Most keen birders will have any number of field guides within easy reach. Some of them will be on their bookshelves, others are probably scattered around the house, and there is quite probably one or two in the car and/or caravan. I have one in each of our cars, so no matter which car we are in, a field guide like the one pictured above is within easy reach. Even non-birders – that rare breed of people who only occasionally look at birds – will have at least one bird guide lurking on their bookshelf. Over the years I have reviewed some of these guides on this site – just type ”
Even non-birders – that rare breed of people who only occasionally look at birds – will have at least one bird guide lurking on their bookshelf. Over the years I have reviewed some of these guides on this site – just type “reviews” or “books” or “field guides” in the search box.
Other bird books
Books about birds are not confined to just field guides. There are thousands of other titles out there which are all about birds. I recently came across a list of titles in an article called A Birder’s Bookshelf: Essentials for the well-read Avian Enthusiast. I must admit that I have only ever heard of two of the titles listed, This is because the list is centred on American titles (though there is one Australian title) and my bookshelves show that my collection is more inclined towards Australia, but not exclusively.
The following is a list of the books on my shelves, or books I have read, which I would recommend as good reads. I should point out that there are no field guides on this list – don’t be fooled by the first title; it’s a novel. The first two titles have links to my reviews.
- A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: a novel by Nicholas Drayson. This is an absolute delight to read and is all about the eccentricities of the birding fraternity.
- Brushed by feathers by Frances Wood – this is a delightful, lyrical recount of the birds in the life of the author over the course of one year.
- The Birdwatcher – by William McInnes – a novel about the conflict between finding an elusive Australian bird, and developing a sound romantic relationship. Written by one of Australia’s favourite actors. it is not a soppy romance, by the way.
- Bill Oddie Unplucked: columns, blogs and musings by Bill Oddie. This laugh-a-page book in typical Oddie fashion includes many excerpts from his blog and his many newspaper and magazine columns about birds. It covers birding on most continents.
- Bill Oddie’s Gripping Yarns by Bill Oddie – similar to the last item above.
- The Malleefowl: the Bird that Builds and Incubator by H.J. Frith – this is a very old title (published in 1962) but is still an authoritative work on this amazing Australian species. I bought mine via eBay. It is a classic work.
- The Big Twitch by Sean Dooley – an exciting account of one man’s quest pitted against a continent and a calendar. Sean’s account tells how he gave up working to chase after over 700 species of Australian birds in one year.
- The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a lifelong bird-watcher by John Stott – written from the perspective of Christian faith by the well-known writer, lecturer, scholar and preacher.
Good reading. Good birding.
National Geographic Complete Birds of North America, 2nd Edition: Now Covering More Than 1,000 Species With the Most-Detailed Information Found in a Single Volume,
Edited by Jonathan Alderfer, with Jon L. Dunn, maps by Paul Lehman
National Geographic Society, October 2014.
ISBN-10: 1426213735; ISBN-13: 9781426213731
744pages; 10.1 x 7.2 x 1.8 inches
This is a truly magnificent volume and one I am pleased to add to my library. Although I live in Australia and do most of my birding here I have been birding in a number of non-Australian countries. Sadly, I have yet to spend any time birding in the North American continent, a state I would like to correct sometime soon. This wonderful volume just adds a keen impetus to that desire.
