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Review: How to Be a Better Birder

June 7, 2012
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Probably the most remarkable thing about birding in the late 20th-early 21st Centuries is the increasing democratization of it all. There was a time, not all that long ago, when “birding knowledge” seemed to be only the province of the privileged few, those expert birders, the patrons of the local patch, swamis of the states.  All knowledge about bird distribution and abundance would flow from them.  That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing – the human aspect of birding has always been one of its most endearing  and rewarding qualities – but too much information in the hands of too few makes it all the more difficult for people to get comfortably into the birding game.  The floor was low, but the ceiling, lest you start early and meet the right people, felt nigh untouchable.

That’s hardly the case now.  With the proliferation of listservs, websites, apps, blogs and a host of specific publications pinning families of birds or locales down to a microscopic detail, the last ten years have been something of a golden age as far as bird information goes.  The floor is suddenly much higher and buoyed by the glut of birdlore, the ceiling is now free to rise into the stratosphere.  And best, no matter how far the best of the best birders push the frontiers of birding, these little tidbits come trickling down to everybody else to scoop up and apply.  What was once considered the privileged knowledge of the very few is now common knowledge, and every year brings us more and more tools we can use to better find and identify birds.  We are truly fortunate.

We’ve come a long way in our quest to put a name to everything that flies, but the biggest tricks in a birder’s arsenal aren’t necessarily employed to differentiate subadult gulls and silent Empids.  Turns out there’s a reason certain birders are particularly adept at sniffing out rarities and tracking down vagrants.  And Derek Lovitch’s new book from Princeton University Press, seductively titled How to Be a Better Birder, seeks to spill all their secrets.

Sure, there are guide books out there, Kenn Kaufman’s excellent Field Guide to Advanced Birding perhaps most notably, that seek to illuminate we birders in the ways the greats in our craft think about bird identification.  One might be tempted to consider this book something of a retread, and yes, the first chapter dealing with “Advanced Field Identification” does cover a lot of ground well-paved over by Kaufman.  But Lovitch seems well aware of this, and having made his point quickly spins off into a serious of fascinating essays on the importance  of geology, meteorology, and advanced technology in finding the “good” birds.  And make no mistake, reading this book and discerning the information within will likely make you a better birder, in at least you’ll have a better understanding of why birds do what they do when they do it. And that’s really what birding is all about, isn’t it?

Lovitch has an engaging, informal style, and he dives right into his subject with little to no preamble as if speaking to birders with at least a minimum of experience in the field.  The jargon and birder did not offend me, but it might be confusing to some birders on the early edge of their birding career.  But this book isn’t really for them, at least not yet.  Likewise, technology plays a huge role in birding in the 21st Century, and Lovitch embraces it,  sprinkling his text liberally with weblinks and online references, but there are some birders who are uncomfortable or leery with the increased use of technology before we go out in the field, and increasing as we’re out.  Once again, I certainly don’t see the inclusion of either as a negative, but Lovitch’s no-nonsense inclusion is still a bit new in our pastoral hobby.

As birders, we’re all extremely fortunate that a book like this exists.  Not just for our personal sake, as a means to better explore, understand, and yes, to find, birds, but for the birds sake as well.  The more we all know, the better birders we can all be.   And the better birders we are, the better able we are to note the sort of population and habitat degradation issues birds face and correct them before it’s too late.

But that’s the way-too-serious way to think about it.  Birding is fun, finding more and “better” birds is more fun.  And this book will undoubtedly help you do that.

Thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

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  1. Review Roundup: June, 2012

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