Bird Reading

A New Dictionary of Birds

edited by A. Landsborough Thomson
McGraw-Hill, 928 pp., $17.50

The World of Birds

by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson
Doubleday, 288 pp., $22.95

The Birds of Arizona

by Allan Phillips and Joe Marshall and Gale Monson, illustrated by George Miksch Sutton, with photographs in color by Eliot Porter
University of Arizona, 212 pp., $15.00

Birds of Prey of the World

by Mary Louise Grossman and John Hamlet, with photographs by Shelly Grossman
Clarkson N. Potter, 496 pp., $25.00

The Bird Watcher’s America

edited by Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr., illustrated by John Henry Dick
McGraw-Hill, 441 pp., $7.50

Ornithology today in its many branches is a very popular science on both sides of the Atlantic and the result has been a spate of books ranging from large regional works of twelve-volume length to specialized single books such as A New Dictionary of Birds and of many less important volumes. The five books reviewed here may be taken as a fair sample of what 1964-65 has seen issued.

Of the several books to be noticed in this article, A New Dictionary of Birds must take pride of place, not only for the excellence of its production and contents, but by reason of the distinguished authors who have contributed to its pages. A British conception, and in the main a product of British ornithologists to mark the centenary of the British Ornithologists’ Union, it is a work full worthy of the occasion. In the space at my disposal it is impossible to do more than touch on the fringe of its contents. It is close on seventy years since the publication of its prototype—Alfred Newton’s classic work A Dictionary of Birds—but in that space of time the science of ornithology has passed through a period of drastic change. The New Dictionary is nothing if not up to date and within its 928 pages we are introduced to a great deal which has taken place in this age of scientific progress. It is copiously illustrated. The classification in this work follows the Check-list of Birds of the World by the late J. J. L. Peters based on the system proposed by Dr. Alexander Wetmore of the Smithsonian. The arrangement is alphabetical, with abundant cross-references. Sir Landsborough Thomson in his Introduction states that the book is planned for the general reader who wishes to extend his knowledge of birds; for the ornithologist who requires information outside his individual field, and the biologist who wishes to draw upon specialized subject matter. To this end the leading ornithologists in Britain were invited to contribute articles on particular species, groups or subjects upon which they are acknowledged authorities. The articles on general subjects are by authors in the United Kingdom, while those on bird groups are by authors spread throughout the world. There are contributions from 172 specialists drawn from every continent and from twenty-two countries. In this distinguished list American ornithologists occupy a prominent place. Subjects having a bearing on ornithology, such, for instance, as climatology, meteorology, animal population, conservation, and so on, are discussed by specialists in those subjects in relation to birds, the whole skillfully welded together by the editor, who himself has written many of the principal articles. The knowledge contained within the text of the New Dictionary is well nigh inexhaustible. A word must be said regarding the many illustrations. There are sixteen plates in color by living artists, British and Australian, but with this restriction it can by no means represent all the best bird portraiture of the United Kingdom. Two outstanding British bird artists, the late Archibald Thorburn and the late George E. Lodge, are consequently not represented in this important work, to the regret of their countless admirers. Those pictures that have found a place are somewhat uneven in style and merit, the best plates coming from David Reid Henry, C.T. Tunnicliffe, R.A., and Chloë Talbot Kelly, who is responsible for five in color and most of the text figures. The only plate of eggs is by Commander A.M. Hughes, R.N. The photographs in black and white reach the high standard we should expect. Such is their excellence that it would be invidious to single out names, but I am glad to see the work of Christina Loke and the late Loke Wan Tho represented.

The New Dictionary of Birds is a landmark in ornithological literature and its distinguished editor has earned the gratitude of every ornithologist for this scholarly production.

Fisher and Peterson, whose successful collaboration in Wild America will be called to mind, have again combined to produce a remarkable book, the text of which has been planned to cater for the inquiring ornithologist whatever may be his, or her, particular line. In nine essays in the first half of The World of Birds Mr. Fisher ably discusses how birds live, their evolution, behavior and relationship with other species, their distribution and so on, with a chapter on bird-watching and a discourse on the manner in which they stand to mankind. A large section of the second half is taken up by a series of full-page maps in color illustrating the general distribution of the families into which birds are grouped by taxonomists.

