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Books to Enhance Appreciation

A California Birder's Library

Rich Stallcup

Selections from PRBO's library.
After binoculars, a birder's most useful tool is a small arsenal of books. In the backpack or in the car, on the home shelf or in a reference library, books that hold our collective knowledge of birds are essential. They enhance our joy by celebrating the beauty and freedom of birds, and they pour out a foundation of truth on which we are building towers of protection and conservation.

Placing correct names on birds we see is fun and usually challenging. Knowing where they came from, where they are going, what they eat, how long they live, why they have their name, what they are related to, how they get along within their niche, just how they work, will greatly elevate your appreciate and understanding.

Because birds are amazing beings and because birding has become so popular, there is a bewildering number of books in print and many more to come. Even the Internet has not seemed to stall the flow. So, these are my picks. Some of you will have others. Some of my friends have made books that are not here. They will understand.

Here is an overview of books of great use for birders in California (and beyond). It revisits a "Focus" by the same name in the winter 1985 PRBO Newsletter. Despite the appearance of hundreds of new titles since that time, our original list has largely survived to the present.

Field Guides

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, by David Allen Sibley, 2003. Simply the best for most people: painted illustrations, 703 bird species, 4,600 pictures.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, by Kenn Kaufman, 2003. Excellent; color photo illustrations.

Kaufman Guia de Camp a las aves de Norteamerica, by Kenn Kaufman, 2005. Kenn's field guide wholly translated for Spanish-speaking North Americans.

And, of course, if you use the National Geographic Guide or Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds, you'll be just fine.

For Encyclopedic Knowledge

The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, by John Terrres, 1995. Nearly a million words and 6,000 alphabetical entries; life histories of 847 birds; 875 superb color photos; and an amazing bibliography. An awesome book.

Checklist of North American Birds, American Ornithologists' Union. You want the 1957 5th edition that covers North America north of Mexico, Greenland, Bermuda and Baja, giving distributional information for all subspecies. The 1983 6th edition covers North America from the Arctic through Panama, the West Indies and Hawaii without treatment of subspecies because of the huge geographical area. The 7th edition is similarly lacking. These — the "AOU Checklist" — are the phylogenetic and taxonomic list to follow.

The Life of Birds, by Joel Carl Welty, fourth edition 1988. A college textbook on ornithology. You will want it or the one by Noble Proctor and Patrick Lynch (Manual of Ornithology, 1998) or the one by Frank Gill (Ornithology, 1994).

The Dictionary of Birds of the United States, by Joel Holloway, 2003. Deciphers the meanings of scientific names.

Audubon to Zantus, by Barbara and Richard Mearns, 1992. Excellent, usually short biographies of the humans that are honored with North American bird names. This is a great book —out of print but well worth the effort to find one.

Rare Birds of California, by the California Bird Records Committee. A mammoth compendium of all records of rarities with details of occurrence, as reviewed by the CBRC. Much in this book is about the committee. Note that if you want to see your rare bird with your name, it doesn't work that way: all records are credited to editors of various reports or journals (people who are usually CBRC members).

Breeding Bird Atlases

Several California counties have published BBAs and others are in the works. Some I use are Humboldt, Sonoma, Marin, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. These publications map demographics of all bird species that nest within each county. You really must own the one for your area. The best way to find one will usually be through the nearest Audubon Society chapter.
Rich Stallcup. PRBO photo

County Bird Books

These are highly annotated lists of all birds ever recorded in a single county. They may include bar graphs showing seasonal distribution, photos of rarities, habitat descriptions, and site guides to birding most productive spots. Northwestern California Birds, by Stan Harris, deals with Trinity, Del Norte, and Humboldt counties. Monterey Birds is exemplary, and I have enjoyed county bird books for Sonoma, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. Marin Birds is on the way.

Classics of California ornithology

The Birds of California, by William Leon Dawson, 1923. Three or four (depending upon edition) big books lyrically telling what was then known. A set sells now for $500−700; PRBO's library has two that you may browse (make an advance appointment with our librarian,

Birds of the Pacific States, by Ralph Hoffman, 1927. An excellent guide, especially for songs and calls, to Washington, Oregon and California birds.

To Read

Living on the Wind, by Scott Weidensaul, is about long-distance migrants and the dangers they face. It can be revealing, discouraging, or exhilarating, depending upon where you are. A Parrot Without a Name, by Donald Stapp, is a nice story about seeking (and finding) birds new to science in the American Tropics. Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman, is an excellent tale of a natural obsession with birds that got a little out of hand. Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific, by Rich Stallcup, should be read if you even imagine taking a California pelagic trip.

Field guides are great for helping you identify the names of birds you see, but the other kinds of books will give you deeper understanding of how the ecologies and the spirits of these little winged wonders work. It is not so important that we can put a name on every bird. What is important is that we love them and care for them.