For the Birds Radio Program: Gift Ideas: Other Bird Books

Original Air Date: Dec. 13, 1989

Laura talks about her favorite bird books that aren’t field guides.

Audio missing


Book Ideas Part II

(Recording of a Common Raven)

Yesterday I talked about the best field guides to buy, recommending the Golden Guide and the National Geographic as the best all around choices. But field guides are not the only bird books available. Right now birds of prey and loons are all the rage, so it will be an easy matter to find a book on, say, owls, but if you were hoping to find a book about Blue Jays for your favorite Port Wing Blue Jay hater, forget it.

Coffee table books on birds abound. This year Walter Cronkite put out one called Save the Birds. It looked pretty good in the bookstore if you’re interested in conservation, but I blew all my money this year on my new binoculars, so I didn’t buy it to check it out more completely.

But just before I got inspired to buy some new lookers I did buy the Smithsonian Institute’s newest offering, Lords of the Air written by Jake Page and Eugene S. Morton. Jake Page used to write a wonderful regular column for the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s popular though short-lived magazine, Science 80 through Science 86. Mr. Page concentrated a lot of his writing on the physical sciences in that magazine, but in this book shows an excellent understanding of ornithology as well. This is a most enjoyable overview of the study of birds, readable enough for the completely uninitiated, with meat enough to hold the interest of professional ornithologists.

The other brand new book I’ve thoroughly checked out was a birthday present from my daughter, Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich. Since Katie gave it to me, and since ravens are right up there with crows and Blue Jays as my favorite birds, I was predisposed to like the book, but I never would have imagined that it would be as good as it turned out to be. Dr. Heinrich spends time at a retreat in Maine, where several years ago he noticed ravens calling and actively attracting others to join them at carcasses. This behavior seemed odd, even irrational, considering how scarce food was at the time–logical birds might have tried to keep the carcass to themselves. Following Heinrich’s guesses, his experiments, and his discoveries makes for an exciting journey—I devoured all 336 pages in a single day, which was easier than you might guess since I contracted a well-timed flu virus the day after my birthday. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in either ravens specifically or in field biology or science in general.

If you want to spend a whole lot of money, the best single book about birds is still John K. Terres’s The Audubon Society Enclyclopedia of Birds of North America. At last count I had 157 different bird books, but this is the one that I turn to more than any other, because there is no other book that includes as much information about American birds. If you want to know how much a hummingbird weighs, how long a Blackburnian Warbler lives, how magpies got their name, or what Burrowing Owls eat, this is the book for you. Terres researched and wrote this monumental work all by himself, an unparalleled achievement.

Unlike Siskel and Ebert, I don’t often give a thumbs down to a bird book in a review—that’s not because I automatically like any book about birds, but because I’m not willing to pay money for a book unless I’m pretty sure I’ll want to keep it.

(Recording of a Common Raven)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”