American Birding Podcast



Straddling the Boundaries of Biology and Poetry

A review by Lori Potter

Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America, by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

320 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14755

Birds of prey occupy a favored spot in our collective imagination. The Maltese Falcon. The recent bestseller H is For Hawk. The national symbol of the United States. The countless nest web cams. Mythology and the Bible. As Pete Dunne says, birds of prey are “citizens of lofty places, including human esteem.” This book speaks directly to that special interest.

Dunne and Karlson’s new Birds of Prey lands somewhere between the coffee table and the classroom desk, or perhaps on both. It is a reference book with an authoritative text by Dunne, a well-known expert in the field. It is also a visual page-turner, with stunning action photographs by Kevin T. Karlson and other leading photographers. At 6” x 9” and several pounds, it is heftier than a field guide—and doesn’t really pretend to be one, as it forgoes range maps. Yet it will be useful in resolving identification issues thanks to its detailed attention to morphs and plumages, field marks, and diagnostic behaviors. Ultimately, Birds of Prey straddles the traditional categories of birding books, and acquits itself well in all of them.

Dunne says in the introduction that Birds of Prey began as a companion to Hawks in Flight—specifically, the second edition by David Sibley, Dunne and Clay Sutton, which appeared in 2012. A chief goal of Birds of Prey is to put biological flesh and feather on the identification focus of the earlier book. Over time, it became instead the distillation of thousands of hours of field observations by hundreds of raptor biologists fascinated by birds of prey. Many of their anecdotes are recorded in Birds of Prey to dramatic or humorous effect, like the observation that Swainson’s Hawks “flock in clusters large and dense enough to be captured by Doppler radar.”

Both Dunne and Karlson have professional qualifications that just won’t quit. Dunne is the author of more than a dozen birding books, the founding director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and New Jersey Audubon’s birding ambassador. Karlson is a wildlife photographer, tour leader, and author or coauthor of eight works on bird identification and photography.

Dunne writes crisply and clearly, conveying relish for his subject in a contagious way. Birds of prey can turn a biologist into a poet, he muses, and the book proves him right. He calls the White-tailed Kite “an angelic bird with demonic eyes.” The Snail Kite is a “deliberate bird, never flustered or erratic.” He doesn’t take himself too seriously, speculating that “if ground squirrels have nightmares, they look like a Ferruginous Hawk.”

The picture captions exude the same dry wit. Beneath the image of an accipiter with a rodent in its talons, Dunne writes, “A Cooper’s Hawk brings home the bacon, temporarily wrapped in chipmunk fur.” In the case of a Peregrine Falcon clasping a hapless finch, he notes, “This American Goldfinch is about to move on to the next trophic level.”

If Pete Dunne’s text is Roger Federer methodically dominating from the baseline, Kevin T. Karlson’s photos are Rafael Nadal rushing the net. Two Bald Eagles lock talons and twirl like tops in flight in a series of shots from the Cape May hawkwatch. A strikingly owl-faced Northern Harrier flies nearly upside down. The bulging crop of a successful hunter; a rare silver-plumaged Red-shouldered Hawk; a kestrel soaring while gobbling a cricket—Karlson captures all of these images and more, brilliantly. Karlson also selected and edited the equally stunning images by other raptor photographers. A full array of instructive color morph photos accompanies the species accounts.

In his text, Pete Dunne chooses to step forward and address the root causes of the decline in raptor populations. The individual species accounts describe forces such as climate change and new agricultural practices that affect the health of populations on a large scale. Thus, he notes, the American Kestrel’s dramatic and dire decline in the East may be related to drought conditions or to increased conversion of agricultural land to suburbs. Likewise, the Swainson’s Hawk is susceptible to changing farm practices.

Amplifying this theme, Dunne includes sections in the book titled “Threats to Birds of Prey” and “Things You Can Do to Help Birds of Prey.” If you love birds, don’t forget to love their habitat; this is the message that this bold, beautiful new book delivers, even as it takes your birding to a new level of enjoyment and understanding.

Lori Potter is a serious competitive and recreational cyclist and birder, and she occasionally combines the two activities. Based in Denver, Colorado, Potter’s work has appeared in the Denver Post Sunday travel section and other publications. She participated in the ABA’s 2014 birding safari in South Africa–on foot.

Recommended citation:

Potter, L. 2018. Straddling the boundaries of biology and poetry [a review of Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America, by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson]. Birding 50(3): 67–68.