Birding books (a shopping guide)

Hello, all, NBB here.

First off, I should tell you all that Shazz (a nickname she picked up from a UK reader, as I recall) is alive and well and is getting ready for a short trip out of town, which is why I'll be your host for the next few days. I'm sure when she returns, she'll have a long series of posts detailing every single inaccurate thing I wrote about birds, or perhaps, if we're very lucky, she'll go back and annotate the posts I did write, so we'll get sort of a director's commentary.

My wife is a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor. Except when it comes to birds, an area where she has no sense of humor. At all. I can make jokes about bees carrying little pails and Cinnamon needing to color eggs for Easter, and it's all good. But jokes about pouring salt on a bird's tail are met with a stony silence, and heaven help us if we're watching a movie and characters camping on a mountain forest hear a loon call.

Which of course just makes it funnier to me.

To compensate for this, I try to give Sharon bird-related books she'll really like. Now, Sharon's pretty hardcore, so these suggestions may not apply to the birder in your life, but I thought I'd pass them on, regardless. This is primarily for the significant others of birdwatchers, because boy howdy, I think I've caused a few fights in other people's relationships by buying too good a gift, if you know what I mean.

The first thing you need to know is that there are four kinds of bird books. There are basic books, field guides, scientific books, and bird porn (here's hoping that last category doesn't get us flagged again).

Basic books have a lot of general information and pictures, and are designed for the casual bird watcher. There the kind of book you'd get someone as a housewarming present, I guess; they don't give a lot of details, because they don't want to bore the casual reader. I recognize them by picking a paragraph at random and thinking, would I read this book myself? If the answer is "yes," then I don't get it for Sharon. Don't get me wrong, these books often have useful information, and if your loved one starting out as a birder, this is probably the best place to begin.

Field Guides are pretty obvious, but need to be suited to the personality of the birder. Think of it like choosing a wand in Harry Potter. "This one? No, no, no, too heavy. How about... Yes, this is very good for birds in your area, not so much for shore birds. But then there's..."

It's probably best to let a birder choose their own field guide, though of course they can drop hints about one they'd like for someone to pick up for them (cough, cough). Guides are either use photos or paintings. Photos, of course, show you what the bird actually looks like (but are often taken from a distance), while paintings can show a lot more detail (but you kind of have to translate an artist's rendering into real-world situations).

One fun thing you can do with field guides is look for ones that refer to different countries. In addition to the fact that they probably won't have it, the birds in other countries are (gasp) usually colorful, and pleasing to look at. Guides to other countries are usually the only ones I buy for Sharon because in terms of what she needs for her day-to-day birding, she has the guides she needs: a Sibley in the car for checking field marks, and several more at home for puzzling out difficult birds.

Scientific books are the meat 'n' potatoes of what I get Sharon. And the best part is that you can usually find them really, really cheap because no one in their right mind would buy them unless they worked at a library and needed to fill up the stacks with books that no one ever checks out.

Scientific books are books written by ornithologists for ornithologists. They have very few pictures, lots of graphs, and such thrilling titles as "Biosystemics of the American Crow." When I see something like this peeking up at me from the bottom row of Half Price Books, I think "Pay dirt!" More boring makes it more better, as I learned over the course of a few Christmases, having put down books on very obscure topics (Analysis in Turkey Vulture Droppings) in favor of bird books that looked mildly interesting (to me). Fortunately for all concerned I mentioned to Sharon the terrible books I had almost bought, before I realized she'd left for the bookstore so quickly that all I was talking to was a Sharon-shaped dust cloud that slowly dissipated.

So, if you have a hard-core birder in your life (Hi, Reier!) these are the kind of books to look for. You especially want to be on the look out for The Life Histories of North American Birds by Arthur Cleveland Bent, an amateur birder who compiled data on, well, every North American Bird and published the data in a series of books through the Smithsonian (and later, Dover). Again, these are pretty much reference books, not really for reading. Unless you're married to my wife.

A story: we're lying in bed together, reading. I forget what I was reading, something nerdy no doubt about elves and Quests and so forth, but somewhere in there, Sharon let out a gasp. An audible, shocked gasp. I looked over to see what she was reading, and the chapter header was Parasitic Infestations of Peregrine Falcon Nests, 1920-1921.

The final category is Bird Porn, which means giant, full color books filled with pictures and illustrations of birds. It's hard to go wrong with picture books, but you do have to be careful when dealing with illustrations, because, well, sometimes they suck.

And by that I mean that they're inaccurate. Or that the birder in your life doesn't like the illustrator's style. I generally don't pick up books of illustrated birds unless they're by Robert Bateman, an artist I know Sharon likes.

So, that's that. Sorry the post wasn't funnier or more interesting. I'll bring out the bees and the bunnies soon, I promise.