Monday, October 17, 2011

Eight for the Birds!

I've noted before how this time of year always makes me think of birds. By 'this time of year' I mean late autumn, and I mean that mainly because that's what it says on the calendar here in Boston, not because that any longer coincides with actual lived reality. It's been in the high-70s with saturation-point humidity all week here, shorts-and-sandals weather in late October in New England, so that even though the trees are turning colors, I'm still arriving at the subway station drenched in sweat and panting like a circus bear. Once upon a time, before the George W. Bush administration, the world still had frogs and glaciers and, in New England anyway, four distinct seasons. This is no longer true - the last 27 weeks of crushing, stultifying summer heat and humidity commenced exactly 4 hours after the last snowstorm of last winter, and the freezing cold and blowing snow of this coming winter will descend somewhere around 9 pm on a day in late November that will hit 70 at 1 pm.

God only knows what this kind of thing will do to the birds of the world, but they'll stay preserved in books regardless, and although the heat and humidity these days in Boston presents no actual physical reason for many of our seasonal species to migrate to warmer climates, they'll no doubt migrate anyway, driven by instinct. Soon, the path around Jamaica Pond will be much quieter; soon, the optimistically orderly streets of Forest Hills Cemetery will be comparatively bare of the raucous multitude of species that filled the greenery during our incredibly long, unbelievably pestilential over-summer. That fact naturally gets me thinking about bird books for beginner and expert alike, for people who've never set foot in a meadow at sunset and those who have to be dragged out of their nearby hills and marshes by their long-suffering loved ones. Here are eight such books that merit your attention:

Peterson's First Guides: Birds (1986)

The First Guides are slim and short and as basic as a stubbed toe: in the case of Birds (which has lots of illustrations reprinted from Roger Tory Peterson's 1980 A Field Guide to Birds), these extremely portable 128 pages take the user straight into the rudiments of what they need to start birding out in field and stream. The guide covers 188 of the most common species of North American birds, with quick paragraph-long descriptions on facing pages with color illustrations. The descriptions identify things like yellow beaks with italics, and the corresponding picture will have a black arrow pointing straight at that feature - like having a somewhat didactic guide along, only without the temptation to kick him into a culvert. There are of course squintillions of basic guidebooks out there, but this one is the best combination of convenient and informative, and it fits into just about any convenient space you have left over from all your other gear.

The Golden Guide: Birds (1949)

We've covered this marvellous volume here on Stevereads before, but even so, I couldn't let a list like this one go by without including it again. For all that the Golden Guides have been surpassed as practical identification guides, they still retain the ample charm and assurance of the 1940s, and none of these little books is more charming than Birds. Here we have Arctic terns wheeling over the cold ocean with a freighter on the distant horizon; here we have tree sparrows singing lustily as the trees bud out all around them; here we have the bobolink serenading the sunrise in a northern marsh; here we have an osprey carrying a captured fish above a mist-blurred line of channel-markers; here we have a barn owl perched within view of a sleeping farmhouse at night - and many more, a small but choice slice of the bird-life of North America, and a must-have for any bird enthusiast.

The Life of Birds by David Attenborough (1998)

Speaking of bird enthusiasts - I sincerely believe that Attenborough may just be the most passionate such enthusiast on Earth. Certainly he's the most well-known, being the front-man for a dozen epic nature documentaries, including the simply life-changing Planet Earth. One of the most heartfelt and personal-feeling of all those documentaries was 1998's resplendent Life of Birds, and its attendant book, although best read in conjunction with that documentary, can certainly be adored on its own. I've sung its praises here before, but like the Golden Guide, I couldn't resist putting it on this list, because everybody who's interested in birds should find it here in addition to rooting around in the back-stacks for it! In the book, Attenborough examines all the different aspects of bird life, from what they eat to where they live (and how they live there) to how they find their mates to the great chapter titled "The Demands of the Egg," and the whole thing is rendered in the written equivalent of Attenborough's genial, avuncular omniscience. There are dozens and dozens of gorgeous photos too - again, not a rarity in the bird-book world, but never done more winningly than here.

