BOOKS: Lives of North American Birds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2002:

Lives of North American
Birds by Kenn Kaufman
Houghton Mifflin Company (215 Park Avenue South,
N.Y., NY 10003), 2001. 704 pages, paperback. $25.00.

The Lives of North American Birds is not a field guide for
identifying birds, though it is organized much like one. Instead it
provides detailed information about the lives of 680 species
occurring regularly in North America, with “shorter accounts for
more than 230 others that visit occasionally.”

Including more than 600 color photos, the book introduces
each species with some discussion of their range or preferred
habitat, and mention of a characteristic of unique interest. Of the
yellow-headed blackbird, for instance, author Kenn Kaufman notes
that, “It may have the worst song of any North American bird, a
hoarse, harsh scraping.”
Entries go on to describe diet, foraging behavior, mating
patterns and/or courtship behavior, nest location and construction,
egg color and number, incubation length and behavior, how the young
get food, when they leave the nest, how long the parents feed them
(if at all), and the number of broods hatched per year, concluding
with migration information and conservation status.
Birds are grouped first by family (such as loons, new world
vultures, etc.) and then by genus. Each family is introduced with a
description of the characteristic aspects of behavior that apply to
all or most members of the family.
Of crows, jays and magpies it is noted that “some members of
the family, especially crows and ravens, may be among the most
intelligent of birds.” However, I was disappointed that there was
no reference to the work of ethologist Dr. Gavin Hunt, who has
studied the use of tools in crows, and found that it is comparable
to the tool use of early humans after the Lower Paleolithic. Hunt
studied the crows of New Zealand, not North America, but North
America crows also use tools, and this is worth noting. Nor is there
any reference to a growing belief among experts of various
disciplines that in terms of ability to adapt and exploit a wide
range of resources and habitats, crows are more like humans than any
other animal.
Besides noting interesting characteristics, the introduction
for each family indicates “how many species are in the family, where
they live and how the North American species compare with those found
in the rest of the world.”
Each major genus is also introduced with a description that
tells what is notable about the birds of that genus. For instance,
when writing about the genus Egretta, Kaufman notes that the long
plumes or “aigrettes” that egrets develop in breeding season led to
their widespread extermination in the late 19th century. “The
plumes sold for as much as $32 an ounce, twice the value of gold at
the time, and hundreds of thousands of birds were slaughtered to
satisfy the demand” for egret plumes for women’s hats.
The introduction explains how birds are classified, and
describes the extent of differences there are in birds’
species-specific behavior. During nest-building, for example,
Kaufman points out that among many large species who share the work,
often the male mostly gathers material, while the female does the
actual building. Unfortunately there is no information or even
musing about how birds work together in such a team and how they
communicate their plans. Kaufman shows a little more warmth toward
his subject than many scientific writers, yet still does not venture
far into discussion of animal intelligence and emotion.
Kaufman is frank about how little ornithologists know about
certain topics pertaining to many species, such as where they sleep,
and notes gray areas that were once considered black and white, such
as an exact definition of species. He remarks that practically all
the accounts in Birds of North America, a landmark in ornithology,
contain “numerous statements of ‘No information’ or ‘Little
information’ under various headings.”
Kaufman traces the origin of information about the height of
the nest of the Golden-fronted Woodpecker, for example, and
concludes that most modern authors are simply quoting a source
published over a century ago. He sees the lack of current research
as an opportunity for anyone with time and interest to add to our
knowledge of birdlife-a great chance for teachers to guide students
in meaningful class projects-and gives brief hints on how to start a
study project.
Kaufman addresses stewardship in his section on the passenger
pigeon. While noting the mass slaughter, he does not point out that
it was the largest mass slaughter of wildlife in U.S. history, far
surpassing the numbers of bison killed. He does state that one flock
in 1808 was reputably estimated to have two billion pigeons,
darkening the sky. He writes “The extinction of this species is
somewhat mysterious, because humans obviously did not hunt down
every last one. Perhaps the Passenger could nest successfully only
when it had safety in numbers. Small colonies or isolated pairs
might have been easy marks for natural predators, while in a huge
colony the predators could have taken only a small percentage of the
hordes of pigeons. Whatever the reasons for its demise, it reminds
us that the best time to protect a species is while it is still
numerous.” He does acknowledge that huge numbers were slaughtered for
food. It would seem clear that hunting did the bird in, one way or
another, but Kaufman’s point about species protection is nonetheless
The book concludes by urging readers to dig more deeply into
the study of the lives of birds.
“Many things in this book, or in any book,” Kaufman
concludes, “may turn out to be incomplete or just plain wrong. What
you learn about birds by watching them will enrich your life, and it
may enrich the sum total of human knowledge about our birdlife.”
–Patty Finch

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