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Birds of America

Familiar Garden Birds of America

by Henry Hill Collins Jr., by Ned R. Boyajian
Harper & Row, 309 pp., $7.95

American Bird Decoys

by William J. MacKey Jr.
Dutton, 256 pp., $10.00

It is always sad to have to review a book when the author has not lived to see the results of his devoted work in print. Such was the case in this instance. Mr. Collins died before Familiar Garden Birds of America was completed and it would seem that his companion, the President of the Linnaean Society of New York, has completed the text, although this might have been more clearly stated in the Publishers’ Note.

It is surprising to read that a book of this nature has not appeared before, but the idea is a sound one—to offer the life histories of more than seventy species which constitute America’s most familiar birds common to American gardens—always a matter of individual choice. None of the essays are long but much information has been crammed into the available space. Each account ends with the briefest possible description of the subject, incubation and fledgling period and size of eggs. There is no description of egg coloring, which seems unfortunate. Perhaps the authors were afraid of becoming too greatly involved in a subject where so much variation takes place, but it is usually possible to give some indication of what the eggs are like. Young people in particular are apt to start their love of natural history as egg collectors—or so it certainly was in Britain until the collecting of eggs was frowned upon by our law makers, perhaps rather too severely.

Mr. Collins’s volume is convenient to handle and is not heavy—a great fault of many bird books. It is printed in good-sized type and pleasantly written. The black-and-white illustrations by Nina Williams are very charming and one wishes there were more of them. There are twelve plates in color on which a great many species are depicted and, while not on a par with the work of some better-known artists, these plates have a charm of their own and are fully adequate for their purpose, both decorative and explanatory. Some in fact have a Japanese-print effect which is very pleasing. Plates X and XI may be specified, and while the birds are very flat, the composition of the pictures is good. As an aid to identification these plates are excellent.

I can think of no better Christmas gift for a boy or girl interested in knowing more about the birds of their garden. One can wish it the success which Mr. Collins must have dreamed of, and express sorrow that he has passed away before his wish was realized, as it will surely be.

Bird decoys are a most unusual subject for a book, but it is all the more welcome in consequence, and an eye-opener to anyone who has not previously studied the subject. We have nothing to compare with it in Britain, nor, so far as I am aware, has the subject been dealt with in such detail in any other country but the United States.

Mr. Mackey is an acknowledged authority on decoys and has been a “collector” for almost forty years, gathering the material for the book he now presents. The object of the book, so he tells us in his Foreword, is to focus attention upon the rich heritage of collectable decoys that have been made and used in America during the past century or more.

Mr. MacKey’s objective, when he set to work on the volume before us, was to seek and find some of the finest results of the decoy-makers’ craft and to publish illustrations of the art, for an art it must undoubtedly be styled. All manner of birds are depicted in these decoys, the photographs of which were taken by Miss Quintina Quolio, herself an enthusiastic and obviously knowledgeable expert on the subject.

Decoy models began to make their appearance in America soon after the advent of the breechloader and resulted in the wholesale slaughter of thousands of birds which without the aid of these man-made lures might conceivably have escaped destruction. Their use outside the United States and Canada was extremely limited and it was not until the outraged feelings of many Americans resulted in the passage through Congress of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 that the activities of “thousands of wildfowl market-hunters” were forced to end. Shortly after the end of the First World War the professional gunner disappeared from the bays and marshes and the old-time maker of hand-made hunting decoys vanished from the scene.

Mr. MacKey has sought out these men, now turned to other pursuits, and in his fascinating book gives us their history and the reasons that prompted them to take to that trade, and describes his efforts to acquare the very best examples of their art. It stands to reason that the decoys usually represent those birds most generally sought for their culinary excellence such as Ducks and Geese, but decoys of many other groups were extensively in use—shore birds of many varieties, even down to the almost extinct Eskimo Curlew, Pigeons, Owls, and even the inedible Loon find their decoy-portraits in Mr. MacKey’s most thorough review. In addition to the hand-made article, there were established factories of which Detroit became the machine-made decoy capital of the country. As with all “works of art,” there cropped up countless fakes, and in his closing chapters Mr. MacKey gives the would-be collector some sound advice on building up a genuine decoy collection.

The reviewer has found this book extraordinarily interesting. It is well printed in large type, but my review copy is very badly bound. It is a book which is a great deal more worthy of a buckram binding than many which have passed through my hands. There are eight plates in color and innumerable half-tones. It should be in every ornithologist’s library, and in those of all who take an interest in wildfowling.

The Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, is officially believed to have been exterminated in the year when the First World War was declared, that is to say in 1914—a truly unlucky year. Having existed in millions well into the nineteenth century, it had become extinct early in the twentieth—a lasting shame upon America which that country will never live down. Both our countries have learned much since those days of wanton slaughter when the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon were wiped from the face of the earth.

In Mr. Eckert’s book, The Silent Sky, we are given, in highly sentimental prose, yet another account of the last days of the Passenger Pigeon. The author prefers to describe his book as “a novel.” It is written from the point of view of the Pigeons and what they endured; Mr. Eckert allows his feelings full play when describing what he imagines to have taken place; nor does he spare his readers when painting afresh the lives of persecution the birds endured. The life histories of individual birds are described in every harrowing detail, from the day of hatching until they met some miserable end at the hands of their persecutors. If anything bears out Colonel Mcinertzhagen’s oft-repeated statement that man is far and away the worst predator in the world, the treatment meted out to the Passenger Pigeon is surely sufficient testimony.

For those who like to be harrowed by tales of untold misery, “the myriad natural enemies that preyed upon them ceaselessly; the forces of nature which crushed them unmericfully, and worse by far, the hordes of men who made destruction of the Pigeons a profession and a way of life”—to quote from the blurb on the jacket, there is plenty to satisfy them in Mr. Eckert’s book. But for those who prefer facts to fiction, there are other less imaginative accounts available of what we can only describe as a terrible tragedy and a blot upon our so-called civilization. With Mr. Eckert’s indignation we can, however, warmly sympathize.

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