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Serious Topics, With Humor and Flair

A review by Carrie Laben

Being a Bird in North America North of Mexico: Waterfowl to Shorebirds, by Robert Alvo

Privately published, 2015

255 pages, $39.95—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14628

Hitchhiking herons, vultures in chef’s hats, Black Rails borne aloft by balloons: This ain’t Sibley. The first volume of Robert Alvo’s new series Being a Bird in North America North of Mexico includes species accounts and range maps and photographs alongside its lively cartoon-like illustrations, but as the title tells you right off the bat, this is a book less about watching birds than about being one. Instead of identification, Alvo focuses on behavior and conservation, topics he covers with flair and humor; the result is something different in the market serving older kids and adult beginning birders, and a useful addition to school and nature center libraries.

The short entries that make up Being a Bird cannot offer an exhaustive account of any one species. Instead, the author presents each bird in a sampler platter of facts and anecdotes about its life history, the reasons for its most curious traits and behaviors, or the conservation threats it faces. Like any well-composed hors d’oeuvre, these species accounts whet the reader’s appetite for the feast of bird lore out there. Being a Bird will appeal particularly to young teens and bright pre-teens in the phase of life where a random encounter with a bit of fascinating trivia can spark an obsession or even a career, and to adults lucky enough to have never outgrown that phase. As the source of our future ornithologists, conservationists, and activists, this audience needs and deserves books like this, pitched just to them.

What healthy-minded youngster wouldn’t be intrigued by the Brown Pelican’s siblicidal habits, or the Black-crowned Night-Heron’s tendency to vomit on intruders at the nest? Or, for that matter, the Cooper’s Hawk’s transformation from villain to conservation victory? Alvo uses tidbits like this, culled from the ornithological literature and from his own nearly four-decade career as a conservation biologist, to place his subjects in a context that subtly reinforces the links among bird populations, habitats, and human threats such as poaching and pollution.

Helpfully, the most important and most improbable facts presented here are all cross-referenced to a thorough Literature Cited section, containing everything from A. C. Bent’s foundational life histories to the 2014 Supplement to the AOU Check-list, encouraging readers to explore further for themselves. There is also an appendix giving the Latin, English, French, and Mexican Spanish names of the species included, along with their North American breeding status and NatureServe conservation status. Despite the cartoons, this is a book that covers serious topics with a serious commitment to facts.

Among the buteos, for instance, the White-tailed Hawk gets written up for attending fires. The Red-tailed Hawk is noted for its wide distribution and its habit of including green, leafy branches in its nest. The Zone-tailed Hawk’s entry explains its mimicry of Turkey Vultures, while the Swainson’s Hawk account gives a nod to the dangers posed by organophosphate insecticides. The entry for the Red-shouldered Hawk includes a pocket history of raptor persecution and bounties.

These are all interesting and important topics. Sometimes, though—in an effort, I suspect, to avoid repetition in the entries for closely-related species—Alvo’s choice of factoids is downright eccentric, and his cartoons even more so. The opener for the Rough-legged Hawk is a rather tenuous meditation on the coincidence between its scientific name, lagopus, “hare-foot,” and the fact that it sometimes eats rabbits, illustrated by a macabre little illustration of a hawk cutting the legs off a road-killed rabbit to replace its own. There’s nothing really wrong with a little gleeful ghoulishness, and large birds of prey are a natural combination with dead rabbits, but nothing in this flight of fancy is any more interesting than a straightforward presentation of why this hawk has such heavily feathered extremities. There’s a general sense of cheerful jumble to many of the entries, which will appeal to some readers but may irk others.

The cartoons, by fifteen different illustrators, vary considerably in style and approach, ranging from slick to scrappy, from cute to clever to proudly weird. The best convey a great deal of information while provoking a chuckle, such as the drawings of a stinky Ashy Storm-Petrel and a nest-parasitizing Redhead. Photos fill in the gaps where the drawings are more fanciful; in keeping with the book’s overall intention, though, there’s no particular effort to highlight field marks or subtle plumage details.

The range maps are the weakest link, visually speaking. Even for strictly New World species, the maps show the whole globe, making some of them cramped and confusing; in the most extreme example, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse’s range is invisible unless you already know where to look.

This first volume of Being a Bird in North America was published by the author, with the collaboration of NatureServe, Nature Conservancy Canada, and the American Birding Association. I note this because the book is a shining example of self-publishing done right. Targeted to a specific audience and produced with sturdy, high-quality materials, Being a Bird is clearly a labor of love and the product of considerable thought about what the author wanted to achieve. Alvo even includes a poem in the front matter to justify his choice of print over digital publication—absolutely the right decision, given the small screens of so many e-readers.

A downside of self-publishing is that all the risk falls to one party, and publishing is a risky business indeed. The back cover notes that Alvo makes no guarantee about release dates for future volumes, but I hope we’ll see them soon. I hope they will sit proudly alongside this volume in libraries throughout the U.S. and Canada, waiting for the right readers to stumble across them: young readers and old with a passion for nature, insatiable curiosity, and an off-beat sense of humor.

– Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA among the mountains of Montana. She now lives in Queens, where she spends her time searching for unexpected birds in out-of-the-way public parks. Her work has appeared in such venues as Montana Naturalist, Clarkesworld, and Camas. She writes regularly at the 10,000 Birds blog.

Recommended citation:

Laben, C. 2017. Serious Topics, With Humor and Flair [a review of Being a Bird in North America North of Mexico, vol. 1]. Birding 49: 129-130.

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • Donna Schulman

    What an interesting book! I’m glad you talked about the publishing process. When I first started out in librarianship, privately published books were largely considered vanity titles, but that has changed a lot over the years. In an age of decreasing print titles on nature, private publishing or self-publishing is often the only medium available. I hope this title gets wide distribution–the other part of the publishing food chain.

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