National Audubon Society Birds of North America: A Guide Review


Audubon guides to birds have been around since 1946. The first guide bearing the National Audubon Society imprint was Audubon Bird Guide; Eastern Land Birds, written by Richard Hooper Pough, and illustrated by Don Eckelberry. Both men were working for National Audubon at the time and both went on to become legends–Pough in the field of bird conservation (he was the founding president of The Nature Conservancy), Eckelberry in bird conservation and bird illustration (in addition to his artwork, he was part of the group that purchased the land that became the Asa Wright Nature Center). Published by Doubleday in 1946, the guide was initially seen by Roger Tory Peterson as competition to his own best-selling field guide, soon to be released in the landmark second revised enlarged edition. After some communication with Audubon guide creators, he wrote in relief to his editor, Paul Brooks, that the “illustrations will not be of the comparative diagrammatic nature such as those in my own book…Pough [did] not intend to make it essentially a field guide stressing field characteristics but rather to stress the ecology, environment, nest, eggs, habits, etc.”*

Plate 28 from Audubon Bird Guide, Eastern Land Birds, by Richard H. Pough “with illustrations in color of every species” by Don Eckelberry, Doubleday, 1946.

Audubon Bird Guide; Eastern Land Birds was a success even without Peterson’s innovations and was soon joined by guides to water birds and Western birds and a series was born. The Pough & Eckelberry guides (add in artist Earl L Poole who did black-and-white drawings for the later titles) were notable for Pough’s discursive text and Eckelberry’s lovely painted portraits, and many older birders have stories about how they were inspired by these books.

In 1977 National Audubon launched a new guide series with the publication of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American birds, Eastern Region by John L. Bull and John Farrand, Jr. and The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region by Miklos D. F. Udvardy. The guides bore the Audubon Society name, were published by Knopf and distributed by Random House, but they were actually conceived and produced by an outfit called Chanticleer Press and they became a publishing sensation. They were different from previous guides, notably Peterson’s, utilizing photographs instead of artwork, and organizing the photographs by habitat, bird shape, and bird color rather than taxonomy. The new series was masterminded by Chanticleer founder Paul Steiner, who was lauded on his death 19 years later for his “brilliant idea of creating bird guides with photographs” and organizing them visually. The New York Times obituary cited the series (and Steiner’s other books, but it was the series that made money) as reshaping the publishing industry in the United States.**

Yellow Wood-Warbler Plate from National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, rev. ed., by John Bull and John Farrand, Jr., revised by John Farrand, Jr. Knopf, 1994/97.

The Audubon Society guide series sold in the millions, probably helped by Random House’s excellent distribution system (when have you NOT seen a shelf of Audubon field guide series in a bookstore?), and though shunned by experienced birders, theybecame the bird guide most likely to be found on a family bookshelf, along with the Golden Book guide series and Peterson’s regional guides, (The two regional Audubon guides were combined into a 3-volume set covering all North American birds in 1983, but it was the regional guides that were the most popular.) In the publishing world, the Audubon series became famous as proof that packaging firms like Chanticleer could work successfully with respected publishing firms and the company went on to package many other titles for Knopf, including, in 2000, a new field guide called The Sibley Guide to Birds. (If you remember that the first edition of Sibley was published with “National Audubon Society” on the cover, raise your hand. I didn’t.)

And now we have the third iteration in Audubon’s guide book history: National Audubon Society Birds of North America. This is a fairly large book: 907 pages; 7.38 x 1.67 x 9.45 inches; 3 pounds, 14 ounces (I weighed it),. The Sibley Guide to Birds is  6.38 x 1.45 x 9.8 inches, 3 pounds, 624 pages; the additional width and weight, though not that much, seem to be tipping points, making the Audubon guide look and feel more massive than it really is. The size, binding, and cover immediately set it apart from previous Audubon bird guides and the guide series in general. I’m wondering if this is what all future Audubon guides will look like, since they have published at the same time a guide to trees of similar size and weight (well, a little lighter, under 3 pounds).

GUIDE COVERAGE

The National Audubon Society Birds of North America covers all species seen in mainland United States, Canada and Baja California. The rest of Mexico is not included, nor is Hawaii (which isn’t in North America, after all, but has been accepted as part of the American Birding Association area). The press material says it covers over 800 species, so you know I had to do a count. The grand total is 817 species! It was actually a very easy count since each species account is one page long except for Red-tailed Hawk and Dark-eyed Junco, which get two pages each.

