For the Birds Radio Program: Best Bird Books

Original Air Date: March 28, 1989

By special request, Laura Erickson recommends some of the best books about birds.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Great Gray Owl)

Our winter bird contest brought me so much mail that it’s going to be a while before I get to answering all of it on the air. John Romberg of Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, writes, “The book I have on birds is Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, 2nd edition. I find it to be mostly adequate to my needs, except Peterson does not give me much information about their lives—when they court, mate,nest, migrate, etc. Can you please discuss some of the available literature—or give some suggestions for a few books on the subject that would be useful additions to one’s library?”

Well, over the years I have amassed a pretty big ornithological library, but if I had to choose just one book out of all of them, I’d take The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. It’s very expensive—it lists right now at $75, but if you consider its cost on a per/page basis, it’s a bargain. This enormous book is the life work of John K. Terres, and has a wealth of information about every species of bird found in North America, along with complete discussions of a wide range of other topics, such as migration and nesting. This book is always my starting point when researching a bird. It gives me a tremendous amount of material about each species, and also has a good bibliography. The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds is hardly ever on the shelves in book stores, but you can check it out at a public library and see how you like it, and then order it through any bookstore. It’s published by Alfred A. Knopf.

To learn about each species’ behavior, there’s a series called Life Histories of North American Birds, edited by Arthur Cleveland Bent. These books were originally published by the Smithsonian, but have all been reprinted by Dover, though a few are now out of print—I’m still missing one volume myself. These books are dated, and in some cases there are inaccuracies—for example, I think the people who described the call of the Boreal Owl were really hearing Saw-whet Owls. But overall these books are packed with sound observations, delivered in a quaint and often entertaining way.

The most complete book about feeding and attracting birds is also published by Knopf—John V. Dennis’s A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding. And Knopf’s Eyewitness Books series has a volume titled Bird that uses photographs to explain how and why birds are made the way they are.

Many of the recent publications about birds have centered on distribution and identification. The Golden guide, Birds of North America and National Geographic’s Field Guide to Birds of North America are the best identification guides—both include drawings, in color, of every species in the mainland U.S. and Canada. Some recent books focus on a single species, such as Tom Klein’s Loon Magic, which tells you everything you ever wanted to know about loons.

Wisconsin people should have a copy of Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts, which is going to be updated this year. For 75 cents you can get a checklist of every species ever recorded in Wisconsin with migration graphs, from the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. Minnesota birders turn to Kim Eckert, who tells them where to go in his A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota. Detailed information about the abundance and distribution of all Minnesota species is in Bob Janssen’s Birds in Minnesota. Both states also have active ornithological societies which publish quarterly magazines covering migration and other topics of interest.

For more information about any of these books or organizations, drop me a line, in care of this station. I’ll send you a list of the best bird books and how to get them.

(Recording of a Great Gray Owl)

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