Summer Reading For Birders

By Scott Shalaway
IF YOU ARE looking for some new reading material for this summer, I’ve got six titles to recommend, all about birds.

The best new field guide is intended for kids, but I think it’s perfect for anyone of any age just getting into birds. “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of Eastern North America” by Bill Thompson III (2008, Houghton Mifflin) covers 200 species, includes 300 color photos and 200 black and white drawings by Julie Zickefoose.

Thompson is the editor of BirdWatcher’s Digest, so he knows birds, but he sought the advice of his daughter’s elementary school classmates to write and design a book for kids. It includes everything you’d expect in a beginner’s field guide (identification tips, range maps, preferred habitats and voice descriptions) and more. Each account includes a “Wow! Burst,” an interesting bit of information about each species that makes them all the more memorable. This book will become the standard field guide for all beginning birders.

“The Backyard Birdsong Guide: A Guide to Listening” by Donald Kroodsma (2008, Chronicle Books) is a beautifully illustrated companion to Thompson’s book. It covers 75 species, but focuses on voice rather than visual identification. This is possible because attached to the back cover of the book is a digital audio player. Push a button, and hear a bird sing. Kroodsma is North America’s dean of bird song study, so readers can be confident they are learning from the master.

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Wildlife Federation are battling for best new comprehensive bird field guide. “Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America” by Ted Floyd (2008, HarperCollins) and “National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America” by Edward S. Brinkley (2007, Sterling Publishing Co.) are excellent references complete with hundreds of range maps. But at more than 500 pages each, they’re a bit too heavy to be true “field” guides. More than 2,000 color photos in each book insure that most accounts include multiple images that cover males, females, juveniles and some behaviors. These books are for experienced birders who demand the details included. I give the nod to Floyd’s book because it includes a DVD with 578 digital songs and calls of 138 bird species.

“Flights Against the Sunset: Stories that Reunited a Mother and Son” by Kenn Kaufman (2008, Houghton Mifflin) is a collection of 19 essays by one of the best birders in the world. After devoting most of his adult life to watching and studying birds on every continent, Kaufman returns to his Kansas home to visit his ailing mother. The essays recount his efforts to explain his passion to his elderly mother. In return, he learns his mother still has a few lessons for him.

“Falcon Fever: A Falconer in the Twenty-first Century” by Tim Gallagher (2008, Houghton Mifflin) is another poignant, introspective volume by a birder who made headlines all around the world just a few years ago. Gallagher is editor of Living Bird, the magazine published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but he is better known as one of the few people who have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.

“Falcon Fever” details Gallagher’s life-long passion and obsession with raptors. The tale begins when a 12-year-old boy discovers an ancient text, “On the Art of Hunting with Birds” by legendary falconer Frederick II, a 13th century Holy Roman Emperor. It is truly amazing to learn how an obscure book helped shape the life of a 20th century boy.

Gallagher trained his first bird when he was just 14 years old. Through the good, the bad and the ugliness of a challenging family life, falconry played a stabilizing role. As an adult, the obsession continues. At home in Ithaca, N.Y., he flies Macduff, his beloved peregrine falcon, every day weather permits.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette