Thursday, April 09, 2009

Review: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds

Spring is marvelous for many reasons. The most obvious, perhaps, is the sudden blooming of a multitude of flowers of different species that have lain dormant all winter. Even non-birders notice the first daffodils poking through the ground, or the annual spectacle of cherry blossoms. A more keen-eared observer might notice the proliferation of bird song – a growing chorus of robins, cardinals, juncos, mockingbirds, wrens, blackbirds, warblers, etc. This is the time when the diversity of bird species is most apparent, whether one watches warblers in wooded parks or scans shorebirds on distant mudflats.

Several publishers have attempted to produce reference guides to the birds of the world, most notably the popular Bird. Condensing the diversity of the class Aves into a single field guide or encyclopedia is not an easy task. First, experts disagree about how many species exist, and new species are constantly being discovered, either through expeditions to remote areas or by closer examination of known populations. Second, with over 9,000 known species, class Aves is the most diverse vertebrate class; by contrast, there are about 5,400 mammal species. Any editor attempting to fit the breadth and depth of this class into a single volume will be faced with difficult choices.

A new guide to birds of the world, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds, edited by Christopher Perrin, attempts to meet that challenge by focusing on bird families rather than individual species or genera. North American birders may recognize this approach; David Sibley used it in his Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. This new book from Princeton shares that guide's strengths and weaknesses.

A short introduction attempts to answer the question "What is a bird?" The account describes evolution from dinosaurs, and how modern and ancestral birds differ from their more reptilian kin. This question has become more difficult to answer, as recent discoveries have shown that many dinosaurs shared characteristic traits with birds, including feathers, hollow bones, and perhaps endothermic systems. The introduction discusses many of the characteristics birds share in common, such as flight (or in some cases, vestigial flight structures), lung structure, nest-building, and egg-laying. Within each of these broad characteristics, however, are many variations caused by adaptations to specific environmental constraints. The introduction tries to show what some of these are, but leaves most variations for the family chapters.

Most of the book consists of accounts for each of the 172 bird families on the Sibley and Monroe checklist. Basic information – number of species, distribution, habitats, and the like – is condensed into a "factfile" (see left). The accompanying text discusses the family's characteristic traits in more detail. Each account begins some discussion of when and where the family evolved and how it relates to other families; if it includes subfamilies, these are discussed individually. The accounts moves on to adaptations that help them forage or survive in difficult habitats. Breeding behavior is given its own subheading, and in some cases, is lengthened into a sidebar or two-page "photo story." The shorebird account, for example, includes a two-page spread of photographs illustrating the courtship and copulation of Ruffs, and the bowerbird account has examples of bowers from several different species.

Conservation of vulnerable species is a running theme. Each family "factfile" includes a header on the family's conservation status and lists any threatened or extinct species. Occasionally extinct species merit their own sidebar, as is the case with the Dodo. Other "special features" highlight conservation problems for For example, the falcon account includes a lengthy sidebar discussion of the effect of DDT on falcons and other raptors, and the chapter on cranes describes the work of Operation Migration.

While the text is informative, the best aspect of this book is the abundance of illustrations. Unlike many bird references, it combines both photographs and paintings to take full advantage of each medium. Painted illustrations, as in the image from the tern account, show the range of forms within each family. Photographs accompanying the text show additional species and typical behaviors such as feeding nestlings or communal roosting. Additional line drawings depict courtship flights or dances. Both photographs and illustrations are extremely attractive; the paintings are particularly well-executed. I am sure that perusing these illustrations will provide plenty of fodder for personal most-wanted bird lists.

I like this family-based approach, as it encourages the reader to step away from the minutiae of bird identification and enjoy the broader picture of bird diversity. However, I have met birders who disagree with this approach, in some cases vigorously. My recommendation is that if you liked Bird or Sibley's Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, you will probably appreciate this book even more, as it places North American birds into a worldwide context. Readers who want a guide to all of the species might be happier with a series of illustrated checklists or the monumental Handbook of the Birds of the World.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Birds. Edited by Christopher Perrins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. Pp. 654; photographs and illustrations, maps, glossary, index. $35.00 paper.