For the Birds Radio Program: 173 Bird Books

Original Air Date: Dec. 19, 1989

When Laura said she had 157 bird books, she was wrong.

Audio missing


173 Bird Books

(Recording of a Common Raven)

“Dear Laura Erickson:” asks a listener, “Do you really have 157 bird books?” That’s the kind of question that’s easy enough to answer, so I took a careful recount and discovered that the answer is, no—actually I have 173 books about birds.

Now why on earth would any normal person want 173 books on any single topic? That question of course rests on the dubious assumption that I am in fact “normal,” but leaving that issue aside, the answer is that I can’t do much research at the library because every time I go there it’s with three little kids who want to play in the children’s department rather than sitting quietly on the non-fiction floor. So I end up doing most of my research at home. I have five general references about birds that can get me started on just about any avian topic, and four ornithological textbooks that give me detailed background information with excerpts from research papers with statistics like a sleeping chickadee’s heart rate (500 beats per minute) or the number of feathers on a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (940 counted in June).

I also need more specialized books to get the nitty gritty information about each species. Arthur Cleveland Bent put together a 25-volume set of life histories of North American Birds for the National Museum beginning in 1919 and continuing through 1967—that series has some misinformation, but overall it has proven itself to be a remarkably sound and helpful series. In addition to the Bent volumes, I have 19 books about single species or groups of birds.

Then there are guides to identification. I have 24 field guides, some about all North American birds, some about special groups, like hawks or shorebirds, and some about the birds of exotic places, like A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, which I turn to when I’m feeling cold and miserable. And I have many regional guides—books that describe where to go birding in various states and regions. The two I use most often are A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota and Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts.

I have books about the etymology of bird names, books about bird rehabilitation, books about feeders and bird houses, and even books about pigeon war heroes. I also have a few coffee table books about birds. One has all the original watercolor paintings of John James Audubon from his monumental Birds of America. I often consult it to add spice to a program—like when I point out that Audubon thought flickers tasted disagreeably of ants, or that herring gulls were excessively salty, or that starlings were delicate eating. The pictures in my Audubon book are much duller than the originals—I never realized how much until last week when I went to Minneapolis’s Bell Museum of Natural History’s display of original double elephant folio portraits and saw Audubon’s raven. Never have I seen a painting of such splendor—the subtle but incredibly rich hues of black and dark purple, along with the exquisite patterning of the feathers, made it the finest painting I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t remember ever seeing it before, so when I got home I looked into my book. There it was, but so much of the feather definition and richness of color was lost that it was hardly a shadow of the original. Some day, if I ever strike it rich as a radio birdwatcher, I’m going to get an original edition of that raven. But meanwhile I’ll keep perusing my 173 bird books, searching for bird facts that you might not know.

(Recording of a Common Raven)

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