Monday, December 5, 2011

On My Nightstand: National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America, 6th Edition

My first-ever birding guide was the National Geographic guide. Well, it technically wasn’t mine – I “borrowed” it from my (non-birding but inquisitive) parents when I first took an interest in identifying birds several years ago.

At the time, (around 2003), I had no idea how dynamic and fast-changing birding knowledge was, and I figured the dog-eared book that my parents had picked up on a whim many years earlier – which I now realize was the inaugural edition of the National Geographic guide from 1983 – was, like my high school algebra texts, a source of immutable truths. Little did I know that everything from the genetic relationships among birds to their common names to their ranges and populations was in constant flux.  I was puzzled as to why people called those gorgeous white raptors in our area “White-tailed Kites” when the guide said clearly that they were “Black-shouldered Kites.” 

I still have that guide, along with many other, newer ones – Kaufman, Sibley, Crossley, and several other, more specialized guides.  So when I was given the opportunity to check out the newest update of the National Geographic guide, I couldn’t resist comparing it to the original – the book that helped launch my life as a birder.

Both the similarities and differences between the original and latest update are striking: the same signature Bald Eagle on the cover, quite a few of the same illustrations, and even same descriptions. Both list the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker as “probably extinct,” but for strikingly different reasons. (The description of its range and distribution in the new guide will be heartbreaking to anyone who rejoiced at its putative rediscovery a few years back.) But new illustrations, very much in the same style as the older ones, also abound, as well as significantly expanded or revised descriptions of certain birds. (The description of White-crowned Sparrows in the 6th edition, for instance, goes into helpful detail about their various subspecies, their songs, and distribution, which the original, shorter description lacked.)

Another useful detail the guide includes is an index of subspecies range maps – this can be a great benefit to those who spend a lot of time birding on the road.

More striking to me was the extremely liberal definition of “birds of North America” used in the book. Flipping through it, one sees dozens of accidental and even extinct species not found in other North American field guides.  I personally appreciated these graphic reminders that North America (or parts of it, at least) is closely linked, biologically and geographically, to the far corners of Asia and Northern Europe, and for any enthusiastic birder, this feature will be a tantalizing reminder that any trip to the field can bring unexpected surprises. But for beginners or others looking for a straight-ahead quick reference to birds one is likely to encounter on a typical trip, this expanded inventory could be a needless distraction. 

A characteristic feature of any field guide is the front matter – all the stuff the guide presents before actually getting to the birds themselves. Kaufman’s useful pocket guide, for instance, has a friendly, simple preface that captures a “birding for everyone” vibe, and the first words in the preface of Crossley’s graphically rich guide are “I don’t like text,” which tells you everything you need to know about the orientation of the rest of the book. The National Geographic guide strikes an accessible, yet serious tone in its front matter: the brief descriptions of bird classification, ranges, and field marks are written to be understandable to beginners, but include enough information (such as a two-page illustrated spread of labeled head, wing, and body feather tracts) to be a useful reference for more experienced birders as well.

 Any review of a field guide is supposed to end up with the answer to the question “so, how does this rank among the other guides for the same area?” I really hate answering this question because I don’t have a single favorite North American field guide – like many birders, I like having an assortment of them for different purposes: Kaufman to keep in my back pocket for quick reference, Sibley to keep in my car for more comprehensive ID checks, and Crossley to keep at home to study before and after looking for a new bird. Also, I often find myself needing more than one set of illustrations to ID a bird definitively, especially if it’s molting or in some transitional plumage. The new National Geographic guide, for me, falls into the “keep in the car” category – a great combination of quick reference and comprehensive description that will be a useful addition to my arsenal of references.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak Got His Chest

Once upon a time, long before you or I were born, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak wasn’t called that. Back then, Giorsbeaks’ chests were snowy white. And Grosbeaks were very proud of their looks.

At that time, there was one particular Grosbeak who loved two things: (1) berries and (2) himself. All the other birds said his egotistic, gluttonous ways would eventually come back to bite him in the vent.

