Saturday, August 18, 2007


...or "accipter gentilis.


Perhaps I wasn't quite as exciting as I should have been when describing our close-goshawk-encounter while on vacation last weekend.
The sight of this powerful raptor kiting down, wings pulled back in an all-out's hard for me to express what a heart-filling moment that was for me. I love birds, love watching birds, reading and knowing about them. All birds.

Okay, almost all birds. And, just for the record, who in Hell's Kitchen thought that thing looked like "Tweety Bird"? Tweety the Undead Bird, maybe. Eww.

Anyway, I love books, and I love birds, so naturally I love bird books. Perhaps one of the most delightful things about living when we do is that the past forty years - pretty much the span of my adult life - has seen a cascade of wonderful books about birds.

You have to begin with the "Field Guides" of Roger Peterson, who took the "bird book" out of the library and into the woods and fields. My very first bird book was a battered little paperback "Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America" my mother picked up, probably at some little secondhand store. I loved to pore over the pictures of brightly colored warblers; yellows, reds, blues, greens and blacks like little feathered gems.

As I got older I traded up - first for the National Geographic field guide - still my pocket companion on birdwalks and morning ambles - and then the new acme of the guidebooks, the Sibley Guide to the Birds.
All the field guides are wonderful books, bursting with lovely birds and the stories of their lives, where to find them and how to recognize them when you do. I love to read them on quiet evenings and think about how to find the birds themselves come daylight.
But it's only now as I grow older that I begin to appreciate the early bird books, the ponderous desktop tomes I once scorned as better suited for Hogwart's dusty stacks than explaining the bright, brief lives of birds.
Perhaps it's because I now have the perspective to understand that those early naturalists and ornithologists really were men of parts, striding out of the cities and paved places to bring the wild things back to people who didn't know how rich and wonderful these creatures and the places they lived could be. And that if we can now see far it is, as Isaac Newton is quoted, because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Even their prose was, um, gigantic. Let me leave you, along with a plea to get up from the computer and go outside to find a chickadee or a heron or perhaps a goshawk, with the words of T. Gilbert Pearson's description of the Great Black-backed Gull:
"...his eye on a level with your own, the brow seems to beetle in a set frown, and the glass catches the expression of a deeply-set eye. It seems an old eye, wise, authoritative. If his displeasure is aroused, he will return again and again to swoop at you with menacing cry. 'The sea is mine,' he seems to say; 'and the smitten rocks. Get back to your brick-and-mortar cages with their glass peep-holes.' A century of the sea may well give a sense of prescriptive right."
Let me say for the record: they just don't write bird books like that anymore. And that's not an unalloyed pleasure.


SBird said...

I collect vintage bird books--I love the pictures and the writing. But, like you, Peterson's was my first. I think I learned the colors (FANTASTIC colors) from reading that book over and through.

atomic mama said...

I'll take Pearson and Peterson and Sibley over orange and cherry with bubble gum eyes!