Science book review

I like birds. Although I have probably passed my prime birding days — when I lived in my Jeep for months at a time and birding was not just a pass time but the source of my bread and butter — I still derive infinite joy in my awareness of the many bird species that surround me.

Even here in Winnipeg, birds are how I know my seasons. For three years running, an eastern screech owl has sat in a daytime winter roost high in a tree near my home. During spring and fall, my wife and I share daily reports of which migrants we have returned after months of absence. In March, even before the snows have started to go, the black-billed magpies begin their metallic chanting. Swainson’s thrushes and hermit thrushes arrive from their winter haunts in Mexico and Central America in April to pick dried over-wintered berries. By the time the fiery faced blackburnian warblers arrive from the jungles of Central and South America my garden has started to grow. These are my neighbours and I feel privileged to see them.

So how can this world be opened to you? There are a lot of good books out there to help crack the code, turning anonymous feathered twitterers into a discernable species with recognizable songs. The new Birds of Canada, by Lone Pine Publishing (paperback $32.95), fits nicely into their excellent series on the flora and fauna of Canada. It has lots of features that beginning birders will appreciate — major families of birds can be quickly accessed with a coloured index and each species gets coloured photos, drawings, breeding and wintering range maps and species profiles. The descriptions of size, habitat, natural history tidbits, behaviours and song descriptions (knowing a hairy woodpecker can be heard to say “peek” and the smaller downy woodpecker says “pik” can be a big help) make this book possibly the most detailed treatment of Canadian birds for the size and price.

There are a few downsides to the book. It’s not quite pocket sized. The illustrations emphasize the adult plumages, often to highlighting the showy adult male colors. While some female, immature and non-breeding plumages are shown, many plumages or colour morphs are not.

This seems picky but, as anyone picking up a bird book for the first time will tell you, not all the birds you see look like what you see in the book. Granted, non-breeding plumages aren’t going to be ones that people see if they stay in Canada, you can (and should) get other guides for alternate plumages if you plan to go outside Canada. However, the space not taken by these absent images is given over to cool life history information. So in exchange for the space you learn quite a bit about the birds — not just how they look.

I am used to my Field Guide to the Birds of North America by National Geographic. I have used my copy for so many years my fingers can open it to the species I need to see by feel. But I am glad to now have the Birds of Canada at my disposal. I’ll take it for a canoe trip this coming spring . . . because a rose-breasted grosbeak at 5 a.m. can make you feel virtuous all week.