The best way to learn about birds is to go birding. The second best way to learn about birds is, well, it’s a toss-up between talking with other birders about birds or reading about birds. Then again, a well-written book or article is kind of like a one-sided conversation, and a blog, when it is firing on all cylinders, can be a great way to kind of combine reading and (typed) conversation. Ditto for email listservs and online discussion forums. But this blog post isn’t meant to be a list of ways birders read about birds; it is meant to get to the bottom of birders’ obsession with birding books.
Of course, a good reason for our literary obsession is that one of our essential tools is a book. I refer, of course, to the field guide, the book that binds us together. The field guide gives names to the birds we see and therefore gives us a language in common. What we call our field guides has in fact become part of our language-in-common. “Let me see your Sibley,” “Hand me that Peterson,” or “Howell and Webb is so great” are all statements that might make a non-birder scratch their head but a dedicated birder knows exactly what is being referred to. But our obsession doesn’t stop with field guides.
In fact, field guides are only the tip of a very large iceberg. Above is a photo of the section of bookshelf in my living room that holds books about birds (click it to go to an enlargeable version). It includes neither the several books that are scattered around the house because I have been looking at them of late nor several others that are out on loan. There are birding narratives, reference books, books full of birding stories, books that make noises, books that are glorified checklists, picture books, and single-species accounts. There are, to be honest, probably too many books. But I have read them (or at least large portions of them) all!
But, again, why? Why do I have so many books? Part of the obsession might have to do with the nature of some of those who are drawn to birding. You know, listers. People who like to know what they have seen in detail. It only follows that people who are a bit compulsive about their list might also be a bit compulsive about their reading. And then there are the birders who want to be experts. You know, all of us. As much as one can learn from watching birds and talking to other birders there is a whole heck of a lot more information in books and breaking out a little-known nugget of information about a bird while watching it with other birders can do wonders for your reputation as a birder. So, yeah, lots of books…
Where do we get our books? Well, since I have been a blogger here at 10,000 Birds I have had the delightful experience of having books to review come to me on occasion, which is, of course, awesome. It also doesn’t happen nearly often enough and it certainly isn’t indicative of how the average birder gets books. We buy them of course, but there are different methods used. One can search online and find most bird books but this almost seems unfair, like counting a caged bird on a life list. I greatly prefer tracking bird books down in their natural habitat, in book stores. Ideally, I like finding them in the old growth habitat that is a used book store.
The photo above (which also has a clickable enlargeable version) is of a portion of the bird section at The Strand, New York City’s most famous and popular used book store. I love it and visit often and always find at least one book I must have. If you wait six months to a year after a new birding narrative has come out you can always find it (usually multiple copies) on the shelves of The Strand for half the cover price, if not less. And getting a book from The Strand or another used book store always feels like a triumph to me, like I have outwitted the nefarious book industry which was seeking to gouge me of my hard-earned dollars. Maybe this is another reason I have so many bird books?
Anyway, we birders are a collecting lot, whether we are talking about books, optics, notebooks, bird sightings, or whatever. Books are perfect for birders and we love them. Are there other reasons I have missed? How do you, as a birder, deal with your burgeoning book collection? Are you a birder that does not have a heap o’ bird books? How do you survive? See you in the comments…
A couple weeks ago I stopped the car beside the road in a small town in very remote northern Newfoundland, having seen a couple ducks that didn’t look like eiders. I jumped out and noticed my wife following me empty-handed, so I yelled, “Get Sibley out of the backseat!” The locals that were within hearing distance probably thought I was a crazy American with a hostage named Sibley tied up in the car ready to be tossed in the ocean.
Regarding bibliophilia: I have it bad. I inherited a literal library (2000+ volumes) from my dad and I’m growing it with reckless abandon. Taking up birding a couple years ago certainly hasn’t helped.
I notice Peter Matthiessen’s “Birds of Heaven” on the next-to-lowest visible shelf in that pic. That’s an amazing narrative. You should go back and buy it if you haven’t already!
In preparation for a move back to the U.S. this fall (from Italy), I recently disposed of about two-thirds of my library. None of the bird books were purged, however!
You’d feel right at home in my house, Corey, because we have all the same books:-)
When I worked at The Strand, those shelves were MUCH tidier and better-organized.
Aha! I see on your book shelf Boyle’s A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey, revised! And, it is sitting a little askew on the shelf, as if it was recently consulted. Admit it, Corey, you really want to be birding in New Jersey.
What a great selection of books! I got hooked onto birding after looking at some basic field guides in the kids section of the public library in Niagara Falls, NY when I was 7. It seems like bird books rank right up there with binoculars as far as being treasured items or tools for birding. When a Dutch friend of mine moved to Costa Rica, he had his entire library of bird books shipped here and keeps them in special cases to prevent mildew.