In addition to the ducks, hawks, warblers, thrushes and other birds we know and love, the book includes one extinct bird (Ivory-billed Woodpecker), several exotic species not on the ABA Checklist (mostly parrots and parakeets, including the recently extirpated Budgerigar), and a number of vagrants and accidental birds categorized by the ABA Checklist Committee as Codes 4 and 5. These run the range from birds like Barnacle Goose and Little Egret, which are rare but do show up in North America every few years (actually, lately it’s been every year) to birds whose sightings in North America are so few that they’re legendary–Western Reef-Heron and Corn Crake are two examples.

This is not unusual. Sibley and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, our best North American field guides, also include exotics, vagrants, and accidentals. However, I don’t think that the descriptions always make clear that these are rare birds. In some cases, for example Jabiru, the information is tucked away at the end and can’t even be discerned from the range map. Also, the fact that each and every bird is allotted an equal amount of real estate (pages), implies that they are all equally accessible to birders, that this is a bird you can realistically expect to see in the near future. Other field guides differentiate between common and rare birds–in the text, where it is stated clearly and up front that this is a rare bird, or allocating less space, or by the omission of range maps, or by a special section in the back. Hopefully, future editions of the Audubon guide will do the same. Yes, it’s nice to have information on 817 birds, and it’s wonderful to have full descriptions and photographs of birds commonly seen in Central and South America. But this is not the purpose of a guide about North American birds. It’s excess information that I think will only confuse beginning birders.

SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Species Accounts are organized taxonomically. The Introduction states, “We followed the American Ornithological Society’s Checklist of North American Birds when organizing this guide,” (p. 6) but it doesn’t state which version of the ever-changing Checklist it is following or a cut-off date. It does seem like the order is concurrent with the 61st Supplement, which came out in 2020, but Northwestern Crow is included as a full species. The crow was absorbed (or “lumped”) into American Crow with the 2020 checklist updates, an event covered by the Audubon Society website on September 04, 2020 (“Why the Northwestern Crow Vanished Overnight,” https://www.audubon.org/news/why-northwestern-crow-vanished-overnight).

Interestingly, Chestnut-collared Longspur does appear under its brand-new official name, Thick-billed Longspur, though the description underneath uses the old name. Audubon also covered this event in September 2020 (“The McCown’s Longspur Is No More, but the Debate Over Bird Names Continues,” https://www.audubon.org/news/the-mccowns-longspur-no-more-debate-over-bird-names-continues). So, why is the name change included but not the lumping of Northwestern Crow? The inconsistency is worrisome. I like my field guides to have clearly stated taxonomic guidelines in the Introduction, even if it includes a page of exceptions, and a cut-off date.

Each species account begins with a paragraph summarizing the essence of the bird. This may range from a description of typical behavior (Brown Creeper is an “inconspicuous, supremely camouflaged bird…most often detected by its soft, lisping all as it works its way up a tree trunk, probing the bark for insects” (p. 610)) to a little history (“The elegant White-tailed Kite was formerly shot in large numbers by farmers who thought it threatened their chickens, although these birds feed almost entirely on insects and a few rodents” (p. 410)) to info on habitat and range (“In the Rockies and other arid mountains of the interior Southwest, Virginia’s Warbler prefers scrubby brush interspersed with pinyon-juniper and yellow pine” (p. 788) to pure appreciation (“This extraordinary bird impresses even the most casual observer, especially in flight” (p. 334) is how Black Skimmer is introduced). They are enjoyable reading, harking back to Pough’s cheerful style, notable for their lack of cookie-cutter symmetry.

Species accounts also include the following information: Common and scientific name; physical description including measurements (length only); description of voice, sometimes including transcription of most significant call or song; nesting information (how many eggs, color of eggs, type and materials of nest); habitat; range; similar species; and an assessment of the bird’s conservation status accompanied by an icons denoting conservation status (icons are listed on page 15 in the “Conservation” essay). A small range map is placed in the upper right/left hand corner showing summer, winter, resident, migration, and rare locations.

PHOTOGRAPHIC ILLUSTRATIONS

A selection of photographs, ranging from four to six per page, depict the bird in various postures and habitats and sometimes, but not always, in different plumages. The photographs are from VIREO, the ornithological image collection associated with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, which licenses bird photographs to many guides and reference books. Many of the names of the photographers, listed in a 21-page section at the back of the book, are familiar: Glenn Bartley, Brian E. Small, Arthur Morris, Rick and Nora Bowers, Joe Fuhrman, Greg Lasley, David Tipling, Geoff Malosh, Richard Crossley, plus many more.

