National Audubon Society Birder's Handbook.—Stephen W. Kress. 2000. Dorling Kindersley, New York. xi + 163 pp., 16 maps, >200 photographs and diagrams. ISBN 0-7894-5153-0. $24.95 cloth.
This volume is a completely re-written version of the earlier (1981) book with the same title, with which many readers of The Condor are familiar. The introduction to the present edition states that it “is intended for both the beginning and experienced amateur bird-watcher,” with a goal of helping them become more proficient “citizen scientists.” It notes that “no other branch of science is as well endowed with enthusiastic [data collecting] amateurs as ornithology.”
The author, Dr. Stephen Kress, is vice president for bird conservation of the National Audubon Society (NAS), and has written two previous works for the Society. He also heads “Project Puffin,” the successful effort to re-establish the Atlantic Puffin on islands off the coast of Maine.
A succinct summary of the contents of the book can be found in its subtitle, “How to locate, observe, identify, record, photograph, and study birds.” These themes are organized into its six chapters, which deal with “Birding Techniques,” “Binoculars and Scopes,” “Observing Birds,” “Photographing and Recording Birds,” “Bird Families of North America,” and “Birding Hot Spots.” There are also nine appendices which cover such topics as key reference works and internet sites, relevant organizations and suppliers, educational and research programs, and birding ethics.
As noted above, the volume is targeted at both new and long-time birders. The former will use it as their “bible,” as it contains much information not found in standard field guides, such as locating birds using the “clock technique,” estimating flock sizes, and a wealth of valuable hints about bird behavior. But experienced birders will also find useful information in its chapters, perhaps on taping calls or finding new web sites.
I particularly commend the lengthy sections on bird activities, habits, and behaviors. This is very helpful information for beginning birders, who profit greatly from knowing which birds tend to be solitary as opposed to those that are communal, or which ones are almost always seen in flight versus those generally seen on the ground. This type of information is often not covered in the field guides, especially not in a comparative manner.
The book has been well edited and proofread, and contains very few errors, but there are some, such as the suggestion that “phoebes are the only flycatchers to engage in tail-wagging” (p. 5), the statement that there are three species of mergansers and sea ducks in North America (p. 95), incorrect locations of some venues (Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park) on the birding maps, and use of the misnomer “Latin names” to refer to scientific names (p. 88).
It does, moreover, contain what I consider to be some odd omissions. As examples, under “sources” there is no mention of Project VIREO, the book contains no mention of rare bird alerts, has virtually nothing on bird migration, and no glossary of bird-related terms and phrases. It also asks those interested in bird feeders or nest boxes to buy other NAS publications. Strangely, the bibliographic “bird finding” section doesn't even mention the widely used ABA/Lane series. And most curiously, this NAS-sponsored book, under “Education Programs,” neglects to list Audubon's own highly regarded “Audubon Adventures” program for schools. Most of these omissions can be easily cleaned up for a second printing.
Should there be a revised second edition for this very broad-ranging handbook, I would recommend that it be split into two volumes, each with expanded subject matter: one volume targeting beginning birders, and one directed towards advanced birders. Members of the latter group, who usually own several field guides and check lists, don't need both a chapter and an appendix on bird families, and neophytes will rarely have need for major sections on taping calls and taking professional field notes. Adding some of the topics suggested in the preceding paragraph, and others, will easily fill two highly informative volumes.
Given that birding has been identified as America's fastest-growing avocation, this book will no doubt command a very wide readership. It is very attractively designed, with hundreds of illustrations inserted without borders into the text. It should serve well to promote the hobby of birding throughout North America. I will be recommending it in both the introductory and intermediate birding courses that I offer for the San Diego Audubon Society.