I’m glad to see “Birds of Peru” in a central position within your collection 😉
Did you see that Pete Dunne has come out with a new book called Bayshore Summer?
Wow, great questions, and ones that obviously interest me greatly. So much so I had to write a post of my own (should be the trackback link immediately above this comment).
I don’t know what I’d do if I had a used bookstore like that around here. I’m lucky if I ever find a title I’m even slightly interested in. I just can’t conceive of that many bird books in a used bookstore!
I get most of my books online. Newer books I usually get from Amazon, and I try to find used copies of older ones from sites like bookfinder (since I’ll never find them in a local used bookstore, apparently). I’m fortunate to get review copies of many books now, since I had been buying books at an unsustainable rate.
Here are my reasons for wanting to own all the bird books in the world:
1 – Books are knowledge and knowledge is power, power to find more birds and most of all to really know what you are seeing.
2 – Books inspire to look further and beyond, they unveil gaps in our knowledge – either our own expertise or in what is generally known – and challenge us to close these gaps. They help us find meaning in and give meaning to our hobby.
3 – Birders are masochistic, and books on birds from far away places that they might never be able to visit simply satisfy any birder in a very peculiar way.
4 – They make the living room look so very impressive when friends visit. And bird book spines are usually more colourful than most other books, like novels and stuff, which is great for interior design (well, this might be more important to the non-birding spouses/partners than the birders, but as our spouses have to resign themselves to living amongst piles of books, this might be a helpful argument).
5 – somewhat related to 2, but in a different direction: bird porn. Looking and drooling.
6 – they help us make fun of other birders: hey, Corey, how come there’s only ONE book on European birds on your shelf!? No wonder you weren’t able to add the fly-over Hawfinch to your list back then in Germany, even though I freakin’ SHOWED you the beast!
@Kirby: You’re lucky no one called the mounties! And, what, I should go back to The Strand ad buy another book? Well, if you insist…
@Bob and Hilke: We birders will never give up our bird book collections, even if everyone else has the same books!
@OpposableChums: Maybe you should visit to do a tidying up…
@Donna: I must have been pulling another book about a good state off the shelf and bumped into it. 🙂
@Patrick: I love my bird books.
@Jean Paul: I’ll make South America one of these days…
@Mom: I had not but thanks! Another book to add to my wish list.
@Grant: I can’t believe I didn’t include a link to your blog in this post. Everyone, go visit The Birder’s Library!
@Jochen: I blame your poor directions. “There” does not count as a direction and neither does “in the air.” Besides, I had to leave some birds unchecked to justify another visit…
@Corey: ha, ha, nice try. Nope, Sir, you SAW it, but you just weren’t concentrating on the bird’s features and therefore felt uncomfortable to check it off your list. If you had been better prepared, this problem would have never arisen. [gosh, are the tenses in the last sentence even close to being correct?]
And “another visit”?
When, my friend, when? The last time you went to Germany, on a stop-over visit en route to Kazakhstan, you didn’t even bother informing me about it!!
Yeah, so how do you think that Hawfinch will ever enter your life list? Never, that’s when, if you don’t bother reading up more thoroughly on your European birds or forget to go birding with your local pals on tours to Germany.
And don’t forget your public library. If nature books are popular, the library may purchase more and make them available to a wider audience. Another bonus is that you do not have to move or dust those books. I just borrowed “The private lives of birds : a scientist reveals the intricacies of avian social life” by Bridget Stutchbury. Highly recommended.
@Corey: Thanks for the plug! I just wish I thought of posting about this first 🙂
@Jochen: Agreed, bird books do make my library look much more nice and sophisticated. I can get away with having a small bookshelf in the bedroom, but I can’t imagine getting away with having them in a public place, no matter how good they look.
@Janet: I wish our library had a better selection of natural history books. It does have some, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t count on them having anything new I want to read (much like the used book stores around here). And I second the recommendation for The Private Lives of Birds.
I’ve noticed in the past several years that public libraries are much better at interlibrary loan than they used to be. I shouldn’t admit it, and I’ll probably lose at least one library card over it, but I’ve more than once placed the same request at both the public library here in Tucson and the library at our local institution of higher learning, and had the public library beat the University of Arizona by some days. We’ve moved often enough and far enough over the past dozen years that my own library has undergone regular and painful purges, but that hasn’t stopped us from filling two rooms with bird books again already.
By the way, Bayshore Summer (and the title that preceded it, Prairie Spring) are perhaps the best ever from the pen of a very good writer. Read ’em (and look for my review sometime soonish).
Sounds like Brooklyn public libraries have an edge over Queens. But then you have the ravens…..