Sunday, December 30, 2007

Backyard Birds

As you may have gathered, birds are a big draw in our house. We're not fanatical "pishers and tweeters" (birders will understand those terms), but a bird in the yard or the neighbourhood gets us out for a look and we're always hauling our binocs around. (And, I'm proud to say, my eldest's first word was "Caw.") Just yesterday there was a Cooper's Hawk on the telephone pole out front of our house and last week my youngest spotted a Barred Owl just up the hill. We have a nice tangle of bush out front of our house -- great for birdwatching while we enjoy a morning coffee/cocoa.

So, given our enjoyment of all things avian, it isn't a surprise that Santa left P a new book under the tree: Backyard Birds: An Introduction by Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman with Ian Coutts. There are a few "first field guides" out there for kids -- the Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists are particular favourites -- but Backyard Birds is a wonderful book to give a young child who is just beginning to have an interest in birds. (And, really, I think all kids naturally have this. It's a question of whether this interest is nurtured or not.)

Bateman focusses on birds that you might logically have in your yard or neighborhood. (That's a tall order for Canada and US mind you, but he's done a good job.) He's included chickadees, mallards, great blue herons, American crows, rufous hummingbirds, barn swallows, etc. Many of these will be the first birds people learn to identify.

With each spread, Bateman focuses on one or two birds, gives a description in the running text and also field notes (i.e., size, range, voice, food, etc.) on a little "notebook page." Of course his paintings accompany the text, putting them in situ in beautifully rendered scenes. Interspersed with pages devoted to particular species are spreads that focus on general topics, such as bird senses, migration, life cycles, etc. To notch things up a bit, he includes a spread on how to tell the difference between 6 species of sparrows, infamously dubbed LBBs -- "little brown birds" -- (or worse, but unprintable) by beginning birders. This comes at the perfect time in the book and explains well how field marks are used to tell species apart.

Young readers will also enjoy an account of how Bateman became interested in birds at the age of 8. He also includes a small illustration showing some birds drawn when he was 14. There's no doubt he was talented and accomplished at a very young age. Birds are a great way to get children to focus in on things in their environment. They draw them in and, hopefully, are a way to encourage them to get outside and, ultimately, protect what is dear.

Here are reviews from Canadian Materials and BookList.

While we're on the topic of birds, Introducing Our Western Birds by Matthew F. Vessel and Herbert H. Wong, is a second-hand score I picked up. (The late Professors Vessel and Wong also wrote The Natural History of Vacant Lots -- obviously men after my own heart.) I was drawn in by the wonderful graphic art by Ron King -- very 1960s -- and so beautifully done. (I wish I had this darn scanner hooked up so I could show you.) This book, long out of print, is actually one of the better birds for young birders I've seen. Very colourful, with very good info. on identifying features, types of feathers, how to determine habitat and food from bills and feet, and more. Ron King gathers several birds in a single-page illustration with the descriptions on the facing page. I love these illustrations and am sorely tempted to rip them out and frame them (gasp!), but that verges on sacriligious. So, for now, they stay between the covers. I can't promise they always will though.

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