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by Vernon R. L. Head

The amazing story of the search for a mystery bird.

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April 2016 bird books

April 2016, along with the last bit of March, has been probably the best month for bird books that I can recall. There’s a set of highly anticipated field guides, a family guide, and books with gorgeous illustrations, all from some of the best writers around. Just the ones that I’ve received so far are:

That’s enough reading to keep one occupied for quite some time, but that’s not all! There are even more coming…

I need help prioritizing which to review first, so if there’s one you’re particularly interested in please let me know in the comments.

One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual LivesOne Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives
by Bernd Heinrich

From Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

In his modern classics One Man’s Owl and Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich has written memorably about his relationships with wild ravens and a great horned owl.

In One Wild Bird at a Time, Heinrich returns to his great love: close, day-to-day observations of individual wild birds. There are countless books on bird behavior, but Heinrich argues that some of the most amazing bird behaviors fall below the radar of what most birds do in aggregate. Heinrich’s “passionate observations [that] superbly mix memoir and science” (New York Times Book Review) lead to fascinating questions — and sometimes startling discoveries. A great crested flycatcher, while bringing food to the young in their nest, is attacked by the other flycatcher nearby. Why? A pair of Northern flickers hammering their nest-hole into the side of Heinrich’s cabin deliver the opportunity to observe the feeding competition between siblings, and to make a related discovery about nest-cleaning. One of a clutch of redstart warbler babies fledges out of the nest from twenty feet above the ground, and lands on the grass below. It can’t fly. What will happen next?


Can I make a confession, at the risk of losing any and all credibility? I’ve never read a Bernd Heinrich book. Oh, I have several on my shelves; I just haven’t gotten around to reading them. But this one I’m making time for. I’m only a couple chapters into it, but already have realized that I absolutely have to go back and read his other works as well. Heinrich’s observations of these particular, individual birds are fascinating, and a nice counterpoint to just about every other bird book out there.


One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives
by Bernd Heinrich
Hardcover; 224 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; April 12, 2016
ISBN: 9780544387638

Gorgeous Gwendolen Goose and Other StoriesGorgeous Gwendolen Goose and Other Stories
by Sue Ellis

From Austin Macauley Publishers:

Gwendolen Goose is best friends with Katie, who lives on the farm next to her pond. She is so grateful when Katie brings her bread after school. When Katie’s mum hurts her leg whilst out walking, Gwendolen must fly out to help!

In Gorgeous Gwendolen Goose and Other Stories, Sue Ellis presents six tales from a bird’s eye view’. She hopes to inspire children to overcome adversity and become the best version of themselves.


This children’s book, targeted at ages 4-10, was published a little while ago, but I just recently became aware of it. I’ll be reading it with my kids.


Gorgeous Gwendolen Goose and Other Stories
by Sue Ellis
Paperback; 49 pages
Austin Macauley Publishers; October 30, 2015
ISBN: 9781784555719

The Genius of BirdsThe Genius of Birds
by Jennifer Ackerman

From Penguin Press:

Birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. In fact, according to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence. Like humans, many birds have enormous brains relative to their size. Although small, bird brains are packed with neurons that allow them to punch well above their weight.

In The Genius of Birds, acclaimed author Jennifer Ackerman explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds and how it came about. As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research— the distant laboratories of Barbados and New Caledonia, the great tit communities of the United Kingdom and the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states—Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are revolutionizing our view of what it means to be intelligent.

Consider, as Ackerman does, the Clark’s nutcracker, a bird that can hide as many as 30,000 seeds over dozens of square miles and remember where it put them several months later; the mockingbirds and thrashers, species that can store 200 to 2,000 different songs in a brain a thousand times smaller than ours; the well-known pigeon, which knows where it’s going, even thousands of miles from familiar territory; and the New Caledonian crow, an impressive bird that makes its own tools.

But beyond highlighting how birds use their unique genius in technical ways, Ackerman points out the impressive social smarts of birds. They deceive and manipulate. They eavesdrop. They display a strong sense of fairness. They give gifts. They play keep-away and tug-of-war. They tease. They share. They cultivate social networks. They vie for status. They kiss to console one another. They teach their young. They blackmail their parents. They alert one another to danger. They summon witnesses to the death of a peer. They may even grieve.

This elegant scientific investigation and travelogue weaves personal anecdotes with fascinating science. Ackerman delivers an extraordinary story that will both give readers a new appreciation for the exceptional talents of birds and let them discover what birds can reveal about our changing world. Incredibly informative and beautifully written, The Genius of Birds richly celebrates the triumphs of these surprising and fiercely intelligent creatures.


