Saturday, December 31, 2011
Friday, December 30, 2011
New Year’s Eve can be fraught with disappointment if we focus on all the things we didn’t accomplish in the past year or if we get lost in unrealistic expectations for the coming year. One of the best things about being a birdwatcher is that at the end of every year, I get to go over all the wonderful birds I saw that year. Now that I’m photographing birds as I watch them, my pictures help me relive many of the best moments of the year.
I did plenty of travel this year, but for the most part it was to talk about birds, not to look at them. In January, I was a keynote speaker at the Space Coast birding festival in Florida, where I got my best photos of Roseate Spoonbills and Florida Scrub-Jays ever,
and saw a Crested Caracara carrying sticks and working on a nest.
In March, I spent some time in Indianapolis and in Louisville, Kentucky, adding to my photos of Carolina Chickadees and fox squirrels.
A huge flock of Bohemian Waxwings visited my backyard in April, giving me an amazing photo op.
In April I was a speaker at the Cleveland Metroparks bird festival. I saw lots of cool birds, and thanks to a bird-banding program, also got my first photos ever of a male chickadee’s cloacal protuberance.
In May I saw plenty of cool northern Wisconsin birds during the Elderhostel class I teach each year in Eagle River, and then went to see breeding Kirtland’s Warblers in Michigan.
I got a photo of a female chickadee’s brood patch in June, during another bird-banding program at a birding week at Hunt Hill Audubon Center in Sarona, Wisconsin.
On August 4, a group of Evening Grosbeaks descended upon our yard and remained for six weeks. Grosbeaks were an everyday bird back in our first years of living in Duluth, when our children were little, and for a flock of about 16 to visit us every day gave us a lovely distraction and moments of grace right when Russ was recovering from surgery.
In September I spent time in Missouri, photographing Eurasian Tree Sparrows in my good friend Susan’s yard.
Then she and I headed to the Ozarks, where I finally got a focused photo of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
In October I attended a meeting in Philadelphia where I got to visit the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and see and photograph specimens of Labrador Duck, Eskimo Curlew, Great Auk, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Parakeet—species that are all extinct.
Then, in November, I spent my birthday in the Grand Canyon, searching for a bird I’ve been yearning to see since I started birding—a bird that was so close to the edge of extinction in 1987 that every single individual had to be brought into captivity and treated for lead poisoning, and a captive breeding program became necessary before birds could at last be restored to the wild. Watching eight individual California Condors living free, flying high in the sky, was an utterly thrilling birthday gift that made 2011 one of the best years of my life.
In January, Russ and I are headed to Texas and Florida for a couple of weeks. I don’t have a lot of travel planned for the year, but I’ll be plotting out how to do a Conservation Big Year in 2013, trying to see every bird on the American Bird Conservancy’s watch list. Even while I’m planning ahead, I’ll be watching and photographing the birds in my daily life. Whatever 2012 may bring, I’ll be spending next New Year’s Eve looking over lots more photos of lots more birds—my happy way of keeping track of the passage of time.
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Once upon a time, many many Christmases ago, there was a year when no snow fell in the North Woods.
Grownups were happy because driving was safe, they didn’t have to shovel, their cars didn’t get gunked up with road salt, and their kids couldn’t track snow all over the floors.
But the children were sad because they knew that Santa needs snow to land his sleigh. And the children also knew that North Woods snow is the most special snow in the world. Snow from Lake Superior December squalls has magical properties. It’s so cold, and sticks so well, that if Santa dusts his sleigh runners with it, it lasts all through his trip, so he can land in southern cities where snow never falls. Children throughout much of the United States and Mexico depend on this magical snow. What would happen without it?
Two days before Christmas Santa listened to his weather radio and sighed. It was 50 degrees in Duluth, and the next day, Christmas Eve, was supposed to be even warmer! How could he get his presents to all the good little children who believed in him?
