The Bird Almanac: The Ultimate Guide to Essential Facts and Figures of the World's Birds

by David M. Bird, Ph.D.

Published by Key Porter

460 pages, 1999



by David Jones

Published by Whitecap

110 pages, 1998







Writing for the Birds

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Bird-watching as a pastime is currently growing by almost unbelievable leaps. According to Dr. David Bird (yes, that's really his name), the 1994-95 U.S. National Recreational Survey indicated that interest in bird-watching as a recreational activity had increased by 155 per cent over the previous decade. And that, "recent demographic analyses shows that bird-watching will be the fastest growing activity in the world from 1996 to 2011."

It's not that difficult to understand this increase in interest. Like tennis, bird-watching is something that doesn't take a huge investment to get started. A notebook to chart finds. A pen to make the notebook usable. Maybe some binoculars. A birder book. Perhaps two. And you're away.

And then there's the expert level. Just like when you realize you need a better tennis racquet, there comes a certain level of expertise when the simple tools must give way to better ones. That beginning level birder's book must be set aside for something more substantial. It seems likely that Dr. Bird had just this feeling prior to embarking on the work that would become The Bird Almanac. And what an undertaking it must have been. Subtitled, The Ultimate Guide to Essential Facts and Figures of the World's Birds, the author has created perhaps the most complete reference on avian topics imaginable. As Bird himself says:

I wanted a book that would cater to the interests of anyone in the world who liked birds for whatever reason, for example ornithologists, casual to serious bird-watchers, schoolchildren doing projects on birds, and those offering food to birds. I felt that such a book should offer a brief fossil history of birds, the old and the new taxonomy, and a list of all the species in the world, including the geographical region in which they were found and their status, that is, endangered, threatened, and so on.

Bird has accomplished all of this and more in a compact, easy-to-lug-around trade paperback book that the birder can easily stow in their knapsack.

The buffet of bird facts included is staggering. From an international listing of Who's Who in Bird Biology and Conservation; a listing of threatened and endangered species; the frequency of diseases in wild birds; listings of selected species' hearing range, numbers of taste buds, wing beats, flight speeds, and more. There are even sections that would do little beyond help you win a trivia bet or just add to your personal store of specialized knowledge. Many people know, for instance, that a group of crows is called a murder. But what about a wreck of seabirds, a strand of silky flycatchers or a siege of herons? Then the "Records in the Bird World" section where you learn, for instance, that the ostrich has the largest eyeball (at a diameter of 5cm or 2-inches), the ruby-throated hummingbird has the fewest number of feathers (940) and the fastest-moving racing pigeon can achieve speeds of up to 110 mph. The mind boggles, but -- for bird lovers -- this is a rich trove, indeed.

Less knowledge-filled and luggable, David Jones' Ducks is a wonderful adornment for the duck-enthusiast's coffee table. Jones writes both competently and well, but a book with both the high production values and wonderful photographs of Ducks is going to catch its readers with the visuals. This particular batch of photos -- over 60 in all -- has been collected from a wide variety of international sources. Represented is a goodly number of the over 125 species that Jones writes about in this work. Jones partially explains his interest in this way:

Those of us living in cities tend to think of mallards when we think of ducks. Probably the most abundant of all waterfowl, the mallard has remarkable tolerance for human beings and our cities; they are the ducks we are most likely to see in a ditch or backyard swimming pool. But mallards are just one of 35 species nesting in North America today, and of 125 species worldwide. One, the spectacled eider, has such a remote range that until 1995 no one even knew where they wintered.

Once the stunning photos have been sampled and savored, Ducks is a fascinating read. Jones' writing is clear, poetic and highly informative and he manages to layer lessons into his stylish prose.

In evolutionary history, the duck holds a more modest place. Ducks recognizable to us as such probably appeared about 80 million years ago. Together with geese and swans, they form the family Anatidae -- the scientific name for the world's 148 species of waterfowl.

Jones isn't new to sharing natural science with readers. He holds a degree in biology and formerly worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He has written two books similar in nature but not subject matter: Eagles and Whales. It will be interesting to watch and see what species he decides to showcase next. | July 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.