Wild Ideas: Rappahannock library adds bird books to Conservation Collection   

I recently enjoyed sitting down to peruse new additions to the Rappahannock County Public Library’s Conservation Collection. I’d compiled the list of suggestions from my own research and suggestions from nature experts I know, but this was the first time I’d actually had a chance to go through some of these books, all of which were well reviewed.

Four of the nine additions focus on birds, which I review briefly in this column; look for more on the other arrivals — on the amazing things plants “know,” how to design gardens for conservation as well as beauty, how to identify amphibian larvae and bees, and the songs of insects and how they affect humans  — soon. Books in this collection can be checked out not only by Rappahannock library patrons but also by patrons of most other public libraries in our region. And with the holidays coming, I’d recommend any of these as gifts for nature lovers.

Conservation Collection additions

Name that bird: Even a bird expert may find “The Warbler Guide” useful in distinguishing this immature blackpole warbler, in fall colors, from other warbler species. By Emily Willoughby via Wikimedia

“The Warbler Guide, by Tom Stephenson and Scott White, helps with the difficult task of sorting out the many warblers that breed or pass through our area in the spring and fall. Often the songs provide the best clues, especially during the fall, when the males’ swap out their bright breeding colors for drabber autumn attire.

This guide, published by Princeton University Press and winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for nature guides in 2014, is designed to enable quick identification of the various species, with ID points listed at the beginning of each species profile, along with icons indicating general appearance, habitat and other features. It also has loads of color photos of immature and adult birds of both genders, when they differ in appearance, and includes shots taken from various angles and of warblers exhibiting common behaviors.

Although no CD with the species’ songs and calls is included, sonograms are, with a primer on how to read them. An app of the guide, with sounds, is also available. (Another option is to go online to the Macaulay Library of sound, which has numerous recordings for each species.)

At more than 500 pages, the guide “continues in the recent tradition of bird books that are proudly too bulky to be called a field guide,” as a review on the All About Birds website notes. Audubon Magazine’s Wayne Mones, calling it a “monster,” suggested that, rather than lugging it into the field, you keep it “on your desk, your night stand or in your car, for contained within its pages is more treasure than any birder could ever hope for.”

“Bird Feathers: A Guide to North American Species, by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland, shows the dorsal view of flight feathers, either male or female, for each species and also includes photos of nonflight feathers, such as down, and silhouettes of wing shapes. Rounding out the guide are range maps and a primer on feather origins and morphology, along with how to use the guide.

While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website “The Feather Atlas” offers a more extensive database of bird feathers (dorsal and ventral views), Scott and McFarland’s guide has the advantage of being portable and easier to browse in searching for a particular feather.

One of the most fascinating, and most researched birds, the raven, is featured in two books added to the Rappahannock library’s Conservation Collection this year. By Bombtime via Wikimedia

“Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays,” by Candace Savage, shows that, if you’ve ever used the term “bird brain” to describe someone who is an idiot, you’ve most likely used the term incorrectly, especially when it comes to the amazing corvid bird family. As Savage quotes Rev. Henry Ward Beecher as saying in the mid-1800s, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

Savage adds that corvids “appear to have powers of abstraction, memory, creativity that put them on a par with many mammals — and even higher primates” (hint, hint). She then goes on to lay out her case, backing it up with the latest research at the time the book was published, in 1995. The book is slim but packed with great photos and quotes about corvids. As a review in “The Quarterly Review of Biology” put it, the book is “So beautiful . . . that many academics may succumb to the snobbish reflex that often accompanies visual pleasure of this scope: the text has to be a letdown . . . Well, not so! This book is as beautifully written and researched as it is illustrated.” I look forward to curling up with it in front of my wood stove and going through it more thoroughly.

“Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds,” by Bernd Heinrich, focuses on the most glamorous species in the corvid family. A New York Times “notable book of the year” award winner, it  is “an amazing book by an amazing author,” as noted biologist Edward O. Wilson notes in a blurb on the back cover: “Heinrich has documented a level of intelligence and social sophistication rarely even dreamed to have existed in birds.”

A huge fan of corvids, Heinrich is also one of my favorite nature writers. As with all of his books, including “Ravens in Winter,” this 1999 book is not only rich in science but beautifully written, covering much of the raven’s life history and character. Unlike “Bird Brains,” the illustrations are few and in black and white, but the text is totally absorbing.

Added to the regular collection

“Backyard Birdsong Guide.” Although not part of the Conservation Collection, this new addition to the library, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a rerelease of the widely acclaimed and bestselling bird audio field guide series, Backyard Birdsongs, from award-winning ornithologist and author, Donald Kroodsma. Cornell Lab offers some of the best resources for bird information, and this guide is among them. Designed for beginners, but helpful to anyone interested in birds, it includes a touch-button electronic module with common vocalizations of 75 species from across Eastern and Central North America, along with detailed and scientifically accurate illustrations for each entry, range maps and more.

© 2016 Pam Owen


Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”