Just then there came a rapping, came a tapping at his chamber door, and in walked an enormous Raven. Santa was startled, but the Raven said, “If you can’t ride in your sleigh this year, why don’t you ride on my back?” Santa climbed on, and sure enough, the Raven took off and flew with him high over the North Pole. They circled twice and landed easy as pie. Santa was delighted!
Then they tried it with Santa’s pack on his back, but that was just too heavy for the Raven to manage. Santa asked, “Do you think your raven friends could help carry the presents?” But the Raven sadly shook her head. “Most ravens think they’re too grown up for Santa Claus. And I’m afraid hawks and eagles are the same way.”
Then she had an idea. “Maybe our little brothers the crows can help!” She flew off and brought back a team of twelve glossy crows, all cawing with excitement. They each picked up a bundle of toys in their beaks and took off on a practice flight in a wide circle over the pole. But one of them spied a Snowy Owl sitting on a snow bank, and instantly dropped to the ground to scold it. Soon all the crows were down, every one of them yelling his head off at the owl instead of carrying presents. The Raven shrugged. “I guess crows can’t do the job. They’re bound to see an owl somewhere on Christmas Eve, and they won’t be able to stop themselves from mobbing it.”
Santa and the Raven tried Blue Jays next. They were small, but tough and wiry, and managed to carry big sacks of presents in their beaks. They were all so proud to be helping Santa that they shouted with glee. But the moment they opened their beaks, the packages fell to the ground. They tried again and again, but no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t keep their mouths shut, and Santa was worried that some of the fragile presents would break if they kept on dropping them.
Then they tried pelicans. But pelicans need a lot of food, and every time they got hungry they forgot that their pouches were filled with presents, not fish, and they swallowed them!
Snowbirds wanted to help, but they were too little.
Next the Raven asked some Willow Ptarmigans, Arctic cousins of our own Ruffed Grouse, but their wings only work well for short distances.
Santa was starting to believe this really would be a Christmas without presents when the Raven suddenly noticed a Tundra Swan watching them from the snow. She shyly offered the services of herself and her family.
And that is how it came to be that one Christmas long, long ago, children peeking out of their windows at midnight spotted Santa Claus riding on the back of a beautiful and kind Raven, followed by eight graceful swans in a V, each with a sack full of presents tied around its neck for all the good little children who really believed in the spirit of giving.
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Ever since I started using the Internet in the 90s, people have been uploading and sharing photos and videos of animals. Many show wild baby animals in zoos or rehab facilities. Naturally, these little creatures are adorable, and the videos do inspire people to donate to important and underfunded organizations, but in my mind it’s tragic that most people’s only understanding of baby sloths comes from watching them eating from baby bottles, and their only understanding of baby pandas comes from watching a tiny baby sneezing or doing other cute things in a big concrete and metal enclosure.
In the past month alone, I bet at least 100 people have sent me links to YouTube owl videos. There seem to be two kinds of popular ones. Most show captive owls in unnatural settings doing what appear to be cute things—pouncing on a moving light the way cats pounce on laser pointers, preening, turning or moving their head side to side in a funky way, fluffing up, and things like that. Many of these videos show owls from other continents, and most were made in other countries. The second kind of video shows owls in what appear to be wild settings, usually in flight or hunting. One really popular one shows an Eagle Owl flying directly toward the camera. This owl appears to me to be a captive bird trained to fly in for food, though you can’t see what is enticing it behind the camera. If you look closely in many of the others, of actual wild birds, you see that their prey animal isn’t wild, but some hapless gerbil or pet store mouse that has been tossed out to be ripped apart in a photo op.
Our human world has grown ever and ever more disconnected from the natural world. In one respect, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Thoreau was absolutely right that in wildness is the preservation of the world, but in the long run, concentrating our ever burgeoning numbers of humans into cities is the only way we can possibly save the ever dwindling pockets of natural habitat. So in a very real sense, in cities is the preservation of wildness. That’s the very reason Russ and I chose to live in a settled neighborhood of Duluth rather than carving our own little piece of heaven out of the surrounding natural habitat.
