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A Significant Reference Work — and Many Hours of Reading Enjoyment

A review by W. Ross Silcock

Birds of Montana, by Jeffrey S. Marks, Paul Hendricks, and Daniel Casey

Buteo Books, 2016

672 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books BBMT

The first impression on picking this book up—“hefting” might be the more appropriate verb—is one of great size: Weighing in at 5.1 pounds, Birds of Montana has an impressive physical footprint of 9 x 11 x 2 inches. But the book is also big in the ways that truly count. Its 659 pages are incredibly comprehensive, and include at least two major sections that could well have been stand-alone literary efforts on their own: The “Literature Cited” section is a bibliography of Montana ornithology that comes to a mind-boggling single-spaced 57 pages of 9-point type, comprising more than 2000 publications; the 20-page history of Montana ornithology is just as thorough and informative.

As its title suggests, Birds of Montana is a representative of the genre generally referred to as “state bird books.” Their readership is drawn most heavily from researchers and serious amateur ornithologists, but any state book, even those (and there are many) that are seriously out of date, is an invaluable record in time, a snapshot, of the status of a state’s avifauna. With the needs of the future in mind, the authors of Birds of Montana describe their work “as a benchmark against which … changes in Montana’s bird populations can be measured” by the birders and researchers of the future.

As one of the authors who labored to help produce Birds of Nebraska (2001), I understand the time and commitment that went into producing this impressive tome, “the first comprehensive reference on the state’s birds since [Aretas A.] Saunders published A Distributional List of the Birds of Montana in 1921.” Now, 95 years later, this new volume is a thorough review of the status, distribution, abundance, ecology, and conservation of the 433 bird species recorded over the nearly 130 years since Montana attained statehood. Truly comprehensive, the book is also well written, and much easier to read than its length might lead one to expect.

The first three chapters of Birds of Montana provide many fascinating insights. Chapter 1, “The State of Montana: Geography, Topography, Habitats, and Ecoregions,” is an excellent overview of four topics that are essential to understanding bird distribution, illustrated with color photographs of Montana’s varied habitats. The map on the flyleaf, however, would be more helpful if the state’s waterways were more clearly marked; the leaf-vein-like lines that I presume indicate rivers are barely discernible.

Chapter 2, “History of Montana Ornithology,” presents a chronological record of natural history explorations and expeditions in the state; this is the first time that virtually all of the historical figures and events contributing to our ornithological knowledge of Montana have been discussed in one place. While the state of documentation necessarily puts the focus here on European and white American naturalists, the authors “fully appreciate that many of the people who inhabited the West before Europeans arrived had a detailed knowledge of bird life.” The Blackfoot tribe, for example, had a name for the California Condor, which they recognized as a “rare visitor from the south that fed on bison remains,” an observation consistent with other nineteenth-century reports of the species on the plains of Montana and Alberta.

Chapter 3, “Bird Conservation in Montana,” is a straightforward list and brief discussion of organizations, governmental and not, working on conservation in Montana. The last section of this chapter is devoted to birds and anthropogenic climate change. The authors note that average temperatures in Montana “have increased 1-4 degrees F (depending on the season) over the past 55 years” and state that “accelerated climate change will influence many … drivers of habitat conditions and the birds that rely on them.” They predict that “consideration of the effects of climate change on landscapes, habitats, and bird populations will be a central theme of conservation in Montana for decades to come.”

The species accounts follow. Birds of Montana derives much of its information from the more than 500,000 records in the massive Montana Bird Distribution database, supplemented by data collected between 1996 and 2010 for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey. With ever more records and ever more reliable records, eBird has also become an important source for the authors of state books; the authors of Birds of Montana made use of the material there and of posts from the Montana Online Birding Group, noting that in both cases they “did not accept at face value all ‘records’ from these sources and worked very hard to evaluate many of the reports, including contacting the observers. In the end, [they] made many judgment calls in accepting or rejecting reports that were not supported by photographic evidence.” In my own experience, the sheer number of reports included in eBird provides some context for judging records that might be considered equivocal: The more “records” (I prefer to call them “reports” until they have been cogently documented) there are, the easier it is to detect outliers that may actually be correct.

Nevertheless, it can still be vexing to decide which species should be included in the main body of a state book. Following the official list sanctioned by the state or provincial records committee seems an obvious choice, but the high standard of documentation set by most committees can leave a few species in limbo. Birds of Montana points out a good example: There are only two well-prepared written documentations of the Bell’s Vireo for Montana, each pertaining to a different individual; the Montana Rare Birds Committee requires two written documentations for a single bird before admitting the species to the official state list. Birds of Montana includes this species in the main accounts, though, as the authors are familiar with the observers involved and believe that both sightings are correct. I agree with that approach.

