who love holding a resource in your hands and flipping through the pages reading about different species. I’ll look up a specific species and end up spending much longer than anticipated flipping through reading about other species.

I have far too many field guides and bird books, but I’m still pleased to have added National Geographic Complete Birds of North America to my library. It’s the sort of large resource you keep at home where you can study and learn at your leisure, then head into the field to seek out first hand what you’d just read about and studied in the book.

 
 

How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding by Ted Floyd by Todd Henson

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The cover of  How to Know the Birds  by Ted Floyd

The cover of How to Know the Birds by Ted Floyd

I received my copy of How to Know the Birds from the publisher, National Geographic Books, through a giveaway at goodreads.

How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding by Ted Floyd is packed full of interesting and educational info on a range of different birds, and on many of the topics relevant to the birding world. I wasn’t sure at first how much I’d enjoy it, as it is broken into 200 one-page lessons, with each lesson largely focusing on a single topic and typically using a single bird as an example of that topic. I just doubted a lot of little sections would be all that interesting.

But the more I read the more I enjoyed it. Each lesson can to some extent stand on their own. But reading it straight through I also found lessons building on one another. Think of it as a fun primer on birding put together by a great group of local birders, getting together each week to continue learning. It felt like the sort of book that would be great for the beginning birder, which I would consider myself. But it delves deep enough in some topics I suspect more knowledgeable birders would also enjoy it.

How to Know the Birds is a storybook for bird lovers. It is not a field guide in the traditional sense. Many of the accounts go into some detail about the way birds look and, just as important, the way they sound; but many others barely scratch the surface in that regard. What you will find in the accounts—and I’ve endeavored to emphasize this in every single one of them—is a big idea, a method or technique or resource, about bird study in our age. A number of the accounts conclude with an open-ended question or, at least, some measure of ambiguity; that’s a reflection of the intellectual health and scientific rigor of modern birding. An even 200 accounts, or lessons, fill the pages of this book.
— How to Know the Birds, page 21

The book is broken into 6 parts, each corresponding to several months of the year, and to an over-arching theme that each lesson in that part will contribute to.

Spark Bird!

Part 1, titled “Spark Bird!” covers January and February and is composed of lessons 1-36. The title refers to the idea that many birders have a specific species of bird that first got them interested in birds and birding, their “spark bird.” I don’t know that I have a spark bird, myself. I came to birding largely through photography, and it has slowly grown from there.

This section starts us down the path of how we first start identifying birds. We see them, we recognize them, but what bird is it, what’s it called? How can we identify a bird? Slowly we learn more about physical characteristics of birds (color, patterns, size, shape), about bird song and sounds, behaviors, and habitat. We learn that sometimes females and males look very different, as can juveniles and adults, as can the same bird seen at different times of the year.

After the Spark

Part 2, titled “After the Spark” covers March to May and is composed of lessons 37-74. After we begin learning how to identify birds we begin to realize there are many birds we can hear but can’t identify. We learn about bird song, how to identify birds through their song, what their song is for, and many other topics. We also learn about bird migration, how some birds can only be seen in some areas for part of the year. Where do they go and why?

Now What?

Part 3, titled “Now What?” covers June and July and is composed of lessons 75-115. We love watching birds, but sometimes we feel like there must be more to do, right? Is there a way we can contribute to the birding community? We learn about citizen science projects, such as bird surveys. We learn about different groups, projects, and online resources. There are also lessons on many aspects of breeding and habitat.

Inflection Point

Part 4, titled “Inflection Point” covers August and September and is composed of lessons 116-141. Some birds change their appearance during the year, and some change their locations. They molt and they migration. This section provides many lessons on these two fascinating topics. The migration lessons even go into more modern issues affecting birds in migration, such as the confusing lights of cities at night and the problem of birds smashing into large buildings covered in reflective windows.

What We Know

Part 5, titled “What We Know” covers October and November and is composed of lessons 142-169. We’ve learned a lot so far. But where did this knowledge come from? We learn about many of the resources, old and new, available to birders, from books and CD’s, to online resources, apps, organizations and events. We also learn about many of the things some birders do, such as compiling lists, chasing after a specific species, looking for as many species as we can in one day or one year, traveling, bird banding, and many other activities.

What We Don’t Know

Part 6, titled “What We Don’t Know” covers December and is composed of sections 170-200. Despite all we’ve learned so far there is still so much more to learn, so much we don’t yet know. And isn’t that a wonderful and exciting thought? That we can still go out and learn more about these wonderful creatures we’ve spent so much time watching and studying.

I thoroughly enjoyed How to Know the Birds, by Ted Floyd, who also happens to be the editor of Birding magazine. This is one of those books that’s fun to read through the first time, but is also enough of a resource that you return to it again and again, rereading sections as you encounter a bird you remember reading about, or when you want to explore a new aspect of birding you recall being mentioned. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who already considers themselves a birder, and to those just getting started, who like watching and learning about birds, but don’t really know much else about them. This is a great step down the path of life-long learning.


One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives by Bernd Heinrich by Todd Henson

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One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives, by Bernd Heinrich, is a collection of stories, or essays, each one about an individual species Heinrich personally observed and studied, most often from his home in the U.S. Northeast. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I listened to the Audible version while driving to and from work, or just working around the house. The narrator, Rick Adamson, did a great job with the bird calls and was easy to listen to.

I think the content would appeal to birders who enjoy observing and learning about different species, but I don’t know if it would appeal as much to a general audience. Each chapter is Heinrich’s observations about a specific species, most often from his cabins in the Northeast. He is a scientist and teaches students in the field. In most all cases his observations lead to hypothesis that he then proceeds to test, adapting the hypothesis as he accumulates new data. The scientific method. Having said all that, don’t let the science scare you off. It is written (or spoken) in a very easy to understand way. I can see why students would want to attend his in-the-field classes. He is a marvelous teacher.

Some of his experiments involved modifications to his house to allow him access to a woodpecker’s nest. He pulled birds to observe their health and what they’d been eating. He could tell this most often by pellets dropped by the baby birds, but in some cases the adults cleaned them up too quickly, so he used techniques that temporarily prevent the baby from swallowing the food, so he could see the actual food before it was ingested.

In another chapter he adopted a starling and observed its behavior. He talked about their mimicry, and even mentioned Mozart’s starling, which all brought back memories of reading the book Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Another great book.

He appears to truly love what he does and has a great fondness for the birds he observes. To any birder on the path to learning everything they can about birds, give this book a try. You are likely to learn something about the species he discusses, and also about the methods he uses in his own learning. I certainly would not recommend some of his experiments to untrained people, but many of his methods would be useful to any of us.

I have several more of Bernd Heinrich’s books (The Homing Instinct, Life Everlasting, The Snoring Bird, The Trees in My Forest, Mind of the Raven, and Winter World) and look forward to the next one I read. Have you read any of these, or other books, by Bernd Heinrich? Let me know what you thought.