Sunday, 1 July 2018

Book Review - Birds of Prey of the East, Birds of Prey of the West - Princeton University Press

     I was very excited indeed when I received the review copies of these companion volumes covering all the raptors of North America. 




     Thirteen years in the making, it is an opus of the highest order, with a mass of information and detail, unrivalled by any other work presently available. 
     Brian K. Wheeler is an authority on these birds, recognized the world over as one of the very finest, so my expectations were high. If anything expectations were exceeded. The level of scholarship in these two volumes is staggering, the detail incredible,  the artwork magnificent, the narrative superb.
     There can be little doubt that Wheeler is unsurpassed in his portrayal of birds of prey. All of the images are presented in the same way, with different species in identical poses. While this might seem boring at first blush, it enables the reader to make easy comparison between species and is quickly appreciated for its simplicity.
     I must admit that I found it disarming at first to see the birds presented on coloured backgrounds. I am sure that this comes from years of conditioning when images were painted on a white background. It did not take me long, however, to recognize that the coloured background is superior. Nuances such as white outer fringes to feathers are much more clearly revealed against a coloured background and tend not to get lost as they do on a white background, when white on the plumage merges with white on the page.
     One of the most appealing features for me was the large maps, mostly full page. How many times have you been squinty-eyed looking at tiny little range maps in field guides, wanting to reach for the magnifying glass? How many field guides do you have without range maps at all? This is truly a major advance and reveals just how clearly the author realizes what his readers want and need. Wheeler has the good sense and foresight to include the names of major cities on the maps, an artifice I have never seen before, yet it is so helpful in instantly understanding the range of the bird.




     Take a look at the pages above for Black Vulture. Everything you need is there, starting with a concise descriptive text, a series of illustrations covering all forms from recently fledged juvenile to adult, with accompanying narrative, followed by information on habitat, status, nesting, movements and comparison with other species. There are photographs of the kinds of habitat where this species can be expected, and a glorious full page map.
     That most variable of buteos, the Red-tailed Hawk, a species with such a wide range of plumage variation that birds from different parts of the continent can initially, especially in sub adult plumage, be taken for another species, is examined in incredible detail.



     A full 48 pages is dedicated to this species alone. It sometimes seems to me that Red-tailed Hawk has been permanently under taxonomic review and a comprehensive discussion of the various distinct morphs is provided, with even an analysis of the proposed "Northern" subspecies, a topic much on the minds of raptor biologists of late.
     Extensive coverage of every species follows a rigorous format, providing the reader with all the information one needs about the bird in a highly readable format, free of scientific jargon which can at times be daunting to some.




     Pleasant surprises manifest themselves throughout the books. Consider the pages below at the culmination of the section on Ferruginous Hawk.



     There is a wonderful photograph of typical short grass prairie breeding territory and depiction of two of the principal prey species of this magnificent raptor, Black-tailed Prairie Dog in winter and Richardson's Ground Squirrel in summer. The accompanying full page map shows summer and winter ranges, and by combining all the information a full picture is created. If you find yourself in the winter somewhere between Oklahoma City and Houston, in an area known to have Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, you are in prime Ferruginous Hawk territory. All the dots are connected.
     In recent years, advances in DNA studies (and some physical studies) have revealed that vultures and falcons have been incorrectly classified in relation to other raptorial birds, and traditional affinities were deemed incorrect. Wheeler recognizes both of these orders as raptors and includes them in this work. Vultures are placed in their normal position before other raptors; and falcons, with their specialized killing techniques are accorded full pride of place. These birds are unquestionably raptors but originate from a different ancestral source.
      Books are akin to holy icons to me and I would never advocate disposing of volumes from your library. If, however, in a moment of madness you felt inclined to throw away raptor volumes, you could retain only these two books for North American raptors, and have a complete work at your disposal. The term "Field Guide" is a bit of a misnomer for this encyclopaedic treatise. It really does contain all you need to know.
     I cannot state too strongly how much pleasure and satisfaction I have derived from Wheeler's scholarship and fine artwork. These books will be essential companions for ever more.

Birds of Prey of the East: A Field Guide
Text and illustrations by Brian K. Wheeler
Flexibound/$27.95/9780691117065/304 pages/5 1/4 x 8/162 colour illustrations, 38 maps
Publication date: 19 June 2018

Birds of Prey of the West: A Field Guide
Text and illustrations by Brian K. Wheeler
Flexibound/$27.95/978069117188/360 pages/5 1/4 x 8/175 colour illustrations, 58 maps
Publication date: 19 June 2018


25 comments:

  1. Nice books, David. It must be wonderful to have them with you.

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  2. What great publications, David. I am glad you have them. My grandkids love the Audubon field guides here - especially the silhouettes that are placed in rows so you can see the difference in the birds. Hope you have a wonderful Sunday. Diana

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  3. Hi David - you obviously are delighted to receive these books and to acknowledge Brian Wheeler's expert knowledge in this field. The descriptions you've shown us and how the book is set out ... acknowledges Wheeler's expertise - so thrilled to see your delight at them and to at least know about the books and Wheeler.

