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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bird Books

Air Date: Week of

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These days, nature bookshelves are lined with birds guides of all shapes and sizes. Reviewer Bruce Barcott takes on three heavy hitters in the ever-burgeoning world of avian anthologies.


CURWOOD: Whether you're a diehard birder or just enjoy the chickadees outside your window, you may have noticed the large number of bird anthologies at the bookstores lately. There are new field guides on North American birds, South American birds, bird feeders and bird songs. Birds of Texas and birds of China and everything in between. Bruce Barcott took on the task of reading through several of these bird bibles and has this review.

BARCOTT: David Allen Sibley isn't merely a rock star in the birding world, he's the rock star of the birding world. In October of 2000, the publication of his "Sibley Guide to Birds" turned the 39-year-old naturalist into a literary sensation. Starry-eyed fans packed his readings. The national press hailed him as the new Roger Tory Peterson. Bookstores sold nearly 600,000 copies of a book whose characters had fantastic names like Dark-eyed Junco and Western Wood Pewee, but didn't speak a lick of dialogue. What made Sibley's guide so good were his illustrations. More than 6,000 intricately detailed full-color paintings captured birds perched, in flight, and dressed in seasonal plumage.

In the wake of Sibley's success a number of publishers have come out with their own birding books, all trying to out-Sibley Sibley. The most serious challenge comes from Kenn Kaufman, a renowned 46-year-old birder, who dropped out of school at 16 to pursue, and eventually break, the record for sighting the most species of bird in a single year.

The strength of his new book, "Lives of North American Birds," lies not in the illustrations, which consist of digitally-enhanced photographs, but in Kaufman's vivid writing. For example, he writes that Northern Goshawks "take their prey by putting on short bursts of amazingly fast flight, often twisting among branches and crashing through thickets in the intensity of pursuit." Kaufman loves the drama of birding, and it shows.

The new heavyweight champion of bird guides, emphasis on heavy, is the Smithsonian's "Birds of North America." The author is Fred Alsop III, a biology professor at East Tennessee State University, and he packs his guide with more than 930 species, topping both Sibley and Kaufman. It's a well-designed package, but anyone taking the Smithsonian guide along on a weekend outing had better hire a Sherpa to schlep the load.

Not to be outdone, David Allen Sibley has come out with his own follow-up: "The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior." If his first book was a birders' dictionary, this is more of an encyclopedia. His new volume is a collaboration with 44 birders and ornithologists and this authorship by committee gives the writing a clinical, passionless quality. Where Kaufman portrayed the Goshawk as a fiery, relentless hunter, Sibley and company depict the same bird as cool and methodical. "During a kill," they write, "an accipiter grabs the prey with its feet, extends its long legs away from the body to protect its head and eyes, and repeatedly punctures the victim with its long penetrating claws until the prey stops struggling." More than year after the publication of his breakout book, Sibley still rules the birding world.

But if I could take only one guide into the field, I think I'd bring along Kaufman. Sibley could bury me in facts about the subspecies related to the Swainson's Thrush, but only Kaufman could capture the stirring experience of hearing the Thrush's trills curl through the early evening dew.

[MUSIC: Tarika]

CURWOOD: Bruce Barcott writes about the environment for Outside magazine.




The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior" by David Allen Sibley

"The Sibley Guide to Birds" by David Allen Sibley

"Birds of North America" by Fredrick Joseph Alsop

"Lives of North American Birds" by Kenn Kaufman">


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