Saturday, December 20, 2008

Three for the bookshelf or coffee table

I've been reading three relatively new large-format bird books lately, and offer this comparative review. (Almost too late for holiday shopping, I know, but it's a free service.)

First up is On Feathered Wings: Birds in Flight by Richard Ettlinger. This is primarily a photographic collection, purporting to be the first composed entirely of avian flight photos. The pictures are by the author and six other contributors, including Colorado falconer/photographer Rob Palmer. (I met Rob at a NAFA meet a few years ago, even drove him around briefly, and while I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup after such a short meeting, he struck me as a genuinely nice as well as talented fellow.) The book is unevenly divided into four sections: "Killers on the Wing" is the longest, followed by "Wings Along the Shore", "Wings of the Wetlands", and finally the abbreviated "Songbirds on the Wing"—eleven plates in this section, eight of which are photographs of swallows (certainly better than my efforts in that area). I'll confine my commentary primarily to the section on raptors.

As promised in the introduction, many of the photographs are "impossible" shots, or would be to ordinary mortal photographers: well-composed, crisply-focused, dramatic images of hawks and owls in flight. Some were taken at well-known migration points; several others are of falconry birds, either explicitly identified as "captives" or depicting commonly-trained birds outside of their natural ranges (e.g., Harris' hawk in Utah). In none of these latter shots, however, are the standard articles of falconry "furniture"—jesses, bells, telemetry transmitters—visible, so I assume that these have been digitally excised.

Also in the introduction, Ettlinger describes the book's images as "proving anew that a picture can be worth more than a thousand words, that text is an unnecessary embellishment." If only he had taken his own hint... I could overlook statements like "Birds are the only vertebrates able to get away by flying and to live pretty much every part of their lives in the air" (he's never heard of bats?) and assertions that birds mate in mid-air (true, possibly, of swifts, but not of most birds). But descriptions of peregrines "dive-bombing straight down at 200 miles per hour, skewering the victim in their beaks [italics mine], and spiriting it off..." are less excusable, considering that one of his collaborators is an experienced falconer. Ettlinger also presents some erroneous (or, at the least, highly unorthodox) taxonomic theory as fact: Beneath an exquisite Rob Palmer photograph of a stooping American kestrel, he claims that "The black ear patches on the sides of the head and the extensively gray wings of the male...reveal that this North American falcon species is not a true kestrel, but rather a hobby." The aplomado falcon might qualify as a New World hobby, but the AK's affinities are squarely with the kestrels. As for the description of bald eagles as "nearly deaf", I'll keep an open mind, but I'm skeptical.

Bottom line: On Feathered Wings is a visual treat, but the text should be taken with a large grain of salt—or skipped altogether.

Our second book, narrower in scope but more substantial in execution, is Paul Bannick's The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America's Most Iconic Birds. I'm not as far into this one, but Bannick seems to be reasonably solid on natural history despite a relatively recent introduction to bird studies: his main interest was amphibians until a chance encounter with a saw-whet owl set him on a new path, and he set out to document and study all of North America's owls and woodpeckers. This pairing is never completely explained, but he does note that both are indicator species, and that about half of North American owl species are dependent on the work of woodpeckers for nesting locations.

The book's chapters are organized by geographic range and habitat type, starting on the Pacific Coast and moving counter-clockwise all the way to boreal forest and Arctic tundra. The appearance and behavior of owl and woodpecker species typical of each habitat are discussed, along with notes on population status and conservation measures that might be undertaken to benefit the region and its avifauna. Bannick's excellent photography can be found on nearly every page; in addition to intimate depictions of his target species and sometimes their neighbors, he has a good eye for landscapes, and his portraits of each habitat could be considered almost definitive.

Unlike Ettlinger, Bannick provides a bibliography for those interested in further research. A nice bonus is a CD collection of owl and woodpecker recordings (both calls and drumming in the case of the woodpeckers) by Martyn Stewart. Even without the CD, I would recommend The Owl and the Woodpecker to anyone interested in either or both of these groups; with it, this book constitutes one of the best bargains I've encountered at the bookstore recently.

The last book in the collection is the most narrowly focused, and succeeds for that reason and others. Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior, by Wayne Lynch, was published last year by the Johns Hopkins University Press—which should be indication enough that this is a definitive work. Like Paul Bannick, Lynch is a gifted photographer as well as a writer, and all but one of the photos in the book stem from his own fieldwork. Here, however, the text does not take a backseat to the photography; Lynch goes into much greater ecological detail while still maintaining a readable and often personal style. Lynch's own anecdotes are supplemented with frequent reference to the work of other ornithologists, and he appends the substantial bibliography expected in an academic book.

The book is organized topically. Many readers will find "Son et Lumière", the chapter on owls' sensory adaptations, the most surprising and enlightening. Owls are often assumed to have hearing and vision far superior to that of humans, but the research findings related by Lynch indicate that human auditory capabilities closely match those of owls, and while the average owl has more acute vision than the average human, there is enough overlap that some visually gifted humans (think Chuck Yeager) may have the edge over individual owls. Where owls really seem to shine is in the area of spatial memory: Those species that live in the darkest, most densely wooded or spatially complex environments are the most territorial, and often very catholic or flexible with regard to diet—in lean times, it's easier for them to switch to secondary or tertiary prey than it is for them to move to a new, unfamiliar location. This "nocturnal syndrome", correlating wooded habitats with strong territoriality, long tenancy, and flexible diet, has obvious implications for rehabilitators releasing owls that have recovered from injury or illness.

While I suspect that The Owl and the Woodpecker will outsell Lynch's Owls of the United States and Canada, the latter will be the first choice of serious raptorphiles. But they are complementary works, and if resources allow, why not read them both?

[Related post: a photo-essay on eastern screech-owls can be found here.]

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