James Fisher, who is responsible for the text, is indeed fortunate in his partner. The name Roger Tory Peterson is known throughout the world and is synonymous with the very best in bird portraiture. Almost every page is decorated by his beautiful paintings which appear to have lost little in reproduction. His birds in flight are indeed remarkable pictures.

The World of Birds is a mine of information. The authors do not introduce their birds family by family but have brought an entirely different technique to bear, dealing with every aspect of a bird’s life and the problems with which the birds are confronted, which must be read to be appreciated. The book is written in a popular manner to satisfy those countless bird-lovers who like their questions answered under a single cover. At the end of the volume is a good regional bibliography which should prove useful, though of necessity it is a selected list.

It is almost a relief to turn from a book in which the boundaries are limitless and the subjects discussed so vast to a work in which the area under review is in comparison closely defined. Such a book is The Birds of Arizona, a regional work pure and simple but one which fills a gap in our knowledge of American birds. The three authors have combined their extensive experiences both in the field and in the museum and it has been their good fortune that one of America’s foremost bird-artists, George, Miksch Sutton of Oklahoma, should have visited Arizona and, as is his wont, made delightful field sketches of a number of Arizona’s most characteristics species. Professor Sutton’s paintings of birds, especially of those in juvenile plumage, always drawn from life, have a delicate touch and faithfulness to life that no other bird-artist of my recollection has ever achieved. The sketches in this book, some deliberately left unfinished, will enable the reader to appreciate the artistic quality to which I have referred.

The book will take its place as a well-documented work for which chapter and verse are given for the statements it contains. If criticism is called for, it is to the paucity of breeding data, the emphasis being laid on distribution born out by specimens collected or examined in museums, and of local movements within the State. To this end the only map provided (p.xviii) is inadequate. The interest of the volume would have been increased if the data concerning specimens had been published elsewhere and the considerable space required for such details given to the birds’ life histories of which the authors must surely have known much more than they have chosen to tell. The chapter on the historic changes of Arizona Habitats by Phillips and Monson, though all too brief, is illustrated by quite beautiful photographs in black and white, while the color photographs of birds in the field taken by Eliot Porter are some of the best we have ever seen, those of the humming birds being outstanding examples of the photographer’s art.

Birds of Prey of the World has so ambitious a title that one has a right to expect much of it in consequence. It is an exceedingly difficult book to which to do justice. In the Introduction by Mary Louise Grossman we learn that the conception of such a work originated during a walk in 1956 through the gateway of a tourist attraction in Florida, where more than one hundred birds of prey had been assembled by John Hamlet. “Here,” writes the authoress, “was an opportunity to illustrate photographically how different species hunt, their modes of flight, etc., etc. The birds were trained for the hunting sequences and flight studies…some were worked with a fine line attached to their legs. Portraits of perching birds were made in settings approximating as closely as possible their natural habitats.” The result is a collection of photographs—some over-enlarged up to 12 × 9 inches—depicting hawks and owls in flight striking down victims in the air, pouncing upon them and tearing them to pieces on the ground, or at rest on rock or branch. While many of Mr. Grossman’s photographs are remarkable examples of the photographer’s art, the impression is too often gained of captured birds posed for the occasion, as, in fact, they were.

The book is in two parts. The live chapters in Part 1 are headed Prehistory, Birds of Prey and Men, Ecology and Habits, Conservation, etc. It is not made clear who is the responsible author, but the last Chapters 3, 4 and 5, are said to owe much to Mr. Hamlet. Part 2 takes the reader, through the Falcons and Owls, genus by genus, with sketch maps and line drawings inset, but very inadequate text. A point of some significance is that the author responsible for the section on the Osprey’s distribution in Europe seems quite unaware (p. 370) that the birds have been breeding in Scotland since 1959. The book ends with a Bibliography in which some glaring omissions catch the eye. It is difficult to know what niche Birds of Prey of the World is intended to fill. A monograph of such an important group should only be attempted by those with a lifetime’s experience in the field studying their subject, combined with training in one of the great museums of the world. It is no subject for amateur naturalists to embark upon.

