American Birding Podcast



“Ask Rick Wright”—Thoughts on Being Birderly

A quasi-review by Ted Floyd

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America, by Rick Wright

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

434 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14934

As I was sitting down to write this not-exactly-a-book-review, one of my kids asked me a question about the mathematical details of the orbit of the moon. I didn’t have the answer handy. What to do? “Ask Rick Wright” was her automatic response.

Hours earlier, I had been on the phone with an ABA colleague, Sales & Marketing Director John Lowry. We’d wandered onto the topic of vagrancy, and neither of us could remember the particulars of when the such-and-such sandpiper strayed to some beach on the Great Lakes. But if we’d seriously needed the answer, John knew what to do: “Ask Rick Wright.”

Rick Wright knows everything about birds. I’m not necessarily saying Rick’s the world’s best “field birder,” although he’s right up there with the greats. And I’m certainly not saying he’s our finest ornithological illustrator. I don’t think he can draw anything at all. But when it comes to knowledge about birds, Rick is in a league of his own. Rick is the foremost “public intellectual” in contemporary birding.

It’s not just that Rick knows facts about birds. He understands it all. He puts stuff in context. More than anything, Rick sees the human story in birding and ornithology. “Ask Rick Wright” about a sandpiper, and you’ll learn about Rachel Carson’s or Robert Ridgway’s research on the species. “Ask Rick Wright” about celestial mechanics, and you’ll be informed that Copernicus or Ptolemy kept field notebooks with sightings of swallows and such. On top of it all, Rick understands how all those things link to our endeavors at the present time—how today’s birding community has been shaped by historical and cultural forces as deep and as broad as the entire human experience.


It is hardly surprising, then, that Rick has served for many years as Book Review Editor here at Birding. Every bird book is imbued with context—even if the book’s writer doesn’t always appreciate it. And Birding book reviews during the Wright era have told the story not only of what we know about birds but also how we have come to attain that knowledge. Case in point: Knut Eisermann’s review in this issue of a pair of recent field guides to the birds of Central America. Those books are greater than the sum of their parts—the parts being plates and range maps and the like. Those books also tell the story of decades of birding and ornithology in the region. Also in this issue: Capper Nichols’s review of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Mozart’s Starling, the sort of work that demands an analysis of the linkages between bird and birder, between science and society. And the third review in this issue, Rick’s own Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America. I’ll have more on this in a moment, but, first, we must confront the obvious problem of objectivity. Rick himself is Book Review Editor for this magazine.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the ABA, the book reviews in this magazine have been esteemed for their objectivity. (And a shout-out to Rick’s predecessor, the late Eric Salzman, on that front.) So how do we maintain objectivity in the matter of a book authored by the journal’s Book Review Editor? Answer: We cannot. Even the decision to review a book—I think I should say, especially the decision to a review a book—is one that requires considerable input from the Book Review Editor. So here’s the deal: This is not a review in the usual sense. Yes, it’s about a book, but it’s also importantly about that book’s author, friend and colleague of all involved in the production of this magazine. Especially this magazine’s Editor! I’m calling it a quasi-review, but, really, it’s as much a tribute to Rick Wright—to Rick’s many contributions to Birding and the ABA and the broader birding community.

The tribute is especially appropriate at this juncture because Rick is stepping down as Book Review Editor. Frank Izaguirre, a birder’s birder and bibliophile’s bibliophile, has already assumed many of the responsibilities of Book Review Editor. We’ll all be hearing much more from Frank in the months and years to come. But not now. This one is all about Rick and his new book on sparrows.


The first thing you see on the cover of Rick Wright’s book is the name PETERSON, emblazoned in Brobdingnagian red letters, plainly legible across the room—a quite large room. Peterson is Roger Tory Peterson, of course, the guy who wrote miraculously short and efficient descriptions of sparrows and other birds. In Peterson’s paradigm-shifting pocketsize Field Guide to the Birds, the entry for the Song Sparrow is all of 12 lines, sandwiched between the Fox Sparrow (11 lines) and the Vesper Sparrow (also 11 lines). In the Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America, the treatment of the Song Sparrow runs to 14 full pages. And the bird known in Peterson’s time as the Savannah Sparrow encompasses a mind-bending 21 pages. These are big pages, too, well over the twice the areal extent of those in Peterson’s Field Guide.

Whatever this book is, it is emphatically not a field guide. And I note that, for a great many of us, the archetypal “field guide” is still what we think of—and what we want, or think we want—when we think about a book about birds. We want a book—do we not?—that enables us to name this bird or that bird, and then move along to the next one. By virtue of its heft alone, Sparrows of North America demands otherwise. It forces us to slow down and smell the sunflowers and the sagebrush, the Spartina and the Salton Sea, and all the other places where there are Savannah and Song sparrows.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is a sense, a most felicitous sense, in which Peterson’s and Wright’s two guides are joined at the hip. Wright’s Reference Guide, like Peterson’s Field Guide, is, in the first and final analysis, a book about names. It is a manifesto for naming the things—the unitary, zygotic organisms, the populations of individuals, and the “species,” whatever those may be—we call sparrows. The name of a bird is the starting point, the urtext, for the object or population of objects we are contemplating. And a continuing preoccupation with naming, no matter how good we get at feather tracts and flight calls, is the “prime directive,” if you will, of modern birding.

