Why David Allen Sibley‘s wonderful 2000 The Sibley Guide to Birds is under the wood stove is not a long story. It was in the trunk of my car, and the trunk leaked. Perhaps the interesting part about this situation is that both my husband and I rushed to dry out the Sibley, but we forgot all about the trunk of my car. It still leaks, but at least we saved one of our favorite bird books.
In 1976 we put up our first bird feeder, and I thought I was doing the birds a favor. One day, stretched out in a lounge chair getting a bit of a sun tan, I looked up from my current book to see a sparrow on the feeder. This sparrow, however, had a red breast. This was the moment when I first got truly excited about birds and realized that there were real differences among them. I promptly purchased my first bird identification book. Our library has grown since then as new editions have been published, as friends and relatives have given us copies of their favorites, and as various calamities have befallen some few books. That bird, by the way, was a House Finch.
One of my favorite bird books is my mother’s 1980 copy of Roger Tory Peterson‘s A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies we inherited in 1994. The book has many of my mother’s comments about birds she saw at her feeders on our farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. While we found a dead Acadian Flycatcher in our driveway a few years ago, Mother had seen a live Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher in 1982. We saw a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker in 1995, and Mother wrote about the “strange music and dance” of the Common Flicker she saw ten years before. Tucked into the pages of this treasured book is a column Charles Seabrook wrote December 12, 1998 about a rare visit from an Anna’s hummingbird. Also, I have a beautiful tail feather from a Blue Jay in the back of the book. The 2002 A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America 5th Edition is much larger and slicker than my old copy of the book, but, of course, lacks my mother’s comments.
My husband and I both like David Sibley’s guides. In fact, we generally prefer guides that include illustrations rather than photographs as the illustrations are more general in their depiction of individual birds. In trying to identify a bird, we have a difficult time matching what we see with a specific bird in a photograph. Sibley’s guides include drawings and paintings of juveniles as well as both sexes of adults. His guides also show birds in flight, one of the distinct pluses of his books. We once found saw a huge kingfisher in Florida, and, after consulting several books which only listed the common Belted Kingfisher seen on our Georgia lakes, we found Sibley’s The Ringed Kingfisher, common in Mexico and occasionally seen along the Gulf Coast. David Sibley’s guides offer a variety of poses as well as birds. Soon after we learned how to use our iphones, Clarke downloaded Sibley’s app, and I downloaded Peterson’s app. We found Sibley’s app much easier to use, and I recently downloaded it, too. One of the advantages of an app on my phone is that I can easily look up any bird I see no matter where I am, and the app includes the songs of the birds.
Other books I like include The Nature Company Guides’ Birding, a lovely book with both photographs, drawings, and paintings. Its size is a little awkward, however: 11″ tall by 6.5″ wide. It does not offer the wide variety of birds that Sibley’s guides do. In 1998 Jim Wilson and Anselm Atkins published Common Birds of Atlanta, which identifies through photographs sixty-one bird species found in Atlanta backyards. The birds are arranged from the smallest, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, to the largest, the Great Blue Heron. There are two photographs of each kind of bird with a description of each.
Smithsonian Handbooks’ Birds of North America: Eastern Region offers excellent information, but the book is very thick and unwieldy. At 752 pages it is not meant as a field guide. It contains photographs of birds, and I do not find many of those photographs helpful in identifying birds. The Acadian Flycatcher, for instance, looks nothing like the one we found.
One of my favorite reading materials about birds comes six times a year in the form of Bird Watcher’s Digest. The cover is a painting of a profiled species, and inside are articles about featured birds, birds in the backyard, and short articles and letters. It’s a good place to read about people’s experiences with birds. The September/October 2013 edition’s cover is a painting of Eastern Screech-owls by Julie Zickefoose, and a few of the articles include “Little Known & Seldom Seen Birds of North America,” “Cormorants,” “Chickens and Buses and Grouse. Oh, My!” and “The Bird Watcher’s Question Box.”
Once I retired from teaching, I began taking art classes at Callanwolde, a DeKalb County Fine Arts Center. Eventually I began drawing and painting birds. Two books I’ve found extremely helpful with my drawings are the Laws Guide to Drawing Birds, written and illustrated by John Muir Laws and with a foreword by David Allen Sibley. As references I generally use the occasional dead birds that make their way to our door via neighbors, but Laws’s book has helped me in refining my artwork. Jack B. Kochan’s book Bills & Birds, published by Stackpole Books, is helpful in understanding the structure of bird bills. Other Stackpole books include Feet & Legs and Heads & Eyes. When I recognized most of the birds that come to my feeder, I began to want to know more about them. These books have been very helpful.
Look for Charles Seabrook‘s weekly column published each Saturday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His informative articles are about birds which have been seen in the Atlanta area as well as good birding spots in Georgia.