I did not buy the first edition of this great work, so I cannot make comparisons. It has been “fully revised and updated” so I will have to take the editor’s word for that. There has been a significant increase in the number of species covered, now numbering over 1000. Edited by Jonathan Alderfer, this volume is a natural companion to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
Look at the numbers
This monumental work stacks up well as far as the numbers are concerned:
- a total of 744 pages
- Over 1000 species featured (compared with 962 in the 1st edition and 990 in the Field Guide)
- Over 800 distribution and migration maps
- 150 full colour photographs
- 9 photographers
- Over 4000 illustrations
- 21 artists
- 89 family groups included
- An interesting group of rarities discussed
- The text draws on the combined expertise of 25 birding authorities
- Two pages of references to Additional Reading
Format and layout
Each family of birds has a short introductory essay, followed by thorough coverage of each species in that family. Each species is then given a thorough coverage in the main body of the text, including:
- a general introductory paragraph
- Identification details (including male/female, juvenile and plumage variations)
- Geographic variation (where appropriate)
- Details of similar species
- Status and distribution
- Population notes, including changes in numbers
- Range maps
- A small, field guide type illustration
- A photograph (selected species)
The colour-coded range maps are very detailed and include:
- breeding range (salmon)
- year-round range (purple)
- winter range (blue)
- migration range spring and autumn (orange)
- migration range mainly in spring (green)
- migration range mainly in autumn (yellow)
- a range of other symbols (eg arrows showing direction of migration – see below)
Birds in flight
One of the useful details include the illustrations showing different aspects of a species in flight. This is particularly handy for those species birders see more often in flight rather than sitting or perching.
Overall, this is not only an impressive publication, it is immensely useful and helpful. It is by no means a thorough scientific handbook featuring and summarising all the current knowledge on each species; other handbooks do not far more effectively. (As an aside, it is nothing like our Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB) which is in 7 volumes, each of over 1000 pages of small print.) It doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive authority on all things birds in North America. However, it succeeds admirably in being a single-volume reference to all the species of one continent, easy to read, easy to use and a delight to read – or just browse. It will delight all birders, from casual and inexperienced backyard birders through to field-hardened experts.
All I have to do now is:
- Find space on my bookshelf for this new volume
- Save up for a birding trip to North America.
Disclosure: I would like to thank National Geographic for kindly providing a review copy of this book.
- National Geographic Pocket Guide: Birds of North America
- National Geographic Complete Birds of North America 2nd edition: a book review
- Review: Brushed by feathers by Francis Wood
- Review: a Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia
- Review: A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (8th edition, Simpson and Day)
- A guide to the birds of East Africa: a novel
Review: Brushed by feathers: a year of birdwatching in the west by Frances Wood (2004, Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado).
What a delightful book. I was given a copy by someone (a friend of a friend) who attended one of my bird talks. I am normally reluctant to let people lend me books to read, no matter how interesting the subject matter because I have so many books and magazines of my own waiting for my attention. Still, out of politeness I accepted this title, and I’m so pleased that I did.
At first I only read a few pages in bed before turning off the light. As I moved further into the text I became hooked – no, spellbound. This is one special book, and all about birds I know nothing about. The author lives on Puget Sound in Washington State near the Pacific Ocean. It is a significant body of water for many water-bird species and the hinterland a passageway for many other migrating species.
The book is an account of a year, month by month, in the birding life of one small area: the author’s small acreage around her home – with occasional trips elsewhere or reminiscing accounts of earlier trips and experiences. From the Barn Swallows nesting under the eaves to various hummingbirds visiting her feeder through to rare encounters, the author takes the reader on a journey of wide-eyed, wondering and fascinated observations of the daily lives of her feathered friends.
Her descriptions of the house and garden, the local environment, weather and daily happenings take the reader into her confidence until we feel almost part of her family. Her lyrical style draws the reader on from bird to beautiful bird, each described with care – as if each was her personal favourite.
The author’s web page can be seen here.
Colombia in South America is every birder’s dream destination. With well over 1800 species – more than any other country – its vast range of wonderful species is an attraction many find irresistible. With the relative stabilisation politically in the last few years, many birders are making this a “must visit” country. I wish I could join them. Maybe one day.
I bought a copy as a gift for a family member with close ties to Colombia. Before giving the guide as a present I must admit I spent quite a few hours browsing – and dreaming. Would I one day be able to afford to travel there and see some of the colourful birds covered by this guide?
