Even in this age of hype and spin, the promotional campaign for the American Bird Conservancy's Field Guide: All the Birds of North America (HarperPerennial, $19.95) is something else. With a first printing of 150,000 copies and a lavish marketing budget, All the Birds is described by its publisher as "revolutionary" in its concept and design, both of which are the work of Jack L. Griggs, a self-described adventurer and passionate conservationist.
The idea for the book grew out of Griggs's frustration at being unable to identify birds in the field because he could not find them in his guide before they flew away. Griggs was, according to his publisher's blurb, "the first to realize that weak design, not content, was the problem with 20th century bird guides," and he "immersed himself for seven years in the emerging discipline of information design." He should have stayed immersed longer.
Instead of basing its organization on taxonomy and scientific order to show evolutionary relationships, as most guides do—hey, Linnaeus and Darwin were on to something—All the Birds divides birds into groups such as Aerialists, Swimmers, Ground-Walkers, Tree-Climbers and so on. This approach is, in fact, neither new nor revolutionary. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (two volumes, Eastern and Western regions) did this 20 years ago, except that it used color photographs instead of full-color paintings, as Griggs does. And Griggs's reliance on "field recognizable" features borrows from the late Roger Tory Peterson, who organized the first of his immensely popular guides the same way in 1934.
So, hype aside, what about All the Birds? It is a good-looking book that easily slips into the pocket, and the paintings of birds in their natural habitats are excellent. Here Griggs had the assistance of 13 topflight illustrators, including his son, along with the advice of 11 ornithological consultants, three of whom previously worked on the Audubon guides.
Alas, All the Birds is not all that easy to use. To start, there is no table of contents, and the opening section on extinct birds is unpaginated. What seems to be the introduction to the book is in the middle. Immediately after an entry on the ringed kingfisher, there are five pages on plumage and structure and calls and song, which precede the book's introduction with no notice to the reader.
A confusing design element is that the pages are only alternately numbered, so the first two pages opened together are page 1, the next two pages are page 2, and so on. The numbers themselves are printed sideways, in the lower right corner of the right-hand page only, so you have to turn the book to read them before you turn it right-side up again to look at the pictures and read the text.
All the Birds is supposedly designed to let the user quickly identify any one of the 800-plus species of birds in North America before it flies away. Imagine that my wife and I are in the field and suddenly, overhead, I see a fulmar—I think. My wife shouts, "No, it's a dickeissel!" I put down my binoculars, fumble in my pocket to find my eyeglasses so that I can read the directions on the back cover of All the Birds: "STEP #1: Open to the key for WATERBIRDS on the inside front cover or to the key for LANDBIRDS on the inside back cover, STEP #2: Select the icon that most resembles the bird being identified, and note the color bar and key number next to that icon...."
I look under AERIALISTS for the icon, a small outline drawing of a bird about the size of a fulmar as compared with the icon for bigger birds like albatrosses, boobies and gannets. I spot a medium-sized icon and read "3: Fulmar, Gadfly Petrels, Gulls & Terns (pelagic), Jaegers, Shearwaters, Skuas, Tropicbirds." I turn the book sideways to find page 3—"Hurry, hurry," my wife says—and I turn the guide upright again only to find paintings and entries on three tropic birds, two terns and two noddies on the page. Thumbing frantically, I finally find "Fulmar" on page 8, really page 15. I look up in the sky. No bird. "I told you it was a dickeissel," my wife says.
Other criticisms: Shrikes are included under the heading of fly-catching bills, even though their diet includes mice and birds, and Griggs relies on bill shapes to identify a number of land-birds, even though bills are impossible to see on warblers, vireos and other small birds as they flit about, often high in trees. "Griggs might as well have invented a system of eye size, for all the use of bill shapes," says James P. Rod, an expert birder who manages the National Audubon Society's Constitution Marsh Sanctuary in Garrison, N.Y.
I agree. My final judgment: Yes, dear, it was a dickeissel.