Ber van Perlo, Birds of Mexico and Central America

It’s a great idea, the “illustrated checklist,” and as Princeton University Press keeps turning them out, I’m beginning to wonder whether Ber van Perlo may soon become the only illustrator in history to have painted every bird in the world.

Unlike a full-scale (and full-weight) field guide, the Princeton Illustrated Checklists offer only densely packed color plates, with terse facing-page descriptions of field marks, habitat, voice, and distribution. The seven Myiopagis and Elaenia flycatchers in this volume, for example, are dispatched in eight images and 21 lines of tiny type–and share their plate with no fewer than ten other tyrant flycatcher species. A few openings feature as many as 20 species; in the case of the swallows, for example, or the northern warblers, several plumages and attitudes are presented for each species, making the plates so ludicrously crowded as to be essentially useless.

This, of course, is the price to be paid for the PICs’ great advantage, their portability. The standard guides to Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama combined would add nearly 10 pounds to the thorough birder’s backpack. The present volume, covering all of the bird species in the AOU area south of the United States, comes in at just over a pound, or about one third the dry weight of Howell and Webb; this truly is a pocket book, easy to carry and quick to consult in the field.

Many birders over the years have devised their own approach to the weight problem: they have their heavy field guides disbound and the plates assembled into a new, slimmer volume for carrying. But the PIC has several advantages over even this Solomonic solution. First, the facing-page captions in the PIC contain voice and habitat information generally found only in the texts of the larger guides. Furthermore, the PIC includes range maps for each of the species covered, a feature absent from the plates of any of the national guides. Complete indices give English, Spanish, and scientific names for each species. And, perhaps most importantly, the PIC illustrates every one of those species, including, critically, a large number of North American breeders for which the standard field guides, in an attempt to save space and weight, provide only a reference to a North American guide.

The paintings, several thousand of them, are the most important component of the PIC. Plumage patterns appear to be depicted accurately, and the level of detail is often surprisingly fine on images so small. Unfortunately, van Perlo has a noticeable tendency to give his birds oddly “friendly” expressions, making even such lean, mean, bug-eating machines as Northern Mockingbirds look downright cuddly. His large parrots grin disarmingly where they should leer threateningly, and I’d hardly think twice at meeting this book’s Great Black-backed Gull in a dark alley. This is unlikely to bother the birder using the volume as a memory jogger, but anyone attempting to learn the birds from this book is likely to be led astray.

The inclusion of voice descriptions is a nice touch here, but the terminology used is not intuitive to a native speaker of English, and the definitions provided in the introductory matter are not carried through in the text. The trumpet of Whooping Crane, for example, is described as “high/very high,” terms defined earlier as corresponding to “the average pitch of a woman’s voice (e.g., oystercatcher).” I know very few women whose voice, absent the judicious application of helium gas, is nearly as high as the squealing of an oystercatcher, and the call of the crane is very much lower. Should this book be re-issued, these voice descriptions will require thorough revision.

The English and scientific names used in the book rely largely on the AOU Check-List, though with a number of unexpected deviations. Of course, the latest revisions (Tringa, the terns) are not included here–or in any other standard field guide for the American continents. Blue Grosbeak is still given its own monotypic genus Guiraca (merged into Passerina a Supplement or two ago), and its English name here is simply “Grosbeak.” The Spanish names are said to reflect Mexican and Costa Rican usage, though numerous local variants are included in the index.

For many birders accustomed to carrying a guide in the field, the PIC will prove a useful and handy aide-mémoire. But it really can be no more than that, and any birder tempted to rely on this as her or his primary guide to the region’s incredibly rich avifauna should resist, and immediately seek immersion in Howell and Webb or in Ridgely’s Panama.


David Beadle and J.D. Rising: Tanagers, Cardinals, and Finches

I was quite prepared to wax enthusiastic about this new photographic guide to this assembly of nine-primaried oscines: they’re pretty birds, many of them, and the authors have already done the birding community a great favor with their works on emberizid sparrows. But it turns out, surprisingly, that there is little to recommend this new book, and birders who already own a good field guide to North American birds will likely find that they don’t need or use this one.

This is another in Princeton University Press’s Photographic Guide series, which thus far includes volumes on hummingbirds, emberizid sparrows, and shorebirds. Where the earlier volumes featured generally excellent photos of their subject birds, most of the images here are neither attractive nor informative. There are exceptions (Laura Erickson’s wonderfully instructive Hoary Redpolls, for example, and a number of Brian Small’s photos), but far too many of these photos are small, poorly composed, and fuzzy, far below the standards routinely attained in photographic guides (or in magazines, for that matter). Even the images of birds in hand and of captive birds are of shockingly low quality; the Carpodacus finches in 31.4, for instance, are distant, out of focus, poorly lit, and awkwardly posed against a dark and ‘busy’ background. I sputtered for hours over the single shot of a Blue-gray Tanager, which is not only horribly blurred, but does not even depict the same subspecies described in the text.

The concise texts that accompany the images are much better, but in general add little to the information already available in modern field guides. Each begins with a set of mensural data. As birders have known since the appearance of the Sibley guide half a decade ago, weight information is extremely helpful in gauging the “size” of an unknown bird; all the same, it is surprising to find the average mass of Yellow Grosbeak calculated here from specimens of a different species. “Wing” length is never defined, leaving the reader unsure whether the figure here is the wing chord, flattened wing, or even wingspan; such figures are of little use in the field in any event.