As bird photographs, these are good to excellent images; as used in the book, there are problems. They are not captioned, which means that the user must search the text for plumage descriptions to figure out the identity of birds, particularly birds that are clearly not adult males. This can be especially confusing when trying to study or identify gulls or immature and female passerines. As mentioned before, all plumage variations are not always shown. The four photographs of Wilson’s Warbler, for example, show only the adult male. Of the five photographs of Laughing Gull, there are none showing the gull in nonbreeding or 2nd-winter plumage. A new birder encountering Laughing Gulls in February would be totally lost.

I am also puzzled by the choice of lead photograph–the large horizontal image positioned below the header–in many of the species accounts. I would expect that this photograph, the first one a user looks at, would show the bird in its most typical plumage, pose and habitat. And, often it is. But there are a number of species accounts where it isn’t. Magnolia Warbler and Blackpoll both lead with female closeups, though thankfully Bay-breasted Warbler places the very similar female image at the bottom of the page. Solitary Sandpiper’s lead photograph shows it’s back and rump–a useful viewpoint, sure, but not one helpful for grasping the ‘jizz’ of a shorebird . The Yellow Warbler account, for some strange reason, depicts the Mangrove race in two out of three photographs including the lead; the third photograph shows the more familiar Northern race, male and female, but in a position that makes it difficult to discern the distinguishing field mark of orange streaks on the breast of the male. (I wish I could show examples of some of these pages, but Knopf has so far declined to give copyright permission to display page images.)

GRAPHIC DESIGN

This is a very handsome book. It really is a visual pleasure to open it open and browse through it. The designers employ graphic design tools of color, font, icon, and photographic illustration to produce pages that both look pleasing to the eye and help the user navigate the book. (Book design is credited to Heather Rowland for concept and to Jane Cirigliano for page design.)  Color-coded page headings denote bird groups, matched by color-coded bird silhouette icons located midway down the edge of the page. The icons harken back to the previous series, where they were called ‘thumb prints,’ though it looks like different artwork is used here. Using the icons to locate specific bird families takes a little getting used to, but if you do it often it works well as a finding tool.

The pages themselves are composed of blocks of color, text, and illustration. Sections are clearly marked with bold type and the font size is just right–not too big, not too small. There are advantages to a large book! I particularly like the colors used throughout the book, deep hues of blue, green, rust, and gold that complement rather than overpower the birds shown in the photographs.

FRONT OF BOOK & BACK OF BOOK

The 24-page introductory section reads like a beginner’s guide to birding. There are sections, ranging in length from a paragraph to two pages, on taxonomy, bird names, habitat, ranges, migration, courtship and breeding, flight, bird intelligence, bird communication; identification; finding birds, life lists; optics and photography; ethics; bird feeding; and conservation. These are all informative and current. I am particularly happy to see that the bird communication section includes recent research on singing female birds. I do wish that the ethics section included guidance on the use of playback and that all the sections included titles or websites for further reading.

I am surprised that there is so little in these sections about the guide itself. It seems like most of this material was written by people (there is no authorship for this section) not familiar with the guide itself. The ranges section does not include information on how to read the book’s range maps. The communication section does not discuss which types of songs and calls are included in the species accounts or how decisions were made on whether to include vocal descriptions or transcriptions. The only exception is the Conservation section, which presents keys for the conservation icons. Information about how this guide was conceived, it’s goals, and how to read the species accounts would be extremely helpful.

The next introductory section presents “Bird Biology Topics,” essays on specific topics by ornithologists (accreditations are in the Acknowledgements section). The topics range from basic concepts like “Molt” to essays on specific species and bird families: “Plunge-Diving Behavior in Seabirds” to “Corvid Intelligence.” These are all great. They expand the definition of this book from identification guide to avian reference book.

In the back of the book, we find a lengthy section on “Bird Families,” a glossary, an index. photography credits, and acknowledgements. Usually, material on bird families is integrated into the bird guide, but I imagine the rigid organization of one species–one page didn’t allow for this. Hopefully, users will take the time to locate and read these descriptions of each family’s common traits since they enhance background knowledge and aid in identification.

The five-page Glossary covers the basic vocabulary used in the Species Accounts but not more advanced terms like ‘supercillium.’ There is surprisingly no chart of bird anatomy, a staple in most bird guides.

