For the Birds Radio Program: Review: The Birds of North America

Original Air Date: Jan. 10, 2000 Rerun Dates: Feb. 6, 2001

Laura spent her family’s entire discretionary income for 1999 on a set of The Birds of North America.

Duration: 3′47″


One of the best investments I’ve ever made, even though I can’t afford it and won’t ever see a financial payback for it, is a series of magazine-sized booklets called The Birds of North America. Back in 1987, ornithologists decided someone needed to put together a definitive set of species accounts for all the species of North America, including as much known information about each as possible and also listing what information was important for researchers to study next. It took five years of planning by the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia to get the project off the ground. Some of the finest ornithologists on the planet volunteered to write the accounts of the species they are researching. For example, Judy McIntyre, who is considered one of the world authorities on the Common Loon, was one author of the loon account, and Susan Smith, another recognized world authority, wrote the chickadee account. Of course, it was easier to find authorities to write about some species than others, and ornithologists work at different speeds, so the accounts trickle in one by one. In April 1992, the first eight species accounts—barely one percent of the total work—were published. Sets of eight accounts have been released periodically, and the people working on the project have tried to put out forty to eighty accounts every year. So far, 456 species accounts have been published.

Even though the ornithologists writing the accounts are not paid for their work, this has been an extraordinarily expensive project. Each account includes at least one color photograph, a detailed range map, a chart of the bird’s annual cycle of migration, molt, and breeding activity, sonagrams of several vocalizations, and line drawings and graphs where appropriate, along with as complete an account of the species’ taxonomy, food habits, behavior, breeding, and conservation as we have today, and a great bibliography to learn even more about each bird. The type is fairly small, but each account runs 20 to 40 pages, with the longer accounts naturally belonging to the more studied species. Some of the language is technical, so this isn’t a source of information for a junior high schooler writing a report for science or English, but the accounts should be pretty understandable for any reasonably educated person.

The price of a subscription to the entire series is about $2,500, which is a lot of money when you’re trying to make a living as a writer. I got my subscription in December, when it was selling during a pre-millennial sale for $1875. With tax and postage I paid $2100. This is way out of line for most birders—I’ll be making Visa bill payments for a year. But this series really does belong in the reference department of every public library. If you know anyone who is looking for a lasting memorial to someone who loved birds, donating this wonderful series to a library would be a wonderful tribute that could serve a lot of people studying birds for many, many years to come.