Four Bird Books for Christmas

Written by Gene Walz, friend of VINS

What to get a birdwatcher for a Christmas gift? Four new books top the list, three by women. They all show how much birdwatching, birders, and serious bird study have changed over the years.   

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir By Julia Zarankin  

Divorced and at loose ends in the late 1980s, Julia Zarankin took up birdwatching on a whim. How she went from being an inept novice birdwatcher (someone interested in finding birds) to a contented birder (someone obsessed with searching for, chasing, finding, identifying, and listing birds) forms the main narrative of this delightful and amusing new book, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder.    

In thirty-one short, easy-to-read chapters, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder takes the reader though the processes and the terminology of birdwatching. In the end Zarankin confesses to being “likely a lifelong beginning birder” and a “Birdsplainer in Training.” But what a charming, non-pedantic birdsplainer she is!  

The book is full of disarming and self-deprecating humor. On her first Christmas Bird count, she recalls spending “eight hours in the rain while constantly misidentifying robins.” She once even mistook a Green Heron for a hummingbird, in the process “learning to befriend failure.”  

If you’re a veteran birder, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder will happily remind you of those steps you took to get where you are. If you’re a non-birdwatcher or an SOB (Spouse of a Birder), it should help you understand what the attraction is. And it might even push you in the direction of becoming a birdwatcher yourself.       

What It’s Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing – What Birds Are Doing, and Why By David Allen Sibley             

What It’s Like To Be A Bird by David Allen Sibley

This is a coffee-table-sized volume (8.5 x 11 inches) big enough to allow for some of Sibley’s renowned, color drawings (some of them life-sized) of over 90 common North American birds. That’s the heart of the book, 175 pages arranged in taxonomic order from Canada Geese to Red-winged Blackbirds illustrating and describing typical behavior.              

The rest of the book seems designed for the internet generation. It’s comprised of more than 450 one- or two-sentence facts or factoids with specific references to the illustrated birds that best exemplify the statements. For instance, “Birds produce sound with their syrinx, and can sing two different sounds simultaneously – one from each side of their syrinx [p. 131 middle].” The bracketed reference is to the illustrated page on thrushes, whose melodious songs can sound as if they are singing a duet with themselves.                          

A final section on books and articles for further reference allows the Google-prone to expand on Sibley’s fascinating but terse facts. It’s an odd combination of elements, valuable for its gorgeous bird art and revealing avian factoids.   

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald   

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

A follow-up to the immensely successful H Is for Hawk,Vesper Flights is mainly about Helen Macdonald’s experiences with and insights about birds. But Macdonald’s is not just a bird brain. She also has a variety of other interests; chapters on, among other things, wild boars, flying ants, hares, glow-worms, and goats are sprinkled throughout this revealing book’s 41 chapters.             

Most of the chapters are short — three to seven pages long; they’re brief but rarely inconsequential. Vesper Flights gets its enviable dimension and savor byfocusing in on or expanding outward from autobiographical details to broader topics. The bookis full of extraordinary encounters and delightful revelations. It’s best read one chapter at a time, mulled over and digested slowly.    

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think By Jennifer Ackerman                    

The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman

The Bird Way is Jennifer Ackerman’s welcome follow-up to her celebrated The Genius of Birds. Rather than the common behavior of only North American birds, she focuses on the extreme behaviors of world birds. Ackerman’s main goal is to show how intelligent birds are at doing what they do and how we have severely underestimated them. And many of the behaviors she writes about are truly astonishing.  

Formerly the exclusive domain of men restricted to the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, professional bird studies now include many outstanding women researchers, plus reliance on new technologies and DNA investigations in universities and field stations all over the globe. Ackerman is a birder herself and an expert at knowing where to go, whom to interview, what questions to ask and stories to tell. This is a deeply satisfying book.  

All of these books would be great additions to any birdwatcher’s library. They will take a person well beyond the satisfying hobbies of searching for, observing, and listing birds to a deeper understanding of them.   

Gene Walz is the author of Happiness Is a Rare Bird: Living the Birding Life. 

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