So I both understand and appreciate that more and more people are distanced from wildness. But there is excellent nature to be observed even in densely populated cities—my list of birds seen in the Chicago area alone includes a couple dozen species of warblers and a few owls, including a Snowy Owl that flew above my head as Russ and I walked along Lake Shore Drive. And my own backyard list of birds includes 175 species. But fewer and fewer people seem to notice the wild animals in their immediate surroundings except to complain about them or to try to tame them. And more and more people expect their encounters with animals to be accompanied by a soundtrack and edited to be more exciting or cute, and completely, and artificially, anthropomorphized. Interest in parrots involves the birds learning human speech, not how they communicate within their family and flocks. Few people would be interested in learning about manakin lekking, either on a video or by traveling to the right habitat in the tropics, but millions will click on a YouTube video showing a bird (few seem to care what species it is) doing what’s hyped as a Michael Jackson Moon Walk. Few people realize or care that owls have 14 neck vertebrae—twice as many as we have—and that their eyes are fixed in the sockets, but millions will click on a YouTube video showing an owl moving its head in what appears to be a comical way.
I’m also frustrated that more and more photos and videos of wild animals are based on unethical and potentially dangerous techniques on the part of the photographers. Feeding them rodents from pet shops habituates owls to people, which can be very dangerous for them when they approach people expecting a meal. It also exposes the birds to salmonella. And many photographers don’t even bother to lug their equipment far from their cars, so they increase the danger by feeding these birds too close to roadsides.
Over my lifetime, I’ve watched as children and adults in our culture have grown more sexualized, more violent, and more vain. When I watch TV ads for nature programming, the emphasis is always on momentary acts of mating and killing prey, or on animated or excessively edited features distorting reality to give animals an artificial cuteness or strangeness, as if their natural features aren’t enough. Sex, violence, and artificial physical enhancements are our obsessions, not the rich panoply of natural behaviors and natural looks that reflect real human beings and real animals. Something valuable is being lost right before our eyes.
For the past 11-½ years, I’ve lived with an Eastern Screech-Owl named Archimedes. When he was a tiny chick, some children found him in an Ohio backyard, lying still on the grass. They thought he was dead—he had no feathers, was covered with oozing scabs and puncture wounds, and was ice cold. They picked him up with a tissue to throw him out, but he wiggled, so their parents brought him to a wildlife clinic.
Normally, wildlife clinics leave the tending and feeding of owl chicks to adult education owls of the same species. Adult owls have a very well developed nurturing capacity, and being raised by their own species eliminates the possibility of owlets becoming imprinted on humans. But Archimedes had a blood infection that required intravenous medication, he was emaciated so needed to be tube-fed and then handfed a liquefied diet, and needed antibiotic salves to treat infections on his skin, which led to him becoming imprinted.
After he was fully recovered, Archimedes quickly learned to hunt, but during the two times he was released, he kept approaching and alighting on people, even after the rehabbers tried aversion therapy, and so finally he was returned to captivity permanently. I have permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to keep one owl as an education bird, and had the great good fortune to acquire this perfect little bird. He and I are very bonded. Owls mate for life, and a mated pair and their chicks often preen one another. This allopreening reinforces their family bonds. I reinforce my bond with Archimedes by preening his feathers and nuzzling him, and allowing him to preen my hair and eyebrows.
Because Archimedes is imprinted and because he’s so bonded to me, he’s very comfortable doing programs, even in crowded, noisy circumstances. He’s calmly dealt with Cub Scout pack meetings in echoing gymnasiums, all-school assembly presentations on brightly lit stages, and owl talks at book signings in chaotic shopping malls. People often comment about how well trained he is, but I’ve never trained him to do anything, and don’t like the thought of training a wild bird to do tricks. I’m actually showing a screech owl’s natural behavior.
