Archives For Ornithology


Below is an excerpt from the Classic Book:

Homing with the birds:
The history of a lifetime of
personal experience with the Birds

by Gene Stratton-Porter.

CLICK HERE to download a PDF ebook of this book from GOOGLE books.


“What Can We Say About Nature?”

A Review of
Two New and Very Different Nature Books.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Hugh Raffles.

Hardback: Pantheon, 2010.
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All about Birds:
A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology
Valérie Chansigaud.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2010.

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Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles10What are we to do with all of the creatures of this earth? All of that life that is not human? How do we begin to describe it? Just as significantly, how in those descriptions might we also be describing the limits of human language and a desire to understand what seems so different from us – honeybees, crickets, red-winged blackbirds? Surely this is part of what physicist Niels Bohr means when he writes that “physics concerns what we can say about nature;” for Bohr, working at a quantum level, the act of observation must be included in the experiment, and so it goes, for physics and for any object of study, that the observers have methods by which they work, and that the language about the thing in study will define the thing itself.

All About Birds - ChansigaudThe act of observation, of looking, might seem to go without saying. But there are vast differences in meaning that appear between “today’s technical language of genomics” and Karl von Frisch’s “deeply personal language of bees, a remarkably affective language that imbued his subjects with purpose and intentionality” (172).

Two new books that take on the study of creatures are Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles (from which the above quote is taken) and All About Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology by Valérie Chansigaud. While one is about the study of insects, and the other about the study of birds, the approach of the two authors is telling of two different sensibilities of approaching the world; with Raffles, it is entered into thoroughly, telling stories, observing and participating in the broader culture that surrounds his insects, seeking out localized insect events, and asking questions that might not have apparent or empirical answers. Chansigaud, on the other hand, tells a very linear history, laced more with the affiliations of dead white guys than with the birds, and relying heavily on the Enlightenment mythologies of the West. While Raffles embraces an embodied and nuanced relationship to the creatures he’s writing about, Chansigaud aims for the authoritative voice of the canon to define her subject.

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A Brief Review of

The Armchair Birder:
Discovering The Secret Lives of Familiar Birds
John Yow.

Hardback: UNC Press, 2009.
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By Chris Smith.


John Yow’s new book THE ARMCHAIR BIRDER: DISCOVERING THE SECRET LIVES OF FAMILIAR BIRDS, despite the marketing hype in its promise of “secret lives,” is an excellent literary introduction to forty-two of the most common North American birds.  While admittedly not a field guide, Yow’s writing draws heavily from the classic literature of birding – e.g., the works of Audubon and Arthur Bent’s twenty-one volume Life Histories of North American Birds, among others – as well as his own birding experience.  The classic tradition of naturalism emphasizes the role of reading and study in the exploration of nature (and L.L. Haupt reiterates the significance of study in her book on urban naturalism, Crow Planet, reviewed above), and for the ornithologically-inclined naturalist, this book serves well to open up an ever-expanding world of study that would nicely complement one’s field studies.  Yow gets to the heart of the wonder that energizes the birder in his brief introduction:


[The birds] I’ve concentrated on here are widely familiar, and chances are good that you can already identify most if not all of them.  But, if you’re like me, identifying them is the beginning, not the end of the journey.  If you’re like me, knowing what they look like just whets your appetite for knowing what they’re up to. (x)

The book is divided into four seasonal sections, each containing birds whose presence is prominent during that season, and each bird’s chapter is illustrated with a grayscale version of an Audubon painting of that bird.


Since I was reading Crow Planet at the same time as The Armchair Birder, I was eager to see how Yow portrayed the crow.  Although his treatment of the crow is laden with many of the negative tones with which crows are typically addressed (plundering farmers’ crops, raiding the nests of game birds, etc.), he does end on a positive note citing both Audubon and Thoreau in praise of the crow’s tenacity – one of the traits of course that Haupt finds most meaningful.

    Yow’s writing is colorful and engaging throughout; for instance, he conjures the analogy between Woodstock and a description of a goldfinch “music festival” as described in 1904 by naturalist John Burroughs in The Life Histories.  Yes, The Armchair Birder is indeed fine birding literature, drawing upon and extending a rich tradition of birding literature, making it culturally relevant for the twenty-first century.