One October day, this Grosbeak was feeling both unusually hungry and unusually proud of himself. He had planned his southward journey to go through the verdant land now known as Florida, which he knew was filled with berries in October – bright red magnolia berries, fat clusters of tiny, lavender-colored beauty berries, and big, juicy purple pokeberries. The very thought of them made him swoon, and he was very pleased with his itinerary.

He was pleased with himself for another reason, too: while the other Grosbeaks changed into modest brown plumage for their trip, he had decided to keep most of his snappy black-and-white spring feathers.

“You’re being an idiot,” the other Grosbeaks said. “That outfit’s too worn to make it all the way down south."

“What’s the point?” a disapproving Magnolia Warbler scolded. “Seriously. You’re going to be too busy eating and flying to check out any ladies with that getup of yours, and they'll be too busy to notice you.”

The Grosbeak didn’t listen. He know they were only saying that stuff because they were jealous.

That October day in Florida, things started even better than he expected. Almost immediately, he spotted shiny red clusters of ripe berries. Then he did what any discerning epicure would do when presented with nature’s bounty at its finest: he stuffed his face.

OMG those berries were amazing. Best of all, he hardly needed to move to gobble down one cluster after another, each more succulent than the next. Reddish juice dribbled down his snowy white breast, of which he was very proud, but he was too hungry to care.

“Look at you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” It was some Grosbeak he didn’t know, who was dressed in an old man’s brown-and-beige fall outfit. “Show a little class. Look at all that crap you’re dripping on yourself!”

“Yaah pal? Well check it out, I’VE got this bush full of berries and you don’t.”

“That’s because I’ve already had my share. And look at me, I managed to keep myself clean. Mark my words, kid, no gal’s gonna want to nest with a slob like you.”

Whatever, Gramps, the Grosbeak thought. He kept eating. When he was too full to move, he decided to preen himself – not because he cared what the old guy thought but because he wasn’t sleepy or hungry and couldn’t think of anything else to do. Yeah, and it had been several hours since he’d cleaned himself. Okay, maybe more than that.

This was weird. No matter what he tried, the juice stains just wouldn’t come out. -- they were stuck to him like the black on his wings.

He panicked. He began to peck harder at his chest. Nothing. Still bright red, like a cowboy’s bandanna hanging in front of his breast. His beautifully pristine white breast was ruined, and it was all his own fault.

In South America, he made a point of hanging with birds who didn’t know him. But when it was time to go back north again, he know he’d have to face the music. Nesting season was approaching – how would he explain this to the girls?

The flight back to North America was the most depressing trip of his life. The breeding grounds were a playground of happy activity when he arrived. He saw a lot of familiar birds, but didn’t want to face any of them.

“Hey there!” It was the prettiest, fattest female Grosbeak he had ever seen. Great, she’s just here’s to taunt me, he thought.

“Did you just get here?” She was still talking to him,. “Mm, look at you! Pokeberries?” She was staring at his chest, cocking her head. “I like a man with a good appetite.” She hopped towards him. Startled, he hopped backwards.

“What’s the matter? Have you already got a mate?”

“N-no! I –“

“Well, if you don’t have anyone lined up, I’m here – unless you’d prefer me to spend the summer with him.” She turned her head towards a loudly singing voice nearby. “But I kind of like your looks.”

His heart felt as though it would burst. “I do, too,” he said.

Soon, word got out among the male Grosbeaks that the dork with the juice stuck on his chest had scored the hottest female Grosbeak in North America. Grateful and chastened, our Grosbeak built his pretty mate the biggest, nicest nest in the area. The other females eyed that nest and the happy couple from a distance, then gazed at their own dumpy nests and plain black-and-white mates and sighed. No, they’d say to their mates. Nothing’s wrong! What makes you think something’s wrong?

Miraculously, the guys got the hint. The next spring, when they returned to the nesting grounds, all the men were sporting handsome red bibs. And with all the time saved from not having to preen their breasts so much, they had the time and energy to build bigger nests and take better care of their chicks than ever before.

And that’s how the Rose-breasted Grosbeak got its chest.