Bird Observer: The Birding Journal for New England

Bird Observer

The Birding Journal for New England

April 2015

Vol. 43, No. 2

About Books: Making it Big

Mark Lynch

Complete Birds of North America (second edition). Jonathan Alderfer (editor) with Jon L. Dunn. 2014. Washington, D.C. National Geographic Society.

“The bigger the better; in everything.”

(Freddie Mercury, frontman for Queen)

Birders really like it big. Bigger scopes and camera lenses and more powerful binoculars have become the fieldmarks of the hardcore birder. Birders thrive on big lists, big days, and big years. Big birds are the species that get all the attention. A Gyrfalcon or a Snowy Owl trumps a Merlin or Screech Owl every time. The same is true for bird books. We want to believe the bigger the book, the more information on birds, the more identification tips, the more details on where to look for a species, and more lush photographs. I would need several coffee tables in every room of my house just to showcase all the oversized volumes I own on birds. The truth is, though I may glance at these big books a few times, I don’t go back time and again to use them like I use a field guide. Most of these large volumes become simply decorations, trophies, or room accessories. Admit it, we may not read most of these large books even once because they are not really important to our birding. They are not useful. The Complete Birds of North America is another doorstopper of a book that rivals the size and thickness of a modern college dictionary. But is it useful?

The Complete Birds of North America is a companion volume to the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. This popular field guide was first published in 1983. Younger birders may have no idea what a splash this guide made when it first came out. To begin with, it was a different-looking field guide, printed in a larger format than the Peterson field guides, which most people used at the time. Because it did not fit in your pocket, a cottage industry started designing special cloth carriers for the guide. The illustrations were by a variety of artists, and the identification information was cutting edge for the time. Finally, all the birds of North America were now in one volume. This was a breakthrough for birders who, up until then, had been using Peterson’s Eastern and Western guides. Originally, you had to order the new guide from the National Geographic offices, and those first orders of the field guide came with a fine companion coffee-table book on birds, a beautiful full color map of bird migration, and a set of odd floppy records of bird calls that were actually quite good. (NB: I understand that some of you may have to ask your grandparents what records were.) The National Geographic guide ushered in a new competitive era in the publishing of bird guides. Most of these guides failed to catch on, and I have shelves of these doomed publications. The National Geographic guide remained competitive with the Peterson until the arrival of the Sibley field guide, which rapidly became the popular guide to the birds. Today, the National Geographic guide remains popular, and I keep a copy in the car along with my Sibley.

The Complete Birds of North America is a greatly expanded version of the National Geographic field guide. Most of the illustrations in the Complete Birds of North America are the same as those in the field guide and are about the same size. These illustrations are augmented by new ones of vagrants and recently split species and some nice color photographs that begin the description of each bird family. The maps are slightly larger and more detailed. There are also larger maps showing the ranges and migratory routes of particular species like American and Pacific golden- plovers and the Arctic Tern.

The emphasis in this book is on the text rather than the illustrations. There are just a few pages of introduction that describe the basics of taxonomy, plumage variation, and feather topography. The species descriptions begin on page 10 of this 743-page book. Each one has been rewritten and greatly expanded from the field guide. There are details about identification, similar species, status and distribution, voice, and population. There is an introductory paragraph of varying length. Most species descriptions run to about half a page. But species that have a number of recognizable plumages, regional variations, or subspecies have much longer entries. Cackling and Canada geese have a full page devoted to each. The Red-tailed Hawk has two full pages of dense text. Each species description includes the bird’s ABA abundance code number and its four-letter banding code.

Recently split species are fully described and illustrated. These include birds like the Sooty and Dusky grouse, recent splits from Blue Grouse. Species that have occurred in North America only as extremely rare vagrants are given a full descriptive treatment complete with an illustration. The Scaly-naped Pigeon is included even though there are only two very old records for North America. Some of these extreme rarities are quite recent, however, like the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail that was seen at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in July of 2013.

Every family has a lengthy introductory section that includes topics like structure, plumage, behavior, distribution, taxonomy, and conservation. Many genera also have a short descriptive introduction, like this one for eagles, genus Aquila:

Worldwide, there are ten species in this genus, only one of which occurs in North America, the Golden Eagle. Large raptors with wide wings, all are fierce hunters of mammals and birds, and many are prized for falconry. The human descriptive term “aquiline nose” refers to the hooked beak of Aquila eagles. (p. 163)

These sections put the North American avifauna in a global perspective.

Well-written special sections are devoted to describing particularly difficult field problems. These include the separation of Taiga and Tundra Bean geese, the Tule Goose subspecies of the Greater White-fronted Goose, and subspecies identification of male Common Eiders, including Borealis, which has been identified here in Massachusetts in winter. There are other detailed subsections on separating Common Ringed and Semipalmated plovers, the challenges of winter longspurs, redpoll identification, and Atlantic and Gulf Coast Clapper Rails versus King Rails. All of these sections are far too long to be included in a typical general field guide.

The book ends with a short two pages of additional reading suggestions and a long list of credits.

The Complete Birds of North America occupies an interesting place in bird literature. It is much more informative than a standard field guide but not quite as scientifically thorough and fully referenced as the species entries in the Birds of North America Online. That website is a great resource but concerns itself only with species that breed in North America. The Complete Birds of North America bears some resemblance to the classic reference book the Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic, although the large illustration plates in the Handbook are separate from the text. Even though that book is several decades old, I still use it as a reference whenever a European species shows up here. Like the Handbook, the Complete Birds of North America is aimed at active birders; its thrust is species identification, while at the same time offering much interesting information on species behavior, breeding, and migration.

The Complete Birds of North America is an impressive and well-written book. But will birders find it useful? Because it is too large to carry about, even in the car, it is a book to use at home. The Complete Birds of North America has the potential to be a handy go-to reference guide for the serious birder who wants to know more about species than he can find in any field guide or many on-line resources. Will it become a standard home reference or end up gathering dust like so many other bird books? Time will tell, but for now, it is sitting on my desk.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” E.F. Schumacher (Brainyquote online 2015)

Literature Cited:

  • Peterson, R.T. 2002. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  • Dunn, J. and J. Alderfer. 1983. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
  • Beaman, M. and S. Madge. 1998. The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Accessed February 5, 2015.
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