Books can make bird-watchers" spirits soar - Holiday gifts for people who like feathered friends

By Frances Wood

Since one in four people considers themselves a bird-watcher, you probably have at least a couple bird enthusiasts on your holiday shopping list. This past year a whole slew of new bird-watching books arrived on bookstore shelves. They promise to entertain not only bird watchers, but anyone with an interest in nature and the outdoors.

The announcement last spring of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker spawned two excellent new books. Each covers a different aspect of that bird and its rediscovery, and they complement each other.

Rediscovery spawns books

In The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20), author Phillip Hoose introduces readers to the ivory-billed woodpecker's story from the time the birds were common residents in the southern and eastern United States through the bird's decline in population, to the last sightings in 1944. The book showcases the pioneering conservationists who scrambled to study, record, photograph and save the ivory-billed before its habitat fell victim to the developing nation's appetite for timber. It then traces unofficial sightings since 1944. These rumors always kept alive a hope that the bird still lived, even as many were convinced it had gone extinct.

The other book on the ivory-billed woodpecker, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Houghton Mifflin, $25), picks up with the story of the rediscovery of the woodpecker in 2004. Written by Tim Gallagher, the ``guy from Cornell Lab who actually saw it,'' this book focuses on the rediscovery in 2004, and attempts thereafter to confirm the sightings and the bird's continued existence. You could bundle these two books together for an avid bird-watcher on your list.

Bad bird-watching

A humorous introduction to bird-watching -- and enjoyable to anyone -- is How to be a Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes, (Scribner, $24). I found myself laughing out loud and reading into the night, even though I already knew most of the factual information. Barnes, chief sportswriter for The Times (London), extols the value of being a bad bird-watcher, one who enjoys birds without the stress of seeking out rare species and who has no need to keep detailed lists or obsessively chase after birds. Everyone, he says, can be a bad bird-watcher and the world would be a much better place if more of us were. Slip this gift to someone on the verge of becoming a bird-watcher, or anyone who enjoys a fun read.

Birdsong intrigues authors

This year produced another pair of new books on the same topic: birdsong. The first is The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong by Donald Kroodsma (Houghton Mifflin, $28 and includes a CD). Kroodsma has been studying birdsong for three decades and has conducted breakthrough studies that help answer some of the many questions about that subject. The book explains why some birds learn their songs and others do not, why dialects occur in some species and not others and why it is mainly the males who sing.

To more fully understand birdsong, Kroodsma has turned the songs into sonograms, a graph-like representation of the songs, so that we can ``see'' the songs and understand them more fully. The book also includes a CD with the bird songs that are described.

The second book in the pair is Birdsong: A Natural History (Scribner, $24) by Don Stap. Somewhat biographical, Stap's book tells the story of Kroodsma and others who pioneered the study of birdsong. Stap distills the complexities of the study of birdsong, answering many of the same questions as Kroodsma discusses but he does it in a story-telling voice. Stap engages the reader and makes the information more palatable. I recommend giving Kroodsma's book to an avid birder and Stap's book to a novice.

Something to crow about

Two local authors, John Marzluff and Tony Angell, have recently published a gem, In the Company of Crows and Ravens (Yale University Press, $30). Both have long studied these common birds and tell their fascinating story. They also delve into an ongoing interest of mine, how people and birds have influenced each other during their intertwined histories. Angell has included more than 100 drawings to accompany the text.

Let it be your guide

My favorite bird identification guide, Field Guide to the Birds of North America from National Geographic ($21.95), has a new fourth edition. This sturdy, portable and easy-to-use book offers the most complete information available on every bird species known to North America. So if you or someone on your list is still using an old second or third edition, it's definitely worth upgrading.

A plug for the columnist

I'll end with a shameless plug for my own recent book Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West (Fulcrum Publishing, $16.95). The first edition, published last November, quickly sold out and the fresh new second edition -- with clearer drawings and finer paper -- is now on bookstore shelves. Month by month, the book illuminates the magic of everyday birds and entices the reader to see, hear and pay attention to the feathered diversity all around us.

Frances Wood is the author of ``Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West,'' available in local bookstores. She can be reached at

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