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Book Reviews: Two Unique Offerings

by Steven Price

Being a Bird in North America (Vol. 1: Waterfowl to Shorebirds)
by Robert Alvo
BABINA, 2015. 257 pages

Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation
by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson
Texas A&M University Press, 2015. 320 pages

If I put another bird book on my shelf, it will groan. Two more and it might collapse. But that won’t stop me. It never has. Like many birders, I have an endless appetite for bird books.

Two captivating bird books might be the perfect gift this season for the birder nearest you. Neither is another field guide (though I’d buy those, too). They are singular books, each in its own niche, so are adding something genuinely new and valuable.

Being A Bird cover

There is precious little humour and not enough conservation information about birds in a popular format. Robert Alvo’s Being a Bird in North America tackles both. In familiar field guide format, each bird account fills a page in a set pattern: names and classification, photo, conservation status, and global distribution map.

What is fresh and inviting is the cartoon for each species by one of 15 contributing artists, along with a brief story of each bird’s natural history and conservation. Even better, the cartoon picks up a theme from the story in a whimsical way. As a cryptic crossword enthusiast, I like nothing more than to take in the cartoon first and try to work out the story element it portrays. Clapper Rails lined up at the podiatrist? – We learn a mussel sometimes snips a toe off! A female Redhead lurking around the nest of a Canvasback? – Redheads regularly lay their eggs in other ducks’ nests, similar to cowbirds.

Robert Alvo is a conservation biologist devoted to birds and conservation. His book covers waterfowl and shorebirds, with generous promotion of bird organizations he knows well, including Bird Studies Canada. Let’s hope for further volumes on other bird groups. For more information and to obtain the book, visit www.babina.ca.

Feeding Wild Birds cover

Feeding Wild Birds in America will sound like another how-to book to attract birds to your yard. It’s not. Its subtitle “Culture, Commerce & Conservation” hints that it covers the fascinating history and development of bird feeding in North America.

One of the earliest recorded bird-feeding enthusiasts was the conservation pioneer Henry David Thoreau, who placed ears of corn out in the winters of the 1850s, attracting Blue Jays and chickadees. A century later, not much more than elaborate wooden shelf and hopper feeders were state-of-the-art. Then, the modern era saw dedicated inventors create metal and plastic silo feeders and new seed varieties, like black oil sunflower and nyjer seed. Today, the Wild Bird Feeding Institute represents a $5-billion feed, feeder, and nest-box sector of the economy in North America.

Authors Paul Baicich, Margaret Barker, and Carrol Henderson have a wealth of experience with birds, feeding, education, and conservation. They take us beyond the feeding itself to how bird-feeding grew hand-in-hand with conservation and awareness. For example, Project FeederWatch (a program started by Bird Studies Canada) enrolls feeding enthusiasts as ‘Citizen Scientists’ to help track trends in feeder bird populations across North America. From these kinds of projects, we learn how east-coast introductions (House Sparrow, Starling, House Finch, and Eurasian Collared-Dove) expanded westward across North America, greatly aided by bird-feeding. And while research on bird-feeding is surprisingly sparse, there seem to be few negative effects on populations of feeder birds over the decades – in fact, as a group, they trend slightly upward.

The book is chock full of old pictures, drawings, and ads, so like a bird guide, is tempting to dip into on any page. It’s perfect for reading by the window this winter, with a warm drink in hand and binoculars at the ready. I found it for sale online.

Indulge your bird-book habit with these two unique offerings, and renew your commitment to birds and conservation.

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