American Birding Podcast



The Ten Best Articles in Birding Magazine

“I can’t seem to resolve this matrix,” said Tom indeterminately.

Alright, no more about indeterminacy. But here’s something else that I hope will generate some amount of discussion. In this post, I enumerate what I consider to be the ten best articles in Birding magazine.
A few ground rules: I’m restricting this analysis to just the eight full calendar years (2003–2010) I’ve been the editor of Birding. And I’m limiting myself only to full-length feature articles. In other words, all of those magnificent mini-essays (“News and Notes”) by Paul Hess are straight-out disqualified. (But I can’t resist noting that folks frequently tell me that Hess’s column is the best thing in Birding.) As to my criteria, I can think of the following three, in increasing order of importance: (3) Is the subject matter interesting? (2) Is the writing good? (1) Did I learn cool new things from reading the article?

That’s enough preamble. Let’s take a look! Here goes: 


10. “Shades of Gray: A Point of Reference for Gull Identification” by Steve N. G. HowellBirding, February 2003, pp. 32–37. This article is eminently useful and wisely cautionary. Years after it was published, I still refer to it quite a bit. It helps me with gull identification, and it reminds me to be careful.

01 Sungrebe 310 9. “Ten Years On: An Analysis of ‘The Next New ABA Birds’” by Colin CampbellBirding, May 2010, pp. 34–44. More than ten years ago, there appeared in Birding a series of predictions of the next bird species to be added to the ABA Checklist. This article analyzes the success (as if!) of those predictions. (Left: This Sungrebe vagrated to New Mexico in 2008. The Sungrebe is one of many bird species not predicted by a panel of experts convened by Birding in the late 1990s. Photo by © Jerry R. Oldenettel.)

8. “Brief Reflections on the History of Field Ornithology in California: Familiar Faces and Female Foresight” by W. David ShufordBirding, January/February 2005, pp. 38–42. Have you ever heard of Annie Montague Alexander? This inspiring tribute introduces us to one of the giants of 20th-century field ornithology—and one of the founding mothers of modern birding.

7. “Birding and the Internet: The Dark Side” by Paul LehmanBirding, January/February 2008, pp. 36–40. The e-revolution has given birders instant access to amounts of information that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. But how good is the information? How accurate?

6. “Birding and the Internet: Birding Alone” by Rick WrightBirding, January/February 2008, pp. 42–47. The internet has brought together birders as never before. Or has it? This commentary asks if the e-revolution is eroding birders’ true community spirit.

02 Chickadee 275 5. “Alaskan Birds at Risk: Widespread Beak Deformities in Resident Species” by Caroline R. Van HemertBirding, September/October2007, pp. 48–55. Large numbers of common bird species in Alaska are increasingly showing grossly elongated and curved bills. What’s causing this outbreak of bill deformities? How bad is the situation? And can birders do anything about it? (Right: In Alaska common resident songbird species, including the Black-capped Chickadee, are increasingly exhibiting bill deformities such as the one shown here. Photo by © John DeLapp.)

4. “Origins and Identification of Kelp x Herring Gull Hybrids: The ‘Chandeleur Gull’” by Donna L. Dittmann & Stephen W. CardiffBirding, May/June 2005, pp. 266–276. In the late 20th century, a few birders started noticing strange gulls off the coast of Louisiana. What were they? What are they? They are “Chandeleur Gulls,” it turns out—a novel population of hybrids between Herring Gulls and Kelp Gulls. These “Chandeleur Gulls” are a cutting-edge bird ID challenge, and they raise many interesting questions about molt, speciation, and other aspects of gull biology.

03 Birder 300 3. “Birding in the Old World: Getting Serious about Birding in China” by Lin Jianyang, with perspective by Pete DunneBirding, March/April 2006, pp. 54–59. Honestly, a lot of what’s written about birding and nature study in the developing world can come across as just a bit paternalistic. But not in this article—conceived and written by a young Chinese journalist with no agenda except accurate, on-the-ground reporting about the emergence of modern birding in the world’s largest country. (Left: Zhong Jia, shown here, has played a key role in organizing China’s national birding competition. Photo by © Lin Jianyang.)

2. “Florida’s Exotic Avifauna: A Preliminary Checklist” by Bill PrantyBirding, August 2004, pp. 362–372. Birders in Florida—visitors and residents alike—cannot help but notice the fantastic diversity of exotic bird species present in the wild in that state. Yet field guides depict relatively few of these exotics, and the technical literature is largely silent about them. This enumeration provides valuable annotations regarding the historical occurrence, breeding status, and estimated population size for more than 200 exotic bird species recorded in the wild in Florida.

1. “The Peculiar Puzzle of the Pink Ring-billed Gulls” by Lisa HardyBirding, October 2003, pp. 498–504. About a decade ago, birders in North America—especially those in the Interior West—started noticing bright pink Ring-billed Gulls. What on earth was going on? How come nobody had ever noticed this before? Where were these birds coming from? And what could possibly have been causing large numbers of Ring-billed Gulls to become strikingly and unforgettably pink? This article, a fascinating piece of ornithological detective work, provides all the answers.


I have to say, I had trouble narrowing it down to just ten. So here are ten honorable mentions that excel in all three of my “Top Ten Criteria”—again, (3) interest, (2) readability, and (3) novelty. They’re listed here in alphabetical order by authors’ last names. Here they are:


11. “The Alternate Plumage of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird” by Donna L. Dittmann & Steven W. CardiffBirding, September 2009, pp. 32–35, pp. 35w1–35w13.

12. “Migrants, Mono Lake, Monsoons, and Molt” by Michael DonahueBirding, May/June 2007, pp. 34–40.

04 Black Rosy-Finch 235 13. “Understanding Plumage Variation in the Black Rosy-Finch” by Stephen FettigBirding, November 2009, pp. 54–60. (Right: This is a Black Rosy-Finch, but what is its age and sex? Photo by © Bill Schmoker.)

14. “Temporal Distribution of the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow: The Importance of Field Identification” by Russell Greenberg, Brian Olsen, Barbara Ballentine, Sarah Warner, & Ray DannerBirding, September/October 2008, pp. 42–49.

15. “Tales from the Cryptic Species” by Alvaro JaramilloBirding, May/June 2006, pp. 30–38.

16. “A Trip to Find the Golden-backed Mountain-Tanager (Buthraupis aureodorsalis) in the High Andes of Peru” by Theodore A. (“Ted”) Parker, III, with annotations, commentary, and an introduction by Gregg GortonBirding, January 2009, pp. 58–64.

05 Blue-crowned Parakeets 200 17. “The Parrot Fauna of the ABA Area: A Current Look” by Bill Pranty & Kimball L. GarrettBirding, June 2003, pp. 248–261. (Left: Blue-crowned Parakeets have bred in small numbers in the wild in Florida. Photo by © Lee F. Snyder.)

18. “In with the New: Some Thoughts on the Discovery of the Rufous Twistwing” by Joseph TobiasBirding, July/August 2007, pp. 40–46.

19. “How Birds’ Bills Help Them See” by Sean M. Williams & Edward J. Burtt, Jr.Birding, September 2010, pp. 32–38.

20. “Taking It Personal: Where the Ivory-bill Survives” by Rick WrightBirding, March/April 2007, pp. 48–52.


Now here comes the obvious next step in the process. What do you think have been the ten best articles in Birding? Did I miss something whoppingly obvious? What are your favorites? What are your criteria for selection? And do keep this in mind: Your selections—especially if they are supported by a little bit of rationale—may well influence future content in Birding. We do pay attention…

Meanwhile, here’s something to chew on: The ten worst articles in Birding? Click here and see for yourself!