Colombia has been without a modern field guide for some decades. This volume fills the void admirably, covering every species ever recorded there. The authors note, however, that the forthcoming Spanish edition may well have a few additions to this, the English version. Species are being added every year as new knowledge of the nation’s natural environment emerges.
The authors have done an amazing job covering every bird species in a country so rich in bird life. This guide, despite covering every species, is lightweight, compact, thin and would travel easily in a backpack – or a large pocket. It is arranged in an easy to use manner with every species illustrated, many with both male and female plumage as well as some juvenile plumages. Where helpful to identification, species are shown in flight. That’s no mean feat with over 1800 species in only 225 smallish pages!
They have achieved this compactness by keeping the illustrations small; most are 3 – 4 cm and are to scale compared with others on the same page. Most pages cover 6 – 8 species on average. In addition to the illustrations, the information is very succinct and basic:
- Common English name,
- Taxonomic name,
- Size from head to tail (centimetres and inches)
- A short one or two sentence description of its preferred habitat and diagnostic behaviours.
- A tiny map of known distribution appears in each species’ box, including an altitudinal indicator which is especially helpful in the mountainous regions.
- Some species descriptions also cover a brief indicator of the song or call.
All that in only 225 pages. Amazing.
I’d recommend this book just for the fun of looking at all the beautiful birds even if you are not planning a trip to Colombia. Warning: looking at this book may have you busily planning your next birding trip – to Colombia.
Authors: Miles McMullan, Thomas D. Donegan, Alonso Quevedo
Title: Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia.
Publication: 2010 by ProAves in Bogota, Colombia.
- The fearsome flute players
Roetman, P. E. J. and Daniels, C. B., 2011. The fearsome flute players: Australian magpies in our lives. Adelaide, Crawford House Publishing.
I have just finished reading this delightful book and thoroughly recommend it to all of my readers. I was asked by one of the authors to review this book on this site; I’m pleased I agreed.
The fearsome flute players captures the very essence of what magpies mean to the people of South Australia. The project was based here in South Australia but the findings would be true throughout this vast land of ours. This book is the result of Citizen Scientists throughout SA. It was heavily promoted by Chris Daniels who was a regular guest on the morning radio show hosted by Matthew Abraham and David Bevan on 891 ABC Adelaide. They have written the foreword to the book. (They’ve also since shifted to the Breakfast programme.)
Chris Daniels, along with Matt and David, asked their listeners to fill in a special survey form on the ABC Radio web site. The survey allowed citizen scientists throughout the state to enter their observations of Australian Magpies in gardens, parks, schools, ovals, farms – wherever. They were also able to relate their stories about the magpies they saw, fed, helped when injured and any other bird/human interactions they cared to tell. The result is fascinating – and at times, humorous – reading.
Results: magpie stories
A total of 1,927 people filled in the survey. I was one of them. Of those, 1,222 people responded to the magpie story request, creating a rich source of information for the authors. These stories make up the bulk of the book and are certainly the great strength of the volume. A few of these stories are thought provoking, some are serious, many are hilarious and all well worth reading. Some of the best are illustrated by appropriately cheeky cartoon sketches, another highlight of the book.
The various chapters cover many aspects of the lives of magpies, always including human interactions and relationships with these wonderful birds. This book is not a scientific thesis paper; it has been written without jargon and will therefore be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. It has a valuable place in any school library collection. While the chapters do cover topics like the magpie’s song and mimicry, food, foraging habits, territories, nesting and care for injured and orphaned birds, the main emphasis in each section is the stories told by the people.
Purchase the book
This wonderful book is available in some ABC centres and selected bookshops. Alternatively, you can order your copy online from the bookshop of the Barbara Hardy Centre for Sustainable Urban Environments (click here). On that page you can read a sample chapter and browse through the table of contents page.
If you order online and mention you read about this book on Trevor’s Birding, you will also receive a free CD of 200 photos featuring water, including many water bird photos. You can see sample of the photos here.