The Wind Birds by Peter Matthiessen (1967)

Like Attenborough, Matthiessen is one of our great naturalists (in addition to being a great novelist, of course), and the fact that he's a bird enthusiast couldn't be more obviously displayed than in this wonderful book about the many kinds of birds who make their homes along those blessed strips of America where the oceans meet the land. This is a book full of bird lore and anecdote, full of digressions, and full of sandpipers (the only bird other than wood warblers that's always struck me as being almost entirely composed of pure enchantment), and all of it is beautifully illustrated by Robert Gillmor. People lucky enough to live near North American shorelines (especially along the eastern seacoast of the country, naturally) have the pick of the very best the bird-world has to offer: they have forests, mountains, ponds, dunes, the active tidal zone, and that most sublime of all natural habitats, the salt water marsh - and in all of those habitats, birds run riot in all their diversity and ingenuity. Matthiessen captures all that diversity and ingenuity in his prose, that nimble, gorgeous prose that always strikes a reader as so much better than they remembered it. Matthiessen's body of work is enormous, and the list of nature books is long and full of famous titles. This book isn't one of those famous titles, and I think that's a shame - there's some sparkling prose here, much of it disarmingly confessional. Like Attenborough's boo, The Wind Birds is no kind of practical guide - but it should be on the bird-shelf of any self-respecting library just the same.

That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stanger (1966)

I've certainly praised this little classic many times before in my life (although memory fails if I've ever praised it here at Stevereads), and I've given copies of it in all its many editions to everybody I even half-suspect might enjoy it and pass it along themselves. It's the story of a brainy Cape Cod family who find a quail egg and decided to try to save and raise the chick inside. That miserable little speck hatches and grows up to be Robert, the quail of the title and star of the brief spring and summer of fame that publication brought to the lives of the humans involved. Robert imprinted to his humans and adapted immediately to life far away from his wild kindred, and the book's main source of comedy and insight is its account of the many pitfalls Robert endures as he tries to understand the weird bipedal creatures with whom his lot's been cast. This is a bird-book classic on the same level as my beloved Owl, and it has the same immediate, universal appeal.

A Pocket Guide to Birds and How to Identify and Enjoy Them by Allan Cruickshank (1953)

This sturdy staple has been reprinted a bunch of times and even superseded in some respects by other books over the years, but it still wins a place on this list because it's far more ample than the First Guide and yet still a handy paperback that can fit in pocket or pack. Cruickshank was an absolutely captivating lecturer for the National Audubon Society, and he distilled a lifetime of introducing people to the joys of birding into this volume, which also features over 70 color photos by the author's wife Helen and 78 vivid, marvellous line-drawings by Don Eckelberry. The combination of photos and drawings is a fortunate one - it allows both a greater certainty of identification and a more intimate awareness of why anybody would bother to identify birds in the first place; the photos are accurate, and the drawings are charming. The book also makes the requisite utterly hopeless attempts to describe what bird-calls actually sound like, but readers familiar with bird-books can see that train-wreck coming and even take pleasure from it.

Birds Through an Opera Glass by Florence Merriam (1889)

Speaking of that hopeless endeavor, it's a big part of this extremely popular and enduring (for a while, anyway) birding-introduction from a century ago. Merriam originally wrote most of the material for her chapters for the old Audubon magazine, and when the success of those articles gave rise to a book, she borrowed the black-and-white illustrations from The History of North American Birds by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway and commissioned a small handful of color plates to be 'tipped in,' which was a process by which the card-sized illustrations were shuffled into the pages of the book - at a time when working actual color plates into a mass-printed book was either impossible or ruinously expensive, 'tipping in' photos was a popular alternative (the first edition of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun illustrated in this way was a runaway best-seller, for instance). The only problem now, over 100 years later, is that pictures capable of being tipped in can be tipped out again - it's virtually impossible to find an ordinary second-hand copy of this book (which was originally made as part of the "Riverside Library for Young People") that retains all its color illustrations. Collectors sift through them like garden snakes, and even packing and unpacking from apartment to apartment over the course of 28 years can send pictures into oblivion. My own copy, for instance (which isn't second-hand), still has only the lonely full-color picture of an Indigo Bird. But the real draw, of course, is Merriam's plummy prose, complete with easily-parodied bits like "When the oriole comes to build his nest and you compare his work with that of the robin, you feel that you have an artistic Queen Anne beside a rude mud hovel."

The Book of North American Birds (1990)

This sturdy, oversized Reader's Digest production is positively lavish with color illustrations that are bound right into the book - no tipping-out here! Instead, for over 500 glorious though impractical pages (any birder who could take this volume along on his hikes would be a birder I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley), we get the bursting panoply of birds in all their glory, brought to readers through the delicate work of some of the best bird artists of the 20th century, all gathered together here and doing humble, collaborative wonders. Raymond Harris Ching, John P. O'Neill, H. Jon Janosik, Cynthia House, Walter Ferguson, the great Hans Peeters, and even somebody who rejoices in the name of Julie Zickefoose - all these and many more fill this book with color illustrations that are at once accurate and idealized. These oversized Reader's Digest editions are all marvels (we'll get to all of them eventually here at Stevereads), and the generous size of the pages is particularly advantageous to the subject of birds (several of the smaller song birds here are represented at almost life-size). This is a book to explore lovingly only after the day's wanderings outside are done and the supper is put away.



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