Most owls spend their daytime sitting quietly. Like cats, they are awake whenever they feel like it, day or night, but are specially adapted for nocturnal hunting, and don’t need to be active in daytime. When many songbirds, including crows, jays, and robins, see an owl, they attack, so screech owls usually spend their day inside an abandoned woodpecker hole or Wood Duck box. They can pop their head out to soak in the sun, but when even a chickadee notices them, they pop their head back inside. When Archimedes first came home with me, he spent his days inside a Wood Duck house in his big flight cage, but after a month or so, as he grew more comfortable here, he started sitting on open perches and hasn’t retreated into his box since except once when he was sick.
So when he and I are doing programs, it’s natural for him to sit quietly on my gloved hand. He’s used to and comfortable hearing my voice, and if I sense him getting nervous, I just preen him a bit, which instantly calms him thanks to the natural behavior of allopreening. During programs, Archimedes is simply demonstrating how normal owls behave. He is certainly adorable, but more and more I’m growing uncomfortable with how many people exclaim that he’s as cute as owls they’ve seen on YouTube. Tomorrow I’ll explain why these videos make me so uncomfortable.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
I've recently had the great honor of being invited to be a columnist for BirdWatching! This is thrilling, plus I've also been asked to write occasionally for the magazine's Field of View blog. This is my first entry, about feeding mealworms to chickadees in winter.
101 Ways to Help Birds was also awarded the Stephen T. Colbert Award for the Literary Excellence (Really!). Not that Stephen T. Colbert is even remotely aware of my existence. But his I Am America (And So Can You!) included stickers and said anyone who bought the book was free to put them on any book that "you feel embodies the values of the Colbert Nation." So why not?
SHIPPING INFORMATION: So how do you get a copy? It's cheapest to get it from Amazon, B&N, or your local bookstore. If you want a personalized copy or want me to get more money from the sale and don't mind spending the extra for shipping and a padded envelope*, send me an email with "Book Purchase" as the subject line, and include your address and how you want the book signed. Verify that you know how ridiculously expensive it is to order from me. I'll email you back my home address, which is where to send the money. You can send a personal check or money order. I'll get the book into the mail ASAP. If I'm gone for this or that, it could be a few days, but you'll know from my email. I'll trust you to get the money to me.
*I usually ship "Media Rate," and charge $5 for the first book (I have to pay for those padded envelopes, too!) and $2 each for books over that. (i.e.--add $5 if you order 1 book, $7 if you order 2, $9 if you order 3. See what I mean? It's cheaper to order from Amazon.)
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Tom Stehn monitored Whooping Cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for 29 years, until he retired last year. He is widely known as the authority on the wintering flock, the only self-sustaining, natural population of Whooping Cranes in the universe. I wrote about these Whooping Cranes in my book 101 Ways to Help Birds, in the section about why conserving water is so critical for birds. Tom Stehn was the authority I quoted.
These Whooping Cranes breed in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta. They mate for life and usually raise a single chick each year. Even with massive work by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Environment Canada, these wild birds never spread beyond their traditional breeding and wintering areas, because they learn their migration route from their parents.
Most years it’s not too hard to keep track of wintering Whooping Cranes with aerial censuses. Pairs and families stay pretty centered on their territories, feeding on blue crabs in the more marshy areas of the estuary. Blue crabs can’t survive when the water gets too salty, and this year’s drought in Texas is one of the worst on record. Without the fresh water supplied by the rivers that empty into the estuary, the crabs decline, and the cranes must search harder for food. Starvation may take some, but before they succumb, they tend to wander in search of food. Birds on territory know where all the hazards are. When they wander off these havens, they’re more likely to be killed by accidents or predators. A severe drought in 2008-09 led to the deaths of at least 23 cranes—over 8 percent of their entire population at the time.
