American Birding Podcast



Thompson and Toops: Hummingbirds and Butterflies


So who are those 48 million wildlife watchers out there?

The question may be as tongue-in-cheek as the figure is absurd, but it still needs to be asked. Who are all those birders out there who are not ABA members, who don’t contribute to their local listervers or to NAB—and what are they reading?

I hope they’re reading such beautifully produced and gently informative books as Bill Thompson and Connie Toops’s Hummingbirds and Butterflies, a Peterson (Backyard) Field Guide full of beautiful photos, pithy advice, and interesting facts that will capture, but not tax, the attention of those enthusiasts whose enthusiasm stops at the garden gate.

As its title suggests, the book is divided almost equally into two sections, each comprising an introduction to the group of organisms under discussion, detailed pointers on how to observe and attract them, and species accounts (with portraits and range maps) for 15 hummingbirds and some three dozen butterflies. The authors’ prose is simple and inviting, and many readers will be grateful for their pausing to define anything approaching a technical term, such as “ecology.”

Errors and infelicities are very few. I’m not sure how the hummingbirds on page 17 were sexed, and treating the gorget and throat as synonymous (20) is a mistake: some hummingbirds lack gorgets, but all, it seems to me, have throats. I was sorry and surprised to see the canard about identifying birds from front to back repeated here; hummingbirds, with their often species-specific wing/tail ratios, are famously among those many groups that should be approached a tergo. The bibliography’s omission of Steve Howell’s photographic guide is simply unfathomable. But these are the complaints of a birder, and not one in a thousand of the readers of this book will be bothered by any of the flies in an otherwise very well-prepared ointment.

As a birder, I learned more from the butterfly section of the book. I already knew “the recipe,” speaking of well-prepared ointments, but the simple and beautiful feeder depicted on page 151 is already making me look forward to setting one up, and the 36 pages of suggested native plants (neatly grouped by geography) are going to come in very handy on our return to the east coast this fall.

While the book’s hummingbird section is able to treat all of the US and Canada’s common species, comprehensiveness is obviously out of reach for the butterflies. The solution is a happy one: the book introduces nine groups of “kindred” species, letting even tyros narrow their choices at a glance. The 35 or so common species accorded individual treatment all have large ranges, some nearly continent-wide, others widespread in the east or in the west.

Who are those 48 million? They’re the birders and butterfliers who will keep this book on the windowsill or in the sunroom, sharing it—and the pleasure it brings—with their children and grandchildren (242). I can’t think of a better way to spend a warm summer’s afternoon.