The Index directs the user species accounts by bird names–common and scientific. It’s simple and useful. I did have a problem with its location, however. Slotted between Glossary and Photography Credits, it’s really hard to find when you need it. I ended up using the bookmark ribbon to help me find it quickly, but then I would forget and use the ribbon to mark another page and end up fumbling through the back pages to find the Index again. Indexes belong in the back–the very back–of the book!

INTELLECTUAL AUTHORSHIP

While examining the National Audubon Society Birds of North America, I was struck by the fact that no author or illustrator is listed. This flies into the face of a field guide tradition that identifies the guide with the author. Even the National Geographic guides, which originally did not list authors, eventually placed Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer’s names on the cover. Who is responsible for the intellectual content of the Audubon guide?

There are clues in the back–the Acknowledgements page, where an anonymous “we” thanks a number of people, including the staff of Fieldstone Publishing, a book packaging company that inherited the nature guide mantle from Chanticleer Press. And the very last page of the book, where a series of copyright notices includes the statement that the book is “Based on The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), and National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Western Region (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).” Putting the two together, it appears that the tradition of packaging the Audubon guides continues and also that the 2021 uses material from the earlier series.

Remember earlier, when I quoted text from the opening paragraphs of certain Species Accounts? Let’s go back to those species, but in the 1994 Eastern Audubon Guide. Brown Creeper: “This inconspicuous bird is most often detected by its soft, lisping call as it works its way up a tree trunk, probing the bard for insects…” (p. 619). This is almost word-for-word the description given in the 2021 guide. White-tailed Kite: “The tame, elegant White-tailed Kite was formerly shot in large numbers by farmers who thought it threatened their chickens, although the birds feed almost entirely on insects and a few small rodents” (p. 421).  I don’t have a copy of the 1994 Western Audubon Guide, but I bet it would describe Virginia’s Warbler as preferring scrubby brush.

Comparing the 1994 and 2021 guides, it appears that about two-thirds of the 2021 text material is taken from the 1994 volume–opening paragraph, sections on description, voice, nesting, habitat, and range. Similar species and conservation appear to be original material. There are several species, such as California Condor, for which new material had to be written (California Condor is called “nearly extinct” in the older title and not included). There is nothing wrong with this. Many reference books, including field guides, use material from older editions. However, they usually explain the process in the introduction and describe how the text has been updated.

I’m thinking particularly about species whose ranges have changed. The range maps were created for the 2021 guide (the authors are credited in the Acknowledgements) and are up to date. The text, however, is sometimes at odds with the maps. Bald Eagle, for example, is still said to be “formerly more widespread” though the range map shows expansion. The range description for Kirtland’s Warbler, I was happy to see, has been updated to include its nesting in Wisconsin and Ontario. I really would like to have more information on how the 2021 guide was created, what process was used when mining information from the older guides, and who was making these decisions. And, I like to know why the original authors not directly credited for their intellectual contributions.

CONCLUSION

The National Audubon Society Birds of North America is an ambitious attempt to update, redesign, and repackage Audubon guides of years past. Large, colorful, beautifully designed, it is also deeply flawed. It is not clear who the intended audience is for this title. My assumption is that it is meant to be a resource for beginning birders and families who like to spend time outdoors, and it does have potential as a one-stop reference guide. However, issues like the lack of photo captioning, lack of photos of significant plumages, confusing information about rare birds, and inconsistent updating of old information make it difficult to recommend the book for purchase. Ironically, Audubon’s online bird guide, which utilizes artwork from David Sibley and text from Kenn Kaufman, is a much better resource.

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*Peterson quote from In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders & Their Guides by Thomas R. Dunlap, Oxford Univ. Press, 2011, cited as “RTP to Paul Brooks, March 6, 1945, Peterson Institute.”

** Quote by Massimo Vignelli, from Paul Steiner: Liber Amicorum, 1997, quoted in “Paul Steiner, 1913-1996,” Transatlantic Perspectives: Europe in the Eyes of European Immigrants to the United States, 1930-1980.  [http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=162%20:]

“Paul Steiner, Who Popularized Coffee Table Books, Dies at 83,” by Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr., New York Times, March 11, 1996. [https://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/11/nyregion/paul-steiner-who-popularized-coffee-table-books-dies-at-83.html]

*** Howell, Steve N. G., et al. Rare Birds of North America. PUP, 2014.

National Audubon Society Birds of North America (National Audubon Society Guide), Knopf, April 2021.  Flexibound : 912 pages. $49.95
ISBN-10 : 0525655670; ISBN-13 : 978-0525655671

 

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