    I've started reading 'The Most Perfect Thing - Inside (and Outside) a Bird's Egg' by Tim Birkhead, which you recommended ... and I need to settle to read more ... it is fascinating.

    Happy Canada Day and Cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi Hilary: Tim Birkhead is not only a distinguished British scientist, he also writes with flair. He is able to condense scientific materisl into fluid, easy-to-read prose. Yet I bet that most people have never even heard of him. it is amazing that he could be a functional moron, a social reprobate, a thoroughly disreputable person, yet if he could kick a ball around better than most he would be adored and paid millions. Sometimes the world is truly upside down.

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  4. If I ever get over there, David, I shall be sure to buy this book before I travel. Might just be tempted to buy it anyway!! I really enjoyed your review.

    With love to you both - - - Richard

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  5. Wow, awesome dedication to Birds of Prey. I am very neglectful of hawk sightings, I just assume they are all some morph of red tailed. ;o}

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  6. It sounds absolutely brilliant. And something that not only that many other writers of avian books could (and should) learn from. I suspect I would be happy to read it even when not 'in the field'.

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  7. Beautiful books indeed - takes a long time to put them together for birders...enjoy.

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  8. The books look interesting, exhaustive and beautiful...
    and the birds in your avatar (now in the header photo too) are jewels.

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  9. Hello, great review on these two Raptor field guides. I see the Black Vulture in my neighborhood often, they roost in the nearby forest. Thanks for sharing. Enjoy your day!

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  10. Du förmedlar dina känslor så väl David, jag kan nästan känna din upphetsning när du fick böckerna i din hand. Jag förstår dig och det känslosvall som böckerna framkallar, jag är själv en bokälskare och utan böcker skulle livet vara riktigt trist.

    När skall du själv skriva en bok om dina älskade fåglar? Du äger ordet och språket så det är bara att sätta igång!

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    1. Gunilla: you just say the nicest things!

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  11. It's great that you David have these interesting books. I think they will be useful for you in reading and in travels.

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  12. Estos libros tienen una pinta buenísima amigo David. Deben de ser muy buenos, se ven unas ilustraciones maravillosas.
    Cordiales saludos

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  13. These look like excellent reference guides. I have several bird books to help me out. One I enjoy is "The Bird Songs Bible." I was able to identify the Nighthawk using that. http://powellriverbooks.blogspot.com/2013/01/bird-songs-bible.html

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  14. That's high praise from you. They do indeed look excellent. And I have to add I appreciate the detail you provide (along with your insight) when you do your reviews. It's most helpful.

    Thanks for your great comment on the cooking post. I'm with you -- people don't cook like they used to, although I think Food Network, believe it or not, has helped develop that a little more. I can see in a pinch or for special occasions some of the things you mentioned but yes, in the overall look, it's not a good sign when you look at people's carts. Same with paper. I can be OK with it on occasion but as an every day occurrence? Nope. I'd rather do dishes -- and besides, the table looks much prettier with nice dishes!

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    1. I have to confess that I don't watch a lot of TV. This is not an indictment of television, it is simply that I am always busy with other things. I have only seen a little of the Food Network and from what I have seen it appears to be a competition, sometimes brutal, rather than instructions on how to cook.

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  15. Los dibujos son realmente buenos, libros así de rigurosos no abundan. Un abrazo desde España.

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  16. They seem to be very interesting books, with abundant information, detailed distribution maps and complete sheets showing different plumages. Surely two copies that should not be missing in a North American birdwatcher library

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  17. Those guides look superb. My husband is always moaning and asking why I need two shelves of bird books but, as I try to explain, every book is different and useful in its own way.

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    1. I can tell,your husband that you are very modest indeed. I have two shelves on raptors alone!

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  18. They look excellent David, thanks for the review.

    All the best Jan

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  19. I love checking out new books especially wildlife guides. These look pretty thorough with information and detail oriented. Hope you have a nice rest of your week.
    World of Animals

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  20. Beautiful books from the birds David.
    Greetings Tinie

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  21. Hello David,
    they are beautiful books with beautiful pictures of the birds.
    I would also like to have this book. it is instructive and it is a treasure in your bookcase :-)
    Kind regards, from me, Helma xx

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