Because of this year’s record-setting drought, people in Texas have been fighting over the limited water supplies. A coalition of environmentalists, businesses, and local governments called The Aransas Project is suing the state of Texas, contending that its regulation of water withdrawals from the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers is detrimental to the health of the bay, which is the economic lifeblood of the area. The suit claims that the water policy during that 2008 drought caused the deaths of endangered Whooping Cranes. The case is in federal court because it involves the federal Endangered Species Act. Establishing a violation of the act requires proof that an endangered animal was killed and that the defendant, in this case the State of Texas and their water management system, caused the death.
The case was heard last week in Corpus Christi. Both the Aransas Project and the state had wanted to subpoena Tom Stehn, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has rules preventing employees from testifying. But because his work was central to the case, the judge issued a subpoena, and last Tuesday Tom Stehn appeared before the court. He said that probably more than 23 birds died in the 2008 drought, because he did not have an accurate count of the sub adults. Whooping Cranes that are one to four years old don’t defend a territory, and they can wander extensively around the bay. But he said his number was an accurate minimum. The judge said, “I don't know how on Earth you could figure out what is going on with an endangered species without doing it the way he is.” Attorneys on both sides had accidentally misstated Stehn’s name as Mr. Crane, and the judge herself said, “This is the only human on Earth who has been counting these birds annually in this area. He is ‘Mr. Crane.'”
She’s expected to make a ruling soon on whether the state must change its policy to allow more freshwater to remain in the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers. It’s not going to be easy to balance the needs of everyone. As the judge asked, “Do you take from the farmers to give to the whooping cranes?” Ultimately, all of us are going to have to be better about water conservation.
Friday, December 9, 2011
Wednesday, the journal Science published a fascinating study by researchers from the University of Chicago demonstrating that rats show empathy toward other rats. In their experiments, Peggy Mason, Jean Decety, and Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal put rats inside an enclosure, trapping some of them in a tube trap which could only be opened from the outside. As soon as a free rat figured out the mechanism, it released the trapped ones. And after it had figured out how to open the trap, every time it saw trapped rats, it released them. These rats never opened the trap unless a real, live rat was trapped inside. They couldn’t be tricked by stuffed ones. This was represented as the first documented scientific experiment proving that rats display a kind of empathy toward other rats.
The results of this experiment didn’t surprise me. There are many documented cases of jays and crows providing food for injured or sick birds from their neighborhood flock. Some scientists go through all kinds of intellectual contortions to avoid attributing emotions to animals, explaining behaviors that appear empathetic are merely programmed behaviors that help ensure that the animal’s genes survive, sometimes because local populations include related animals, and also because if this behavior is a found in a population, each animal that helps another can expect reciprocal kindness. But we could explain human empathy exactly the same way. It is certainly unscientific to attribute human characteristics to birds, but it’s equally unscientific to claim that a human characteristic cannot be found in any animals. Little by little, we tease out scientific evidence that we share more than biochemistry and a whole lot of our DNA with other animals. One day, I suspect that people will look back on our belief that humans are entirely apart from other animals with the same bemusement that we look back on people for believing the earth is at the center of the universe.
I used to have a licensed education Blue Jay named Sneakers. For a while when I was rehabbing, I also had a jay named BJ. The two of them lived in adjacent cages, and were very responsive to one another. I never did a genetic test to determine the sex of either bird, and neither of them showed any courtship or nesting behaviors, but they seemed to be best of friends. One day when I went into the room where I kept them, I found that Sneakers had managed to break out of her cage. BJ’s cage door was securely fastened, but Sneakers was stuffing mealworms through the bars straight into BJ’s mouth. I presume Sneakers had eaten a bunch herself first, but I was struck by her generous impulse to feed her buddy. Sneakers was also very devoted to me, and learned to say “hi,” and “c’mon” in my voice. The first time she talked that we know of, I’d been out of town for a couple of days, and Russ heard her say “hi,” and thought I was home early. Once in a while she’d talk in front of little kids, and sometimes she talked when it was just the two of us, but she did most of her talking when I wasn’t home. I started to suspect she was imitating my voice when she missed me. If she couldn’t see me, she could at least hear my voice. BJ wasn’t the least bit bonded to me, and never said a word. That is, not until Sneakers died. Suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, BJ started saying “Hi,” and “C’mon,” sounding exactly like Sneakers. I think it was how BJ could hear Sneaker’s voice.