The texts continue with information about each species’ habitat, behavior, vocalizations, distributions, and geographic variation; oddly, the descriptions of the birds’ appearance do not come until the end of each account, just before the very helpful discussion of any known hybrid combinations and a short list of references. This is, after all, an identification guide, and it would have made far better sense to move the descriptions, molt discussions, and “similar species” sections to the head of each entry.

Perhaps the most useful component in this book are the distribution paragraphs, which provide extremely detailed, state-by-state and province-by-province descriptions of the breeding, winter, and vagrant ranges and abundance of each species. A fairly extensive spot check reveals that these sections are quite up to date and complete, making them a very handy resource for birders interested in range expansions and retractions. The same sampling also finds, however, that the maps were not invariably prepared using the same data as the written descriptions: the map for Northern Cardinal, for example, omits the bird’s occurrence in California, Colorado, and Manitoba, all areas correctly included in the authors’ prose.

The main text and photos are preceded by an Introduction of the usual sort, offering cursory advice on identification techniques. The long paragraph (p.3) on taxonomic polysemy and polylexy should have been very carefully edited for clarity; unwilling to believe that William St. could let writing like this out the door, I showed it to a well-educated high-intermediate birder with better than average reading skills, who also found it badly jumbled. The two or three sentences introducing each genus are generally fine, though the merger of Guiraca into Passerina seems to have tripped the authors up in their species counts (five of seven Passerina breed north of Mexico).

None of this is to suggest that the authors don’t “know their stuff”: they most certainly do. I only wish that they had communicated that stuff more clearly and more attractively than this volume manages to do.


Who’s Laughing Now?

Tucson is full of bearded birder Ricks, and one of them (he is fond of calling himself “the right Rick, not Rick Wright”) found a Laughing Gull at Willcox the other day. Alison and I ran over there this afternoon to see it: a fine bird, if a little ratty, and a new one for my Arizona list.

The English and scientific names of certain gulls make up a strange matrix of equivalences and contradictions. Our Willcox vagrant belongs to a species Linnaeus named atricilla, “black-tailed,” obviously relying on a non-adult specimen of the bird Catesby had already called Laughing Gull. Sixty years later, Vieillot described the Black-tailed Gull, Larus crassirostris (“thick-billed”). Eight years after describing the Laughing Gull, Linnaeus published his description of the abundant European species we know in English as Black-headed Gull; he gave it the epithet ridibundus, “laughing,” a translation of the bird’s common name in a number of other languages. And in 1820, Temminck named the Mediterranean Gull melanocephalus,”black-headed.” To top it all off, Pallas named the bird we know as Yellow-legged Gull cachinnans, another word for–get this–“laughing.”

Got all that? As if gulls weren’t hard enough already….


Who You Gonna Trust?

The Generalissimo Franco of big woodpeckers, the ivory-bill, appears to be still dead, according to the latest press release from Cornell.

I was thinking about that this morning in Madera Canyon when we ran into a birder who reported a, well, never mind what the bird was: what was interesting was the brief conversation that ensued. Our interlocutor noted that s/he had a couple of times turned in written descriptions to a bird records committee and had her/his report “rejected, because the bird wasn’t documented.” I’m not good at hiding puzzlement, and my bemused look drew a clarification: “You know, documented, photographed.”

But you see, documentation is not necessarily the same as photography, or at least it didn’t use to be. It seems to me that birding has become so heavily technologized in the last few years that we have abandoned, or at least greatly devalued, the artifact it was founded upon 100 years ago: the well-described sight record.

Birders (and ornithologists, for that matter) spent the first couple decades of the last century fighting for the value of the sight record, arguing that verbal documentation by a careful observer could, for most species, be as credible as a specimen. And from about, oh, say, 1934 until about, oh, say, 2004, it was true: thorough, precise descriptions of rarities were treated with seriousness by birders and records committees alike, sometimes rejected, sometimes accepted, but in any event considered a reasonable way to document an unusual sighting.

That’s changed. Digital cameras and cheap, easily portable recording equipment have made it possible to secure “tangible,” “objective”–choose your adjective–documentation of rarities that just a decade ago would have been captured only in the careful observer’s notes. This is a fine thing, of course, and I am glad that so many birders provide photographic evidence of their unusual reports. But I am not glad at all that documentation of that sort is pushing verbal description aside, returning us surely and not so slowly to the same place we were a hundred years ago; just replace “shotgun” with “digital camera.”

The most shocking example is the last year’s fuss over the reports of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The controversy has revolved almost exclusively around the now famous, and still utterly useless, video showing a black-and-white something flying away from a canoe, and there has been virtually no attention paid to the couple of sight records by normally credible observers: they have been neither rigorously criticized nor held up as evidence of the bird’s survival, and all eyes have been turned (and all loud mouths devoted) to a couple of frames of inscrutable digital video.

We’ve lost something, thanks to this affair: not just the Ivory-bill, which probably wasn’t there to begin with, but also our willingness to look to other birders, not the computer monitor, for answers to our questions. Let’s go back to talking to each other.


Drama at Carter Lake

Sorting gulls this morning at Carter Lake, Iowa, we were startled by the sudden appearance of an adult Peregrine Falcon, which flashed past us to land on a hapless Killdeer. It took off with its squirming prey, only to find itself beset by a brash immature Herring Gull, which chased it acrobatically until it dropped the Killdeer, which flew a short distance and dived into the water, only to be plucked from the surface by a 3rd-year Bald Eagle! The eagle landed in the shallows and plucked and consumed the plover. What a way to go!