Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Book Reviews

Two years ago, I downsized from my large home office to a much smaller room. At my age, I’m trying to get rid of stuff anyway. I gave away a lot of books and haven’t added many new ones, but sometimes even now I come across a book I need to add to my library.  

The newest one—it came out just last week—involves absolutely no shelf space at all. Way, way back in 1961, Sam Robbins compiled a groundbreaking work, Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts, for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO). This first edition covered 30 of the best birding spots in the state. Daryl Tessen greatly expanded the book in the second edition in 1976, and he compiled and edited the subsequent editions through the fifth, spanning 540 pages, which was published in 2009. I’ve owned all five editions and still have Robbin’s very thin and treasured original. But I let each of the others go as a newer edition became available, and then in 2020 the fifth edition was reissued in searchable PDF form on the WSO website. That’s exactly when I had to clear out a lot of books, so I let go of that final edition.   

Now, Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts has been revamped as an amazing online resource with detailed instructions and interactive maps to help navigate the intricacies of spots that can be hard to find. It also lets you know where to park and provides the name of the eBird hotspot there. This will be extremely useful in planning trips to new birding spots ahead of time, but also, when a sudden rarity turns up in an unfamiliar place while I’m on the road, I can look it up via my smart phone. And unlike a printed book, the online version can be updated whenever it’s needed. And it takes up zero space on my crowded bookshelves.  

You must be a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology to access this online resource. WSO does so very much valuable work in researching and protecting birds and the places they need and educating the public about them that anyone who enjoys birds in the state should be a member anyway. An annual membership is $40 for a household, and just $25 for students and seniors at least 65 years of age.  

Of course, not every book is available in an online version, and some books I want even if they do weigh 6 pounds and take up almost 5 cm of valuable shelf space. The third edition of National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America, an authoritative 752-page reference work, came out in 2021, but I didn’t hear about it until last month. It includes all the artwork, maps, and identification information in their latest field guide, only more fleshed out and with additional information about each of the 1,040 species covered.   

I've kept my copy of every one of the seven editions of the National Geographic field guide and find myself referring to the older editions for various comparative reasons now and then, but I can’t justify keeping my second edition of National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America when room on my shelves is at a premium. Fortunately, I found a good home for it; replacing it with the slightly expanded, updated, and thicker third edition is worth the loss of 3 mm of shelf space.  

I was asked to review a digital copy of Sharon Stiteler’s North American Bird Watching for BeginnersThe digital copy was free, but I loved it so much that I paid good money for a hard copy. I am hardly a beginner, but Stiteler’s book provides information not available anywhere else on the planet. For example, who but she would explain that one difference between Mourning Doves and Rock Pigeons is that the Mourning Dove’s eyes make it look like it’s apologizing while the Rock Pigeon’s eyes make it look confused? And nowhere else have I read the true fact that Canada Geese can be found “Everywhere. They could be inside your house right now.” Sharon Stiteler warns readers never to disturb herons in a nesting colony or they will vomit down on you. That’s a way more effective way of keeping people at a safe distance than asking them not to bother the poor birds.  

The one thing I found distressing in Sharon Stiteler’s book is the clear and convincing evidence that she is a better housekeeper than I, at least in terms of how often she cleans under her bed. She says the tiny Common Yellowthroat is “the shape, size, and texture of a dust bunny,” when I’d have to give that description to the Barred Owl. North American Bird Watching for Beginners is a fun little book that was well worth both the $13.99 cover price and 1.5 centimeters of valuable bookshelf space.