I’m not surprised that scientists are detecting empathy in animals, and based on Sneakers and BJ, and on various dogs and cats I’ve had in my life, I think grief is another emotion we share with our fellow creatures. Considering how poorly we communicate with and demonstrate empathy toward our own species, I don’t know how we’ll ever learn to communicate with animals, or come to any real understanding of our fellow travelers on this planet. But little by little we’re learning.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Magnolia Warbler (One of the many common Minnesota birds not found in Birds of Minnesota)
I very seldom write book reviews of books I don’t like. I have a lot of experience with field guides, and although I have two favorites, the National Geographic Guide and the Kaufman guide, I realize that we each use different strategies for birding and what may be perfect for one person won’t work as well for someone else.
But there are two guides that not only don’t seem useful to me, but seem actually misleading in important ways: Stan Tekiela's Birds of Minnesota (or of other states) and Richard Crossley's Crossley ID Guide. They’re both very big sellers, so my opinion is clearly not very widely held, but it might be useful to consider these issues before buying them.
The first is a whole series of guides, each titled "Birds of [a particular state]", such as Birds of Minnesota or Birds of Wisconsin. These guides show only a fraction of the birds of the state they’re covering. Birds of Minnesota covers only 111 species, though there are over 400 species found in the state. [The official state list last I checked included 437 species, including 312 regularly occurring species.] Some people think providing fewer possibilities makes it easier for beginners, so I went through the list of birds I figured out my very first spring of birding, before I knew other birders and had to struggle through identifications of everything, including chickadees and mallards. Of the 40 species I saw my first spring, 6 are not in Birds of Minnesota at all, nor in Birds of Illinois or Birds of Michigan, the states where I was doing most of my birding then. [These species are Nashville, Magnolia, Black-throated Green, and Blackburnian Warblers; Rough-winged Swallow; and Veery.]
We moved to our house in Duluth in July 1981, when I was pregnant and then dealing with a newborn. I saw 65 species in my backyard that first year. Of them, 16 species—almost 25%—are not in Birds of Minnesota. [These species are Rough-legged Hawk; Herring Gull; Least Flycatcher; Blue-headed, Philadelphia, and Red-eyed Vireos; Winter Wren; Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Nashville, Magnolia, Palm, and Blackpoll Warblers; Lincoln's Sparrow; Rusty Blackbird; and White-winged Crossbill.]
Red-eyed Vireo (One of the common Minnesota species not found in Birds of Minnesota. Roger Tory Peterson once estimated that this bird was the most abundant songbird in North America. It isn't considered that anymore, but is still found in virtually every woodland and still breeds in some city neighborhoods in the Twin Cities and Duluth, where there are plenty of mature deciduous trees.)
It would have been endlessly frustrating for me to tease out identifications of such easy-to-find birds when they weren’t even in the book. Birds of Minnesota has a single photo for most species, and when males and female are both pictured, they can be widely spaced—the Common Goldeneye female is on page 44 while the male is on page 150.
The brand new Crossley ID Guide is selling like hotcakes. Although it’s larger than many family bibles, it’s eye-catching. Richard Crossley gives most species their own full page plate with a lot of photos pulled together on a single background, some in flight, some perched or swimming. For example, he has at least 13 different Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in the same scene. This allows you to look at them in different poses, ostensibly in their natural habitat. The trick is that many birds aren’t found in just one habitat. He shows Chipping Sparrows on a golf course rather than in the open coniferous woodlands where they are most abundant, perhaps more because he was enamored of his own cleverness in showing in the distance a golfer chipping a shot than because anyone is likely to head to a golf course in search of Chipping Sparrows. And because he used his own photos, some pages have a lot more than others, and the photo quality is uneven. In real life, one would never see 13 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in close proximity, nor 11 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds perched or hovering peaceably together.
