American Birding Podcast



Not Your Grandparents’ Waterfowl

A review by Paul A. Johnsgard

Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, Fourth Edition, by Guy Baldassarre

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014

1,027 pages in two volumes, $69.95hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14400

In 1942, the American Wildlife Institute published The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, a modest-sized book of 474 pages, written by the Toronto industrialist Francis H. Kortright and illustrated with 36 paintings and many ink drawings by Terence M. Shortt, artist of the Royal Ontario Museum.

I received the book for Christmas as an eleven-year-old in 1943. I thought it was not only the best present I had ever been given, but also probably the best bird book ever written. Shortt’s wonderful paintings were amazingly accurate portraits of the North American species then recognized, and the illustrations also included the downy young and a few hybrids and albinos. The text—which, as I learned much later from Terry Shortt, had been written almost entirely by one of Kortright’s employees—offered detailed plumage descriptions and extended “Life Stories” for each species, drawn from such classic sources as Bent’s Life Histories.

Those species accounts enthralled me so much that I vowed to one day see all of North America’s waterfowl in life and to learn all I possibly could about all of the world’s waterfowl. It took almost 30 years to achieve the former; the latter is still unfinished business.

The Kortright book influenced my life so greatly that I now own four copies, ranging from the first to the last of the more than a dozen printings. Because all of Shortt’s original paintings were lost or stolen while being shipped from Toronto to Washington, D.C., the color quality of the plates gradually deteriorated, making the early printings the most visually desirable.

Baldassare Ducks, Geese and SwansThree decades later, Frank C. Bellrose undertook to update and expand the text in a second edition; new chapters were also written by Art Hawkins, Glenn Sanderson, and Milton Weller. That edition, published in 1976, reprinted Shortt’s paintings, but the subsequent, third edition, also by Bellrose and appearing in 1981, used new paintings by Bob Hines, a well-known artist of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Frank Bellrose continued to work toward a fourth edition for several more years, but the manuscript was still incomplete when he passed away in 2005. In 2009, the task of completing the book was turned over to Guy A. Baldassarre, Distinguished Teaching Professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and the coauthor (with Eric Bolen) of a widely used college textbook, Waterfowl Ecology and Management.

Baldassarre undertook the revision with great enthusiasm, but, sadly, died of leukemia in 2012. The completed manuscript had already been submitted to Johns Hopkins University Press, so much of the final copy-editing and proofing was performed by a colleague, Dr. Sue Schaeffer.

Now, 72 years after the first “Kortright” was hatched, the magnificent fourth edition has arrived. Much of the text is new, and although the paintings by Bob Hines were retained, they have been distributed across the respective species accounts. New and highly informative range maps have been produced for all species, often including separate maps for winter and breeding ranges.

This is not your grandfather’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans! It consists of two 8 x 10” volumes, totaling over 1,000 pages with nearly 300 color illustrations. The approximately 200 references in the 1942 edition have grown into a CD-ROM with roughly 4,000 literature citations and political maps of five major geographic regions from Alaska to Mexico. Including their cardboard slipcase, the two volumes weigh nearly ten pounds, making this the largest and most comprehensive work on North American waterfowl ever published.

BINbuttonCoverage varies from the six text pages devoted to the enigmatic Masked Duck to 62 pages for the overly researched Mallard. By way of comparison, the waterfowl volumes in the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Handbook of North American Birds (1976), which also came to slightly over 1,000 pages, included eight pages on the Masked Duck and 23 on the Mallard. The difference between the two works perhaps reflects different emphases: the Handbook summarized the species’ basic biology, while the new book thoroughly surveys the wildlife management literature.

Since the original Kortright was published in 1942, three new waterfowl species have been recognized. The Cackling Goose has been split from the Canada Goose, and the North American populations of the Green-winged Teal and Black Scoter are now regarded as distinct species. The Muscovy Duck, now well established in southern Texas and locally feral elsewhere, has also been added. The Mute Swan, although it was very briefly described in the 1942 edition, was considered limited to zoos and parks; even by then, however, some had escaped from coastal estates and were breeding freely on Long Island, and today, the expanding U.S. population probably numbers in the tens of thousands.

In general, it is clear that the intended audience of this new edition is wildlife managers and waterfowl biologists, rather than birders or bird-lovers. The book presents an almost unbelievable amount of data on the geographic distribution of each species, along with details on population size, sex and age ratios, longevity, harvests, population trends, and conservation issues, information much of which has been virtually hidden in obscure governmental reports and other “gray” literature. Current information is also provided about the ecology, breeding biology, social behavior, and migration of each species. The range maps are the most up-to-date and accurate of any available, and the color photos are among the best waterfowl photos ever assembled in a single book.

All told, the book is a treasure trove of information, and the coverage of the technical literature is remarkably thorough. However, making the citations accessible only on a CD-ROM seems a questionable decision, assuming as it does that that technology will be universally available indefinitely.

Birders and ornithologists will appreciate the fact that species identification and sexing and aging criteria are discussed in detail for all 46 species, together with methods for distinguishing similar species. As in earlier editions, the new book helpfully illustrates the outstretched wings of adults of both sexes, but it no longer includes Shortt’s beautiful illustrations of the often confusing patterns produced by autumnal body molts.

It would be churlish to criticize such a herculean effort by a recently deceased author, but readers of Birding with a particular interest in locating and identifying rarities may experience some disappointment. The 46 species included in what the book calls North America are those known to breed in Canada or the United States, a policy also followed in the A.O.U.’s Birds of North America monograph series. A dozen or more Eurasian or Neotropical species that birders might hope to encounter someday in North America are omitted, among them the Whooper Swan, Pink-footed Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Barnacle Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Falcated Duck, Baikal Teal, European Green-winged Teal, White-cheeked Pintail, Garganey, Tufted Duck, and Smew. One apparently newly discovered species is mentioned on page 426, the Pot-billed Duck, which might be added to “most wanted” lists by birders in search of ultra-rare quarry—unless they have already ticked off the Spot-billed Duck.

Regrettably, there are no synthesizing chapters dealing with such topics as long-term multi-species population trends or the ecological threats to wetlands and tundra breeding grounds posed by global warming. Neither is there an index. However, one should not quibble over the lack of dessert after a wonderful 46-course meal. This is a magnificent production, and well worth its hefty price. Speaking of hefty, I recommend dedicating a sturdy bag to house and carry around these two volumes, and it will take a strong shelf to support them!

Paul Johnsgard

– Paul A. Johnsgard is Foundation Professor of Biological Sciences Emeritus at the University of Nebraska. With a lifelong addiction to birds and the natural world, he has published over 60 books, nearly all on natural history or major bird groups, especially waterfowl, gallinaceous birds, and cranes.

Recommended citation:

Johnsgard, P.A. 2014. Not Your Grandparents’ Waterfowl [a review of Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, Fourth Edition, by Guy Baldassarre]. Birding 46 (6): 65.