Handbook of Bird Biology, Second Edition.— Sandy Podulka, Ronald W. Rohrbaugh Jr., and Rick Bonney [editors]. 2004. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 1328 pp. ISBN 0-938-02762-X. $99.50 (cloth).
At nearly eight pounds, this mammoth book will surely slow students down as they cross campus. As a result of its size, this text has the capacity to present a comprehensive view of avian biology. Fifteen well-known ornithologists (their names are within parentheses in the following list) contributed chapters on all major topics in bird biology, including humans and birds (Sandra Podulka, Marie Eckhardt, and Daniel Otis), the world of birds (Kevin McGowan), bird watching (Stephen Kress), external anatomy (George Clark Jr.), anatomy and physiology (Howard Evans and J. B. Heiser), flight and migration (Kenneth Able), evolution (Alan Feduccia), ethology (John Alcock), sound (Donald Kroodsma), breeding biology (David Winkler), ecology (Stanley Temple) and conservation (John Fitzpatrick). The book is marketed alone and as a component of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Home Study Course in Bird Biology.
The excellent illustrations and photographs are profuse and appear to include almost all topics a professor might want to share with students. Donald Kroodsma's chapter on vocal behavior is particularly outstanding and is accompanied by a compact disc to further illustrate vocalizations. Sadly missing from the book, however, is any color, with all illustrations and photographs in black-and-white. Color certainly is one of the attractions of bird biology; too bad that Cornell did not package its Birds of North America CD-ROM with this book.
For a book this size (over 1300 pages), I found the 28-page index insufficient, and therefore somewhat frustrating to use. Take, for example, the physiology of cold tolerance. Physiology is not in the index (although it is a chapter title), nor is cold. I finally stumbled onto relevant pages when I found a reference to torpor. Subjects in physiology are covered adequately, but not in great depth. For example, birds' use of fat reserves for migration is mentioned, but not the biochemical pathways involved.
Perhaps more serious is the relative paucity of references within the text. References appear at the end of some chapters, in the form of a short list of suggested readings of related books and representative recent articles. Roughly 800 sources are cited in a reference section at the end of the book. This number of references may seem impressive until one realizes the breadth of information packed within the book's many pages. I was surprised to note, for example, that George Lowery's seminal work on trans-gulf and continent-wide migration was omitted from the references.
The book includes a table that lists species mentioned in the text, along with their scientific names. Frustratingly, the list omits page and chapter references for the species. More satisfying is a glossary of avian terminology, which does include both chapter and page citations, along with short definitions.
In my opinion, this book seems to target undergraduates (or very committed nontraditional learners). The text is extremely well written and engaging, and occasionally includes first person accounts. The chapters are replete with sidebars to capture the reader's interest. I immediately focused on an essay about my mentor, the late Roxie Laybourne, the Smithsonian's feather expert. The limited number of references is problematic for graduate students and other serious scholars. For nonacademic readers, the $99.50 price may appear steep. However, it is reasonable and comparable to the much shorter, alternative ornithology texts by either Welty and Baptista (1988, Thompson Learning, Inc.) or Gill (1995, W. H. Freeman). On the other hand, the Handbook's profusion of illustrations, up-to-date information, and breadth of coverage make it extremely attractive. The Handbook's conundrum, if one considers its audience to be undergraduates, is its dauntingly large size. It is difficult to imagine the average undergraduate student reading this book cover-to-cover. Clearly the book is aimed at those birders who are committed enough to consider enrolling in Cornell's home study course. Despite the inadequate referencing and because of its wealth of information, this tome should be on every serious ornithologist's book shelf.