Most states also maintain a list of reports that might be correct but are still subject to some doubt; some such records are of birds correctly identified but thought to have escaped or been released (“provenance unknown”), but most are simply reports without acceptable documentation. Birds of Montana calls this a “supplemental list,” while many states use the term “hypothetical list.” Neither adjective fully conveys the purpose of such a list; I prefer “suspense list,” which implies that resolution is not possible now but may be forthcoming as additional evidence (hopefully) accumulates.

The species accounts in Birds of Montana are well organized, each beginning with a general paragraph followed by several sub-sections: Subspecies, Status and Occurrence, Habitat, Conservation, Historical Notes, Contemporary Work, and Banded Birds. The introductory paragraphs indicate the global range of the species and offer other interesting information; I found these paragraphs readable and informative, a good lead-in to the “meat” of each species account.

For polytypic species, the next section is a brief list of the subspecies that occur in the state; I wish that these lists offered more taxonomic context, which would make it easier for the reader to understand where each subspecies fits into the species’ overall range. It would also be helpful if controversial or otherwise unsettled taxonomic issues, such as the status of the redpolls, had been discussed here at greater length; in the case of the redpolls, that important—and very topical—discussion is reserved for the historical notes.

“Status and Occurrence” will be the go-to section for most readers, providing information about overall occurrence, the timing and location of migration (early, peak, and late dates), numbers to be expected, and breeding phenology. Birds of Montana deals with these data in one to a few paragraphs whose content varies from species to species. Some of the information is quickly found here—notably the list of specimens collected, usually set apart in its own paragraph—but details of migration and breeding phenology are less easy to locate in the text. It would be easier to find that information if it were more clearly organized by season, with each season given a distinct heading.

It can be difficult to describe the overall status of any given species in a state with consistency and precision. Many books conflate the terms used for relative abundance and for frequency of occurrence, especially in the case of species whose occurrence is less than annual. To designate abundance, Birds of Montana uses a widely adopted system based on the number of birds an experienced observer might expect in a day’s birding. Species ranked as abundant (>100 individuals daily), common (26-100), fairly common (6-25), or uncommon (1-6) are considered “regular” (essentially annual) in occurrence.

For species of less than annual occurrence in the state, Birds of Montana defines three categories: “occasional” for species with >20 records but of less than annual occurrence, “casual” for species with <20 records but which may breed, and “vagrant” for species with <10 records. A simpler system might use only the two terms “casual” and “accidental,” with the latter restricted to birds that have occurred only once ever in a state and are not expected to be found again. If a species has occurred more than once, especially over a period of, say, 10 years, there is almost always a pattern of occurrence, whether geographic or temporal; such a species should be listed as casual. Species without a clear seasonal pattern of occurrence are more often escapes or releases.

Of the remaining sections in each species account, I found the one headed “Conservation” a particularly useful resource; it combines a summary of conservation efforts with thorough ecological discussions. “Historical Notes” is an important and necessary section, too, and is very well done. The information presented under the headings “Contemporary Work” and “Banded Birds,” on the other hand, could have been more usefully dispersed to be read with related information about migration, breeding, winter occurrence, or taxonomy.

Birds of Montana is an impressive work. The state has a wide range of geological, historical, cultural, and environmental features, and hosts a large avifauna for its northerly location. Despite the minor criticisms raised above, I heartily recommend this book. It will provide many hours of reading enjoyment, quite apart from its significant value as a reference.

W. Ross Silcock grew up in New Zealand, moved to the U.S. in 1968, and now lives in Tabor, Iowa, and in Houston, Texas. He is a Regional Editor for North American Birds, and has compiled the seasonal reports for Nebraska Bird Review since the early 1990s. Silcock and Joel Jorgensen are working on a revision of their 2001 Birds of Nebraska.

Recommended citation:

Silcock, W.R. 2017. A Significant Reference Work–and Many Hours of Reading Enjoyment [a review of Birds of Montana, by Jeffrey S. Marks, Paul Hendricks, and Daniel Casey]. Birding 49: 84-86.

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

    Who did the cover illustration? Are there other illustrations in the book?

    • Rick Wright

      Color illustrations by Albert Earl Gilbert, black-and-white illustrations by Shawneen Finnegan. I don’t see a list of illustrations, but a quick look shows that there is a Finnegan drawing about every half dozen pages; the total number of species illustrated is, according to the publisher, 73. There are also numerous color photographs of habitats.

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