Any day now the robin will be singing outside my window at 3 a.m. I will dream of throwing things at him. But I look forward to him, because he means spring and sun.
Being inquisitive — why does the robin have no manners and think it is acceptable to sing at 3 a.m. — I have sought references. Here are some of the newest bird guides.
Aaaaw to zzzzzd: the words of birds: North America, Britain, and Northern Europe, by John Bevis, The MIT Press, 2010, 144 pages. Why would someone make a list of bird sounds like “zi-zi-zi-zi-zeee” and “zoo zee zoo zoo zee”? John Bevis writes, “In a way I’m calling the bluff of the ornithologists — if they’re happy to make up words that seem to them to represent the sounds of birds, then a glossary of those words ought to be legitimate.” So, after some talk about how birds lack lips and people lack syrinxes, and how “krrr” is different from “kr-r-r”, he presents two lexicons, one for North America, one for Great Britain and Northern Europe. This is what you need if you ever think, “What is that bird? I can’t see it, but I hear it singing ‘cor cor cor.’” Open this little guide, scan down the list to ‘cor cor cor’” and find out it’s an Idahoan tweety bingle. Except I made that up, there’s no such bird, and ‘cor cor cor’ is not in the lexicon. Which is probably what’ll happen to you, because if you gather 12 people and ask them to write in English what a given bird just said, you’ll get 12 different answers.
You will notice, however, that the entries in this book do match, at least somewhat, the sounds described in bird guides such as the ones listed below. There must be some degree of standardization, though I’m not sure who’s in charge.
National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America, by Jonathan Alderfer and Paul Hess, National Geographic Society, 2011, 254 pages.
It’s no surprise that this guide has impressive photographs. But it also has good, detailed drawings. At the top of each page you’ll see a category name. I don’t see “Robin” and I’m not sure what category a robin would be in, so I head to the index. It turns out I want American Robin (in the “Thrushes” category). It says, “In northern areas, the male’s loud, caroling song is a welcome harbinger of spring.” There are two photographs and four drawings — male, female, juvenile and in flight. There are headings for Identification, Range, Food, and Nesting. (Under Nesting: “Robins are not shy about nesting around homes….”) (Under Identification: “Loud caroling song has a cheerful, bubbling quality.” Yes, I’d noticed.) A small map shows what regions it frequents. The front of the book advises how to make your yard welcoming to birds — how to choose a bird house, bird food, landscaping. Then there’s “Keys to Identifying Birds” and the bulk of the book, “Guide to 150 species.” For a taste, visit http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding.
American Museum of Natural History Birds of North America Eastern Region, edited by Francois Vuilleumier, DK Publishing, 2011, 480 pages.
This book is similar to the Nat Geo in organization, but visually it’s a step down. I go straight to the index for Robin and choose “American” rather than “Clay-colored.” American Robin has one full page. Four drawings: male, female, juvenile and in flight (just like the Nat Geo guide), and one small adequate photograph. A very small map shows what regions the Robin frequents. A small chart gives its length, wingspan and other vitals. A tiny box labeled “Similar Species” tells us not to confuse the Robin with the Varied Thrush. The itty-bitty, get-out-your-glasses text describes its migration patterns, voice, nesting, breeding and feeding. Perhaps the best, most distinguishing feature of the book is that it also shows a flight diagram, a line that depicts the path a Robin typically takes when flying through the air. These can be very helpful in identifying birds, if you chance to see your bird flying. Some fly in long swoops, some in jittery ups and downs.
The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald & Lillian Stokes, Little, Brown & Co., 2010, 792 pages plus CD of bird sounds.
This includes far more birds than you will encounter in New England; so does the Nat Geo guide, but Stokes is a far thicker and heavier book. The authors live on 48 acres in New Hampshire and keep a blog at www.stokesbirdingblog.blogspot.com. This guide is mainly straight-up text. It has lots of abbreviations and some advanced terminology — easily look-up-able in the “How to Use This Guide” but could slow you down if you aren’t already fluent in words like “supraloral.” The book’s up-front “Photo Key to the Parts of Birds” is kind of cool and helps with the terms, though. The one page for American Robin shows six photos, not spectacular but good, plus rather straightforward, technical descriptions of its shape, coloring, habitats and voice. The CD is, of course, a plus, but really, if you have web access … then again, you might not, in the field.
I give the National Geographic guide the nod as the overall best, most useful guide for beginners because it’s easiest to read and navigate, best at describing sounds and giving you quick access to the sort of information that matches what you’ll encounter in your yard. Also, the DK guide has irritatingly tiny print. But the flight-path drawing in the DK guide was what really nailed one bird ID for me — those drawings make the DK very valuable. The Stokes I’d save for when you’re past the beginner stage.
There is another new book I haven’t had a chance to review, but I’ve seen the promotional material: The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, by Richard Crossley, Princeton University Press, 2011, 544 pages. It boasts 10,000 color images, but they’re combined, Photoshop-wise. Each image in the book is a composite created from maybe six or 10 different real-life images. So the pelican page shows one big picture of a couple dozen birds doing different things on a stretch of pond, some close to the camera, some far away, some flying — but those birds were not all actually there at the same time. This is Photoshop at its best, or its most confusing and misleading (certainly about how the birds congregate and socialize). I’m not thrilled with the gimmick and I think sometimes the backgrounds overwhelm the birds. Yes, it’s good to see birds in their natural habitats and natural poses, because that will match what you see in the field. But will it “help you become a better birder” as claimed? I don’t know. The book’s real estate is taken up mostly by photography, with little text. See www.crossleybirds.com.
P.S. I am told the robin’s lack of manners may result from our own: city-dwelling birds have to start singing early to beat the competing din of morning rush-hour traffic.