As Boswell tells it, Samuel Johnson, after he had finally dispatched the last page of his famous dictionary, asked the messenger who had conveyed them to his impatient, long-waiting publisher, "Well, what did he say?" "Sir," answered the Messenger, "he said, Thank God I have done with him.' " "I am glad," replied Johnson, with a smile, "that he thanks God for anything."
Even the most casual bird watcher will be thankful for John K. Terres' The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds ( Alfred A. Knopf, $60). In his introduction, the 75-year-old former editor of Audubon magazine and author of six previous books describes the Encyclopedia as "a modest attempt to make the fruits of the science of ornithology available to the millions of North Americans who are interested in birds." But there is nothing modest about this prodigious 1,109-page book. Two decades in the making (Johnson's dictionary took less than one), it contains 875 color photographs, almost as many black-and-white illustrations, detailed life histories of 847 birds that have occupied North American airspace, concise biographies of 126 naturalists, plus entries on every conceivable subject of ornithological interest, from the scientific ("ADDUCTOR: One of four sets of muscles with which bird closes its jaws") to the functional ("SANITARY HABITS: ...shorebirds and herons have been reported leaving their feeding areas in water and going ashore to defecate").
Since the Encyclopedia weighs in at eight pounds on my bathroom scale, only a very fit bird-watcher would heave it in his knapsack before tramping the fields. This is not a pocket manual like the ones by Roger Tory Peterson, whose latest, A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, received so much attention last fall that the Encyclopedia was scarcely noted when it came out in November. But, just as appreciating an athletic event entails more than knowing the names of the players, there's more to birds than simply identifying them. And it's all in the Encyclopedia: how they behave and breed; what they eat in the wild and should be fed in captivity (to keep a roseate spoonbill's feathers in the pink, slip it some cottage cheese) how they build their nests, how they care for and defend their young.
Any field guide will inform you that the black and white duck bobbing on the bay on a wintry afternoon, the one with the long, spiky tail, is an oldsquaw. Big deal. If you consult the Encyclopedia in the evening, however, you'll learn, along with much else, that the oldsquaw's flight speed has been clocked as high as 73 miles per hour, that it can dive underwater to depths of at least 200 feet and that its nicknames include: "Calloo; cockawee; coween; hound; John Connolly; long-tail; long-tailed duck; old Billy; old granny; old injun; old molly; old wife; quandy; scoldenore; scolder; south-southerly; squeaking duck; swallow-tailed duck; uncle Huldy; winter duck."
If it's too cold to venture out of doors, you can browse by the fire and discover in the Encyclopedia that birds can literally turn white from fright, shedding their colored feathers and growing white ones in their place; that a colony of cormorants once adorned their nests with pocketknives and hairpins the diving birds had salvaged from a sunken ship; and that 36,000 American pigeons served overseas in World War II. One of them, called G.I. Joe, saved an Allied-occupied Italian village from bombing and won the Dickin Medal, which was awarded to animals serving with conspicuous gallantry during wartime.
Never before, perhaps, has so much anecdotal as well as hard-core information been compressed in one book, and the text is beautifully complemented by the photographs. Flying brant are silhouetted against a ghostly full moon. To impress a potential mate, a goldeneye drake contorts itself like an Indian yogi. A ravenous young white pelican nearly disappears into the gaping bright-orange pouch of one of its parents. A field sparrow, seemingly one of the drabbest of birds, becomes a suite of subtly modulated siennas. The photographs are not quite all-inclusive—two North American swifts, for instance, those cigar-shaped birds that twitter at twilight, are missing—but the selection and quality are superb.
The Encyclopedia's only shortcoming is its excessive detail. While the completeness of the book is one of its strengths, certain aspects of this strength must be called weaknesses. Terres' cross-referencing strews some entries with too many potholes. Under AGE, for example, one reads, "One of the factors often troubling to people who are concerned about birds and their welfare (see Bird-attracting) is the extreme shortness of the lives of most of them. Enormous hazards face birds (see Accidents), some even before they hatch (see Hatching; Egg-eating). Yet birds do survive surprisingly well (see Nesting Success and Failure under Nests and Nesting)...." And, is it really necessary to include definitions of CENTIMETER and CENTIGRADE, not to mention consecutive entries, ALPINE TUNDRA and ALPINE ZONE, both of which simply advise, "See Tundra"? One also wonders why Sir Walter Lawry Buller, a New Zealand lawyer and amateur ornithologist after whom a shearwater occasionally found off the Pacific Coast was named, receives as much space as an important American naturalist and writer like John Burroughs.
In all, the Encyclopedia could easily have been shortened by a hundred pages or so. But to gripe about that is to look a gift horse in the mouth. And, make no mistake about it, the Encyclopedia is a gift. Under BIRDER, Terres writes of "...an addiction [that is] considered incurable and carries with it a lifetime guarantee against boredom." He might just as well be describing The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.
A sample entry on Pelecaniformes from "The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds." The hook contains the life history of 847 birds, plus 625 ornithological topics.