In The Bird Watcher’s America we have that rare thing these days, a bird book which helps one to relax, which carries one to all manner of delightful places and which does not tax the over-worked brain from which so many ornithologists suffer in this age of rush and scramble. It was a splendid notion of Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr. to invite forty-four “ornithological authorities” to write of the bird haunts with which each is most familiar and to make their knowledge available in such well-written informative essays in a single volume, printed on light paper and convenient to handle. Mr. Pettingill has selected his contributors wisely. It is obviously of the greatest interest to be informed which birds will be found in particular areas from Alaska to Florida, though very naturally there are many fascinating bird haunts which can find no place in these pages for lack of a qualified author. A book such as this, relating to the British Isles, would do more harm than good, for in these circumscribed islands, swarming with bird-watchers, the difficulty we have is to guard against the more interesting birds and their all too limited haunts being unduly invaded by well-meaning but often overzealous bird enthusiasts.

In the wide open spaces of which this volume deals, that problem, though no doubt present, is in no sense comparable with that in the British Isles. Not by any means the least interesting part of Mr. Pettingill’s book are the brief biographical notes of the authors with which he introduces each chapter. Such well-known names as Alfred M. Bailey, George Miksch Sutton, Gale Monson, and many others catch the eye of the European ornithologist already familiar with their distinguished work in other fields. They—there are several women among the contributors—have much more to tell us about the trees and flowers, lakes, rivers, and other inhabitants than birds, than the title of the book suggests, often in language which makes the reader clearly see the country they are describing, grizzly bears and all, and should induce naturalists from other lands to follow in their footsteps.

The Bird Watcher’s America is a credit to all who have taken part in its production and especially to Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr., whose conception it was. It can be warmly recommended to all lovers of Nature, especially to those whose main interest is centered on the bird-life of the lovely places described so happily in its pages.

The five books reviewed here may be taken as a fair sample of what 1964/1965 has seen issued. The Dictionary is an exceptional publication, internationally indispensable; The Birds of Arizona covers a small but definite area invaluable equally to local residents, intending visitors, or museum workers. Incidentally 12×9 inches is as large as any such book should attain. The World of Birds is a compendium of information presented in popular form, lavishly illustrated by a renowned bird artist-naturalist. Birds of Prey of the World gives the impression of being too ambitious a work for the authors to have handled; moreover it suffers from its size. No field worker enjoys adding 5 lbs. 11 oz. to his kit, and it is not a book to appeal to the museum worker. It is to be hoped that these oversized tomes are not going to set a fashion to be emulated in Europe. From these large volumes your reviewer turned with pleasure to Pettingill’s anthology, light to read and light to handle, a model of what such a book should be.

Three other outstanding bird-books by American authors also merit special mention—Oliver Austin’s Birds of the World (Paul Hamlyn), magnificently illustrated and produced; J. Carl Welty’s The Life of Birds (Constable), in which we are introduced to the basic facts of bird biology, and Ralf S. Palmer’s Handbook of American Birds (Yale University Press), a first-class scientific work which, when completed, purports to be a monumental text-book of very high standard, indispensable to every serious student of the Nearctic Region. This is entirely an American publication, the other two having first seen the light of day in London. No notice of current bird literature would be complete without mention of the English version of Professor Voous’s outstanding book Atlas of European Birds (Nelson, Edinburgh), a scholarly production from the Netherlands which cannot be too warmly praised.

The ornithologist and bird-lover of today has no reason to complain that his favorite science is being neglected or that he cannot find a book to suit his requirements. Those mentioned here, while of varying merits, cater for a wide variety of tastes. With so much interest aroused today in ornithology, the problem will be to prevent the market being flooded with rubbishy books by incompetent writers. Far too many have already been accepted by the unknowledgeable publisher whose blurb is often a key to his ignorance. The standard of production is now, like the price, very high.