On a nature hike or a picnic or a weekend at the cabin it’s hard to have at hand all of the books you would need to answer questions about the more usual living things you might see. If I stack up my favorite bird, mammal, herp, flower, and tree guide books, well, it’s a stack you could use for a doorstop. Lone Pine Publishing has solved that problem with a handsome, well-conceived book entitled “Great Lakes Nature Guide.” In 238 illustrated pages, authors James S. McCormac and Krista Kagume cover the birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, fish, invertebrates, trees, shrubs and vines, and forbs, ferns and grasses you are most likely to find in this part of the country. Each inclusion is covered in approximately 200 words of concise descriptive text that usually includes informative and entertaining factoids. The bird section, for instance, covers 105 species, a list that would meet more of your identification needs most of the time. This is a book that will go into the book box in our van. It’s going to be well used.
The most complete and accessible bird-information resource for North American bird species is now available to anyone with a Hennepin County Library card. Card-holders can access the wealth of life-history information, along with photos and sound recordings, for every species of bird that breeds in North America. My printed set, bought several years ago before its Internet access was available, includes 716 species. These life histories — distribution, food habits, sounds, behavior, plumage at various stages of life, courtship, breeding and nesting, food, predators, population status, and much more — have been written by a variety of professional ornithologists. This is an incredible resource. Answer to almost any species-specific question you can imagine can be found here. You need a library card. Go to www.hclib.org, search the words North American Birds, enter your card number when requested, and there you are. The cover of the monograph for Downy Woodpecker is shown (copyright The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, A. Poole and F. Gill, editors).
My appreciation of poetry pretty much stalled early in grade school. I favor rhyming verses. And so, when given the book “Bright Wings, An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds,” I approached this review with hesitation. In its favor was its editor, Billy Collins, who doesn’t rhyme often if at all, but whose wit and world view are charming. Also a plus were illustrations by the famed David Sibley, he of the best-selling bird identification books. In his introduction, Collins gives an example of the fresh look poetry can offer of the world. He uses a poem about swans by Ruth Schwartz. It is a fine poem, although it doesn’t rhyme. It does, however, have insight and a keen, offbeat sense of humor. Read this one aloud. The opening poem in the collection, by Stephen Vincent Benet, does rhyme, much to my pleasure, and is also fun to read aloud. Following that is an intelligent assembly of poems that takes us places were prose cannot go. Here is strong evidence that everything important about birds cannot be put in identification books or scientific papers. Sibley accompanies his black-and-white wash paintings with concise and sometimes eclectic comments on the species in this captivating poetic flock. (Columbia University Press, 224 pages, 54 illustrations, hardcover, $22.95.)
Birds have common names and scientific names. Both offer valuable information, the latter often more informative and entertaining. I have a book entitled “The Dictionary of American Bird Names.” It was written by Ernest A. Choate, published by The Harvard Common Press in 1985. It’s both a useful reference tool and great fun to read. The House Wren, for example, has the Latin name Troglodytes aedon. Troglodytes refers to the wren family; all birds with this group name are members of the wren family. Aedon specifies a particular species, the one we know as House Wren. Troglodytes means cave dweller, given to wrens because they are cavity nesters. Aedon is from the Greek. Aedon, the daughter of Pandereus, was changed into a nightingale by the gods, but, as author Choate notes, into a wren by a fellow named Vieillot, who first gave the bird its formal name. House Wrens and nightingales share an ability to sing pretty songs. Sometimes that second or ‘trivial’ name honors a friend or associate of the person doing the naming. Lucy’s Warbler, for example: Vermivora luciae. Vermis is worm in Latin, voro Latin for eat: A family of birds that eats worms. Luciae is for Lucy Baird, daughter of an early and well-known ornithologist (Baird’s Sparrow is named for him). Below, Troglodytes aedon in song.
The best book to have at hand when you’re building a nest box for a bird always has been Carrol Henderson’s “Woodworking for Wildlife”. Now there is a new and expanded edition. First published 24 years ago and revised in 1992, it is the bible of backyard bird construction. Published by and available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Henderson’s book gives you easy-to-follow instructions for construction of everything from nest boxes for owls to a toad cottage for your garden. Included is the famous one-board nest box that even I can build. This edition includes information on eliminating predation of birds using these nesting structures. The photos and text about bird nesting, eggs, incubation, and chicks make the book entertaining and valuable even if you never lift a hammer. There are 30 sets of plans here for structures accommodating 46 species of wildlife. This is the best-selling book the DNR ever has published, for obvious and good reasons. To buy one, to to www.minnesotabookstore.com or visit the DNR gift shop at 500 Lafayette Road in St. Paul. The price is $16.95. Royalties from sale of the book go fund to DNR non-game wildlife programs
If your bird-book budget has taken a hit lately, consider used-book stores. The metro area has several. Those that I have shopped all had good selections of books about birds, at prices half of retail or less. Bird identification books are scarce, but other aspects of birds and birding are well covered. Most if not all of these stores also buy used books should you want to help pay for new purchases with old. The photo was taken at Half-Price Books on Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park.
I recently received a review copy of a new novel entitled “A Guide to the Birds of East Africa.” It has the same problem I have found in any birding novel I’ve picked up: Integration of a believable birding narrative with the necessary plot vehicle just doesn’t happen. That might be to say that birding is a plot vehicle that comes with flat tires. Maybe that’s because birding can be and often is such a solitary pursuit, very personal in how it’s done and what it means. Can you recommend a novel that successfully incorporates birding? I keep looking.