Birders should be the last to be surprised by the intelligence of birds. And yet, the more I read about them, the more surprised I get. I’ve yet to read beyond this book’s introduction, but it looks like a good starting point for anyone who’s not familiar with the amazing capabilities possessed by birds.


The Genius of Birds
by Jennifer Ackerman
Hardcover; 352 pages
Penguin Press; April 12, 2016
ISBN: 9781594205217

The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird's EggThe Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg
by Tim Birkhead

From Bloomsbury Publishing:

Renowned ornithologist Tim Birkhead opens this gripping story as a female guillemot chick hatches, already carrying her full quota of tiny eggs within her undeveloped ovary. As she grows into adulthood, only a few of her eggs mature, are released into the oviduct, and are fertilized by sperm stored from copulation that took place days or weeks earlier. Within a matter of hours, the fragile yolk is surrounded by albumen and the whole is gradually encased within a turquoise jewel of a shell. Soon afterward the fully formed egg is expelled onto a bare rocky ledge, where it will be incubated for four weeks before another chick emerges and the life cycle begins again.

The Most Perfect Thing is about how eggs in general are made, fertilized, developed, and hatched. The eggs of most birds spend just 24 hours in the oviduct; however, that journey takes 48 hours in cuckoos, which surreptitiously lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. From the earliest times, the study of birds’ ovaries and ova (eggs) played a vital role in the quest to unravel the mysteries of fertilization and embryo development in humans. Birkhead uses birds’ eggs as wondrous portals into natural history, enlivened by the stories of naturalists and scientists, including Birkhead and his students, whose discoveries have advanced current scientific knowledge of reproduction.


Birkhead knows what he’s talking about – he’s an accomplished ornithologist – and he is able to communicate that knowledge clearly and entertainingly. Just read the short preface of this book; if you’re not hooked…well, you will be!


The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg
by Tim Birkhead
Hardcover; 304 pages
Bloomsbury; April 12, 2016
ISBN: 9781632863690

From North America to Madagascar, from beginners to experts, there’s a bird book reviewed last month for everyone.

Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the NestBaby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose

From Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

If you’ve ever wondered what goes on in bird nests, or what happens after a fledgling leaves the nest, come along on Julie’s sensitive exploration of often-uncharted ornithological ground.

This beautiful book is as much an art book as it is a natural history, something readers have come to expect from Julie Zickefoose. More than 400 watercolor paintings show the breathtakingly swift development of seventeen different species of wild birds. Sixteen of those species nest on Julie’s wildlife sanctuary, so she knows the birds intimately, and writes about them with authority. To create the bulk of this extraordinary work, Julie would borrow a wild nestling, draw it, then return it to its nest every day until it fledged. Some were orphans she raised by hand, giving the ultimate insider’s glimpse into their lives. In sparkling prose, Julie shares a lifetime of insight about bird breeding biology, growth, and cognition.

As an artist and wildlife rehabilitator, Julie possesses a unique skill set that includes sketching and painting rapidly from life as well as handling delicate hatchlings. She is uniquely positioned to create such an opus, and in fact, nothing like it has ever been attempted. Julie has many fans, and she will gain many more with this unparalleled work.


This is a gorgeous book, both the art and the design. I’ve only read the introduction so far, but I’m hooked!


Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest
by Julie Zickefoose
Hardcover; 352 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; April 12, 2016
ISBN: 9780544206700

Wildlife of the GalapagosWildlife of the Galápagos, Second Edition
by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking

From Princeton University Press:

Since its first publication more than a decade ago, Wildlife of the Galápagos has become the definitive, classic field guide to the natural splendors of this amazing part of the world. Now fully updated, this essential and comprehensive guide has been expanded to include the more than 400 commonly seen birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, and other coastal and marine life of this wondrous archipelago. Over 650 stunning color photographs, maps, and drawings are accompanied by accessible, descriptive text. This new edition includes information about all the common fish of the region and Spanish names are featured for the first time. There is also a revised section that discusses the islands’ history, climate, geology, and conservation, with the most current details on visitor sites.

This is the perfect portable companion for all nature enthusiasts interested in the astounding Galápagos.

  • Covers 400+ commonly seen species, including birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, and other coastal and marine life
  • Illustrated with over 650 color photographs, maps, and drawings
  • Includes maps of visitor sites
  • Written by wildlife experts with extensive knowledge of the area
  • Includes information on the history, climate, geology, and conservation of the islands


When I finally get to the Galapagos, this guide will be with me. (Hopefully that will be before a third edition is necessary!)


Wildlife of the Galápagos, Second Edition
by Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter, and David Hosking
Paperback; 272 pages
Princeton University Press; January 5, 2016
ISBN: 9780691170428

by George C. West

A nice ID guide to hummingbirds for birders and banders.

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