For most readers of this blog, Pete Dunne hardly needs an introduction. As far back as the late ’70s he’s been entertaining and enlightening birders with his essays and books on the hows and why of birding. The latest from his pen is Birds of Prey, a hybrid between an identification guide and an essay collection, a book of lore that provides a comprehensive overview of the raptors of North America.
Dunne being Dunne, he is thorough in this project; the book begins with a full accounting of what he’s including under the rubric “raptor” and why, and proceeds methodically through the etymology of each species’ name, a thorough description, life history, ecology, and discussion of its conservation status, before concluding with a short section on the threats that all or most raptors face and action items on how to help protect them. It’s not a book you’re going to drag into the field with you (in fact, Dunne himself explicitly identifies its origin in the desire to craft a more comprehensive companion to his id-focused Hawks in Flight). Instead it’s one you’re likely to turn to on coming home after a long day to find out a bit more about one of the species you spotted – or to consult before a trip to learn the little quirks of a target species. Dunne is a compelling writer, and if he’s fond of long, multi-clause sentences and elaborate descriptions that might seem outright poetic to people used to terse field guide species accounts, well, I’m right there with him.
Raptors being raptors, the material itself is also compelling enough to justify all the verbiage. Dunne has a rich store of anecdotes from his own experience and that of his many, many acquaintances in the birding world, as well as a good sense of when to dip into the literature of our birding forefathers like Bent and Wilson. I was particularly amazed by this tale:
“Cape May resident Clay Sutton advises that his father, an avid fisherman, once secured a large bluefish that had two detached Osprey feet embedded in its back. It should be pointed out that feeding bluefish have a piranha-lie quality and that, upon hitting the water, the bird was likely set upon by fish in the ‘blitzing school’.” (p. 32)
Dunne’s fascination with raptors is evident across his whole body of work, and this volume is fitting capstone to a love affair that spawned both Hawks in Flight and The Wind Masters. It’s hard to imagine how Dunne could cram any more information into book form (although if he decides to try I have a feeling I’ll end up pleasantly surprised.) It’s also a beautiful book, thoroughly illustrated with photos curated by Kevin T. Karlson. This is one of those volumes that belongs on every birder’s shelf.
Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America by Pete Dunne with Kevin T. Karlson, $26.00, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Feature image by Lee Karney, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.