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Friday, September 21, 2007

Bird: The Definitive Visual Guide

I had the pleasure of receiving a review copy of Bird: The Definitive Visual Guide last week. The massive mailer yielded a fantastic jumbo-sized tome, the result of a collaboration between Dorling Kindersley (DK) and The National Audubon Society. The cover (at 10" x 12") of a displaying Blue-footed Booby hints at the photographic treasures inside- the whole thing is full of eye-candy.

The lofty goal of the project seems to be to cover at least a bit of every aspect of birds. I'm familiar with other, smaller DK titles that aim for similar goals with topics like dinosaurs, fossils, rocks & minerals, etc. I use them as supplemental references in my classroom, and they have inspired hundreds of my earth science students. I hope that this book will similarly excite and inspire folks to pay closer attention to birds, and I'm sure it will catalyze many forays into birdwatching and even (-gasp-) birding!!

With a subtitle like "The Definitive Visual Guide" you can expect this book to be chock-full of pictures, and you won't be disappointed. Unlike photographic field guides that choose pictures primarily for their identification merits, these pics (with over 1500 species featured, there are hordes of them) seem chosen largely for their artistic merit, fantastic habitat association, and/or stunning action & behaviors depicted. As a serious bird photographer I'm both inspired and humbled by many of the shots. Besides the various species account boxes and their accompanying photos, there are full-spread, two-page wide (10" x 20") shots to whet your appetite at the forward (several here), at the section headings, and sometimes within a section for some major visual impact. At around 500 pages, I'll be soaking the imagery up for a long time, but already I can tell you that among these one of my favorites features an underwater shot of a King Penguin with almost abstract, motion-blurred waddle-mates streaking along behind it. A photo of a Spotted Sandpiper chick camouflaged amongst leaf litter and a dropped pine cone is simply masterful. Bohemian Waxwings foraging on a winter-leafless but berry-laden mountain ash is totally killer, particularly with two of the birds in flight. And the Lapet-faced Vulture portrait, all head and neck against a black background, is unexpectedly expressive, powerful, and colorful. With little feather bristles around its ear it looks like an old but still strong man who's about out of patience with you. You aren't really sure how he'll best you, but you're pretty convinced that you'll regret it if you cross the line with him.

These favorites are just chosen from the big spread pages- every page full of species accounts has amazing images, with a great representation of flight shots.

Beyond the pics, the book has a lot of information to offer. By covering a bit of everything (the intro chapter contains sections on anatomy, senses, feathers, wings, flight, gliding & soaring, legs & feet, bills, feeding on animals, feeding on plants, communication, defense, breeding, courtship, nests & eggs, parental care, living together, migration, migration routes, birds under threat, conservation, and extinct birds, for example), the team of authors limited the amount of information dedicated to any one subject, but it makes for a great initial exposure to these topics, always supplemented by A+ photos or graphics to illustrate their points.
For someone really bitten by the bug that the introduction section of this book presents, I'd advise following up with the more massive & more information-dense (but less beautiful) Handbook of Bird Biology, put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. After the introduction, habitats are addressed, followed by sections featuring the major groups of birds. Interspersed throughout the species accounts are famous birding locations under the heading of Great Sites, each with another large photo spread, a map, a write-up, and smaller pictures of representative birds found there. As if all of that wasn't enough, the book also includes a CD with 60 tracks featuring birds from all around the world and up & down the taxonomy list, supplied by Cornell's Macualay Library.

I suppose that every book has its quirks, too. One thing I couldn't figure out was the inclusion of the occasional species account that didn't have a picture with it- strange for a visual guide. These photo-less birds do have a paragraph that somewhat describes them, along with a range map (compiled by BirdLife International), size, migration status, & habitat (as do all species accounts.) The second slightly awkward part is the difficulty I had connecting the CD to the text- I would have expected birds featured on the CD to have some sound icon in their species account boxes- a cue to play the track as you hit that bird in the book. Instead, tracks are listed at the very end of the book (literally, the very end, after the acknowledgments) with a page given to turn to to see the bird in question- almost like it was an afterthought (albeit a cool one...) And I wish the Great Sites were listed in the table of contents, or given their own section, or connected to the habitats somehow, not just sprinkled around somewhat randomly.

Beyond these minor quibbles I'd say that the book is well worth the paper it is printed on. Informative, insightful, and inspirational, I think hard-core birders, casual birdspotters, and nature-lovers alike will get a lot out of it. I congratulate DK and Audubon on this magnum opus, and I'm sure it will bulge or blow out many a holiday stocking this winter, delighting many a recipient.

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