It may have escaped your attention (it certainly had mine), but birds have become a hot item. That, at least, is one conclusion to be drawn from the sudden outpouring of sumptuous bird books. To buy even one of them requires a hefty nest egg; to buy the lot might put you in debtors' gaol.
Of those that seem aimed directly at the Christmas-gift trade, two are particularly attractive. In The Living World of Audubon ( Grosset & Dunlap, $25), Roland C. Clement has successfully brought off an imaginative idea. Sixty-four reproductions of Audubon prints are accompanied by photographs of the same birds in their contemporary habitats. The photos are lovely, but what is most important is that they underscore the nearly photographic accuracy of Audubon's work.
There are more beautiful photographs in Jurgen Nicolai's Bird Life (Putnam, $25), and again the purpose is more than to brighten coffee tables. In his text, Nicolai traces the evolution of birds around the world and discusses various aspects of bird behavior. The photographs complement the text stunningly; one could not ask for better color reproduction. There is also a lengthy introduction by Konrad Lorenz.
A bird book of a different feather is Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas, published by Beehive Press. Catesby was an 18th-century naturalist and an artist of impressive skills. You can add him to your library for the nifty price of $545; of which $500 is for a portfolio of 50 plates, $45 for a bound catalog volume. However, they can be bought separately. The address is 321 Barnard St., Savannah, Ga. 31401. This production seems to me to fall into the Neiman-Marcus category, more interesting for its pretentiousness than for its literary or esthetic qualities.
And then there is Bird Life of Texas ( University of Texas Press, two volumes, slip-cased, $60). This is the culmination of work begun more than 70 years ago by the ornithologist Harry Oberholser and continued after his death in 1963 by Edgar Kincaid. In breadth and depth of research and observation, this book is a monument. It is of far more than regional interest, both because of its superb scholarship and because about two-thirds of North American birds have been sighted in Texas. There are many black-and-white photos, and 36 color plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. For a serious student of birds, this is the book.