The plates are uneven in how carefully proportions of birds perched in the same tree were worked out—sometimes the near bird is so enormous compared to a bird photoshopped just a bit further back in the same tree that any beginner would be confused about how variable size is for that species. And some of the photos hurt my eyes—I decided it was probably both because of that size issue, and also because the birds were photographed in different lighting situations, and though he does a lot of color correction for that, there are enough differences in the way the light hits different birds, and in how they each were focused, that my eyes were straining to make the pictures make sense. Crossley also uses four-letter alpha codes rather than giving the names of birds he compares each species to. Four-letter codes have been standardized specifically for entering bird banding data, but most banders don’t even memorize these codes, which make reading the Crossley ID Guide more frustrating than helpful. This book is a clever novelty, but I suspect that birders who have a copy will quickly relegate it to a shelf or coffee table rather than actually using it.
As I noted, I don’t like panning books, and if you’ve personally found either of these books to be particularly useful, let me know. If comments get too contentious or spammy, I'll have to cut them off, but will be happy to put together another blog post/radio program if there are compelling reasons to defend either of these books that I've missed. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a good field guide to give as a gift, I’d look at the new 6th edition of the National Geographic field guide or Kenn Kaufman’s, as posted in the previous blog post.
Thirty-seven years ago, on Christmas, 1974, I opened a field guide for the first time. I’d never known that such a thing existed, but at that moment I became obsessed. My first was a Peterson field guide, and I read the whole thing cover to cover, and discovered in its references Joseph Hickey’s Guide to Bird Watching, which I borrowed from the library and read cover to cover. I also bought the Golden Guide and read it cover to cover. That’s the one that became my birding bible. My trusty Golden Guide got me through learning all the basic birds in the Midwest, and as I learned those birds, couldn’t help but notice the many birds that were from more far-flung places. I knew the book so intimately that when I took trips to the Southeast, Arizona, Texas, the Black Hills, Washington, and Oregon, I had no trouble identifying those birds, too.
This all happened right when the American Ornithologists Union was changing the classification of several species. I wrote name changes into my book to keep them straight. Then, in 1983, the National Geographic Society published a great field guide, designed with the same format as my trusty Golden Guide but with up-to-date maps and species classification. The National Geographic guide also benefitted from all the advances in bird identification that arose with the more sophisticated birding community of the 70s. Much as I loved my Golden Guide, I finally put it aside for the National Geographic.
National Geographic is uniquely committed to keeping their field guide up to date. This fall, the 6th edition was released. And this edition has so many major improvements that I’d have bought it even if I didn’t collect the whole series. The new edition has the thumb tabs for finding important sections that was introduced in the fifth edition, and this time there are also two excellent quick indexes on the inside cover, one organized alphabetically, the other a fold-out with pictures of each family, to make it easy for beginners to find the bird they’re searching for. There’s also a fabulous improvement in the bird drawings—in this edition, important features are marked with quick notes explaining them right next to the drawing. The book is entirely up to date, at least until the AOU comes up with new taxonomic changes. The new National Geographic is the field guide I’ll have with me all the time.
I still treasure my Guide to Bird Watching by Joseph Hickey, which is available as a Dover reprint, but the best book now for learning exactly how to go about bird watching is Kenn Kaufman’s wonderful new Field Guide to Advanced Birding.
Kenn Kaufman also wrote the only photo-field guide that I recommend. It’s not quite as complete as the National Geographic, but for people who are just starting out and want something really user-friendly, the perfect book choices would be the two Kenn Kaufman guides—and they don’t weigh much more put together than the National Geographic guide.
These are the field guides I personally find most useful for birding, and would be good choices for gift-giving. But the best guide is really an individual decision. If you’re looking for a field guide for yourself, go to a bookstore or library and thumb through them, pulling out the ones that look best to you. Look up a few birds you know really well—like blue jays, robins, and chickadees—and pick the one that shows them the way you see them.