Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: National Geographic's "Bird Watcher's Bible"

When I started birding in 1975, there were very few bird books in print at any given time. Even when Russ and I were both students on an extremely limited budget, I managed to build up a reasonably complete birding library. Now there are an order of magnitude more books out there. Book stores often have a several shelves of bird books within their nature sections. A couple of publishers send me copies of new books, and I always feel awash in new books to read and review.

I don’t like writing negative reviews. the impulse to tear down the work of other people to make our own work seem superior seems childishly petulant. Plus I worry about dismissing some new project and then realizing I’ve missed some really good elements. And it seems wrong to draw people’s attention to something of poor quality rather than spending my time letting them know about really good bird books that they might not know about. The only time I write a negative review is when a new book garnering a lot of undeserved praise at the expense of better but less well known books.

This fall, National Geographic issued a brand new book, their Bird Watcher’s Bible, which belongs in every bird watcher’s library.  The cover says it’s a "complete treasury" including "science, know-how, beauty, and lore," and it fully lives up to that. It’s lavishly illustrated—when I slowly fanned through the pages, I did not see a single page that didn’t have at least one drawing or photo, and National Geographic’s designers did a great job of pulling it all into a gorgeous book. At 392 pages, it’s rather expensive—$40. I paid for my own copy, and it was worth every penny. 

Large sections of the book were written by three of the best bird writers out there. Kimball Garret, a well-known birder and top ornithologist who manages collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and is the lead author on the excellent Peterson field guide to warblers and important books about birding in California, wrote the sections in the Bird Watcher’s Bible on “The Anatomy of a Bird” and “The Life of a Bird.” Catherine Herbert Howell, who writes about natural history and contributed to three editions of National Geographic’s field guide to birds, wrote the chapters “Birds through the Ages” and “Science Discovers the Bird.” 

Perhaps my favorite bird author of all, Scott Weidensaul, who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his exquisite Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, wrote the rich introduction about “The Birds in Your World,” the detailed chapter on “Flight and Migration,” and a section, “Birdographies,” that includes brief portraits of 48 of the world’s favorite birds.

Two other chapters, “To Be a Birder” and “Bringing the Birds Back Home,” were put together by the fourth author and the book’s editor, Jonathan Alderfer, who is National Geographic’s birding consultant and a superb artist who contributed illustrations to four editions of the National Geographic field guide to birds. He’s also the co-author of the National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America that I just finished—our book will be out in spring, 2013. 

Working with Jonathan Alderfer of course made me predisposed to like the Bird Watcher's Bible, but it stands fully on its own merits. As a matter of fact, from the moment I opened it, I kept thinking how much I wish I’d written it myself. 

National Geographic’s Bird Watcher’s Bible is both fun and enlightening to read, lovely to look at, and provides a sound background in virtually every aspect of birds. No single book provides both the depth and breadth of information this book has, and the writing and illustrations are fun and extremely accessible. It’s a book I loved from start to finish.