Bird books are as scarce as, well, hen's teeth on best-seller lists, although a few years ago a small tour de force about an introspective seagull made it. And this year, perched on the paperback charts, is the two-volume The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds ( Alfred A. Knopf, $7.95 each).
One volume treats Eastern birds, the other Western birds and the novice bird watcher will be delighted by the full-color photographs (584 in the Eastern volume; 627 in the Western). Although veteran birders may miss the clear, carefully delineated paintings of traditional field guides and the field marks of Roger Tory Peterson, the bright, close-up photos give a wonderful immediacy to the birds and their environment—a tired, young saw-whet owl struggles to keep its eyes open, a wary peregrine falcon with a bloody beak clutches its prey in its talons, two fledgling pileated woodpeckers, beaks invitingly open, scream greetings from their hollow-tree home to their returning parent—and all elicit an instant sympathy and understanding that few paintings can evoke.
To make identification easier and quicker, the color plates are arranged according to each bird's appearance, primarily its shape and color, not, as in so many guides, by its scientific family. On the edge of each page of illustrations is a handy "thumbprint" guide, a small color-keyed silhouette of a bird showing the category to which the photographs of the birds on that page belong—long-legged waders, sandpiperlike birds, tree-clinging birds, perching birds, etc. Armed with an Audubon Guide, a reader need only flip through the plates until he spots an orange silhouette of a perching bird—revealing its eye-catching color—then glance quickly at the photographs on the indicated page to confirm that the exotic feathered creature hopping across his lawn is the first robin of the year.
The text is organized according to habitat—open ocean, freshwater marshes, deciduous forests, and so forth (the Eastern volume lists 12 habitats, the Western 20), and the entry for each species includes the expected data on appearance, voice, range and nesting habits, plus a paragraph of miscellaneous information. A remarkable collection of bird lore can be gleaned from the latter. For instance, because of their high oil content, Leach's storm petrels were once used as lamps; a cotton wick was inserted in a dead bird's mouth and lit. The Arctic tern, which each year migrates 22,000 miles from pole to pole and back again, spends more time in daylight in the course of a year than any other living creature. The beautiful but dumb whistling swan often stops to rest on the Niagara River while migrating south, and is sometimes swept over the Falls. Carolina wrens will nest in the pockets of coats left on a clothesline. Nuthatches usually creep down trees, while brown creepers only move up. Prairie warblers are not found on prairies, magnolia warblers are not found in magnolias and Connecticut warblers seldom visit Connecticut. The magnificent frigate bird has a wingspan of 7'6", an old-squaw can dive to 80 fathoms, the peregrine falcon plunges at 180 mph and an albatross takes 10 to 12 years to mature. The bald eagle, symbol of majesty and power, has a weak, "thin, chittering" voice. Cactus wrens are late sleepers and can be surprised in their nests by early-rising bird watchers. The common raven's "insight behavior at least matches that of a dog." The cedar waxwing, in a birdie variation of the human game 'Pass it Along,' will "pass berries or even apple blossoms from one bird to the next down a long row sitting on a branch, until one bird eats the food." The polygamous great-tailed grackle, a male chauvinist, remains safely in the treetops after dispatching his females to the ground to feed. If they are not gobbled up by predators, he joins them.
The Guide also offers an eye-opening gamut of calls and songs. Though the calls of the bobwhite, chickadee, whippoorwill, killdeer, towhee, phoebe and curlew are just about what one would expect from their names, other birds have voices like an "old-fashioned-pump" (American bittern), a "loud clang" (least grebe), a "constant liquid twittering" (barn swallow), "wild maniacal laughter" (common loon), a "dry rattle, like running a finger along the teeth of a comb" (Smith's longspur), the "tinkle of icicles" (tree sparrow), or the "tolling of a soft bell" (boreal owl).
This easy to understand guide should set thousands of new watchers loose in the mountains, deserts and backyards of the country and introduce to a whole new group of Americans the pleasures of spotting the bright plumage of a scarlet tanager or identifying a ruby-throated hummingbird as it darts from flower to flower. Best of all, Audubon readers might learn to recognize the call of the wood thrush, a plain brown bird with a song so beautiful, says the Guide, that Thoreau was moved to write, "Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him."