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The books that make us birders

March 9, 2012

One of the great side-effects of being intensely into birding is that it’s an excuse, as though you need one, to collect reference books.  I’ve always been a reference book enthusiast, and there’s scarcely a book on any subject that, given enough time and pictures, I won’t page through until the end of time.  Bird books are practically made for this sort of absent-minded perusal with their pages of beautifully rendered plates and concise text.  In fact, I’m not sure whether my interest in birds came about because of my interest in paging through books or whether it was merely facilitated by it, but if my bird book shelf is any indication, the two interests go hand in hand in hand.

Like so many individuals that began birding and nature study when we were young, I can never really place the precise moment where things just began to click with me, but I’m certain that the weekly trips my family made to the local public library played a critical role.  I quickly grew out of the children’s section, but neither was I really prepared to enter the world of adult fiction.  Those big reference books, with their maps and photos and illustrations called to me like a siren.  I was first interested in dinosaurs, but other guides quickly caught my eye, and I remember specifically a Reader’s Digest book on birds that I must have worn out half a dozen library cards checking out over and over and over.  As I grew older, the name escaped me but the memory of the illustrations was as vivid as if I had just pulled the book down from an upper shelf for the first time.

Flash forward 20 years.  I’m working at a science museum in Durham, North Carolina, and an older lady brings in boxes and boxes of science textbooks that were collected by her recently deceased husband.  She wanted to know if the museum had any use for them, but mostly, she just wanted them out so they wouldn’t take up so much room.

The education department got first pick, but most of the reference books were too out of date to be useful so the boxes made their way to the breakroom where a sign, “Free Books”, was affixed to the front.  It was the end of the line.

On an off chance I flipped through the pile of old titles for anything interesting.  I found a slightly out of date Peterson guide I figured I would pass on to some kid birder, and towards the bottom, this…

The book itself is unremarkable, but the memories flooded back.  This was it.

The names, both english and latin, are half useless.  The taxonomy is ridiculously obsolete.  The pages are worn yellowish and it smells a little bit when I open it.  But this was the book.  The one that turned me on to birds.  The same crazy illustrations like an honest to goodness Cassowary fight:

The “life-sized” array of hummingbirds:

The plate comparing the sizes of extinct birds to an aging hippie:

It’s got it all.  And the more I think about it, the more I think that this book played a crucial role in my development as a birder.  After all, it taught me what a pitta was, and a lyrebird and a potoo and a currasow.  All species that North American birders usually don’t discover until well into their careers were set up in front of me alongside cardinals and crows.  Perhaps it’s that much more remarkable that those North American species didn’t pale in comparison, because it wasn’t long after all this that I mostly gave up bugs and herps and focused primarily on birds.  For better or for worse really.

In any case, it’s not my intent to delve too deeply into my own adolescent psyche, no one should be forced to do that (or sit through it), but it’s really cool to be able to serendipitously come across such an important, and forgotten, piece of my birding life.

  1. March 9, 2012 6:45 pm

    I don’t remember when I first got interested in birds as a kid, but it was at least partly due to some books belonging to my grandparents and an early teacher. I’ll always be grateful to them.

    I’m not sure whether my interest in birds came about because of my interest in paging through books of whether it was merely facilitated by it, but if my bird book shelf is any indication, the two interests go hand in hand in hand.

    Well said.

  2. March 11, 2012 7:33 am

    I know the feeling… a few years ago, in the 50-cent section of a used bookstore I ran across a book that looked suspiciously like the li’l volume from my kindergarten (over 50 yrs. ago) that had set me on a birding path. All I remembered for sure about that long-ago booklet was that the species on the very last page was a goldfinch, and so I flipped to the final page and sure enough there was that goldfinch staring back at me just as I incredibly remembered it… memories flooded back — But, I thought, I mustn’t feed this obsession… other than pure nostalgia, the book was essentially worthless, so I didn’t even fork out the 50-cents to purchase it. I was proud of my self-control, yet also regretful at not getting it….

  3. Kent Fiala permalink
    March 11, 2012 11:14 am

    For me, it was the original Golden Guide “Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds: 125 Birds in Full Color” by Herbert Zim, first published the year I was born and still sold in stores until just a few years ago. It was a real milestone for me when I finally saw the last of the 125 species, Smith’s Longspur.

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