I had occasion to ponder these matters just the other day, when I needed to fact-check something about one of the species in Sparrows of North America.


The sparrow I sought is treated on pp. 349 ff. in Rick’s book. Let that sink in for a moment. We’re still in the species accounts on p. 349, and this a book on sparrows—sparrows and nothing else. Yet Rick laments in the introduction to Sparrows the constraints imposed on the writer of “a volume as reluctantly slender as this one.” Let me guess: Rick remarks to the participants in his much lauded Birds and Art tours that the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral add a “dash of color” to the otherwise dreary edifice. Anyhow back to p. 349, where we find treatment of the bird called Aimophila aestivalis by Peterson but Peucaea aestivalis by Wright. In Peterson’s day, that bird was helpfully and evocatively referred to in the vernacular as the Pine Woods Sparrow. Its name today is fraught and forgettable, the Bachman Sparrow.

Wait. a. minute. Shouldn’t that be Bachman’s Sparrow, with an apostrophe–s, denoting possession by the 19th-century cleric and racist for whom the bird is now named? Nonsense. That enchanting denizen of Deep South pinewoods no more belongs to the Rev. Bachman than it belongs to you or me. Okay, Bachman actually did, at one point, come into possession of some of his namesake sparrows—because he shot them. So Wright refers to one of those birds, on p. 350, as “Bachman’s sparrow.” For the rest of the account, though, the species, in distinction from Bachman’s dead birds, is properly referred to as “the Bachman Sparrow.” Think of the Audubon Society (not Audubon’s Society) or Rick’s book (in the Peterson Reference Guide series, not Peterson’s). And note the definite article. We are informed elsewhere in the account that, for example, “the Bachman Sparrow is rare to locally uncommon in the Piney Woods region of east Texas.” In the same way, one might say that the cheetah is the fastest land animal. Nobody would ever say, “Cheetah is the fastest land animal.” It is an error, plain and simple, and, worse, an affectation, to say or write, let’s say, “Stripe-headed Sparrow has a very long, broad, towhee-like tail.” No, you need a “the” in front of the bird’s name, as on p. 347 of the account for Peucaea ruficauda.

Wait. another. minute. The Stripe-headed Sparrow in a field guide to the sparrows of North America? You won’t find that species in your Sibley or Nat Geo. What’s up with that? Newsflash: Mexico is in North America. Think of NAFTA. Or ask yourself: Is Mexico in South America? Yes, the Stripe-headed Sparrow, occurring north almost to Mazatlán, is an exemplary North American sparrow, and it receives full treatment in Sparrows of North America. I note in passing that the handful of records from Hawaii of the Savannah Sparrow are not, so far as I can tell, covered in Sparrows of North America. A minor lapsus, to be sure, but a pity nevertheless: As the ornithologist Doug Pratt has convincingly argued, the Hawaiian avifauna is more authentically North American than Asian or Australasian, plus, of course, Hawaii was recently admitted into the ABA Area.

Rick’s book is instantly notable for breaking the rules—with regard to, among other things, hyphens, apostrophes, definite articles, and geographic boundaries. The rules are wrong, and Rick is right, but it’s not as simple as that, we well know. Sparrows takes us outside our birderly comfort zone, and it may be resisted by some for that reason. The book chips away at old traditions, it frustrates old ways of thinking. And I haven’t even mentioned what will be for many readers the most inviolable boundary of all: taxonomy! Sparrows of North America elevates the Timberline Sparrow to full-species status, while four species of unhyphenated fox sparrows are recognized. The Large-billed, Belding[’s], and San Benito sparrows, treated by the American Ornithological Society as populations of the Savannah Sparrow, enjoy full-species rank in Sparrows, whereas the Ipswich Sparrow, for much of the 20th century its own species, is a subspecies in Sparrows.

Anyhow, writers like Rick and books like Sparrows get us to reflecting on why we birders do the things we do. For example: Why do we even have field guides and other reference works in the year 2019? It’s been a solid quarter-century now since the imminent demise of the print ornithological literature was first foretold, yet the business of publishing bird books flourishes. That’s something Frank Izaguirre (the guy I said I wouldn’t write about) and I have been wrestling with as we plot the future of “Books & Media Reviews” in Birding magazine.

Let’s cut to the chase. Despite the thorough treatment in each species account of “Field Identification” and “Range and Geographic Variation,” Sparrows of North America is neither a bird ID book nor a birdfinding guide. Thus: You think you’ve found a Field Sparrow out of range; you’re wondering whether you’ve got oriantha or nominate leucophrys White-crowned Sparrows at your local patch; you’re just now getting into birding, working out the differences among Song, Savannah, and Vesper sparrows—in all those instances and a thousand others, you consult the internet for immediate resolution of the matter at hand. Today we find and identify birds online. We post to Facebook groups like “What’s this Bird?” and “Advanced Bird ID”; we learn bird identification from iNaturalist’s almost unbelievable autorecognition software and from the dedicated, talented, and overworked regional editors with eBird; we compulsively check #ABARare and @ABABirdAlert for up-to-the-minute updates on where to find birds. That’s all well and good, but it begs the question; it’s undergirded by the assumption that resources for birding succeed or fail according to their utility and authority in the matter of finding and identifying birds.

You see, that’s not the case anymore. Bird books—the truly good ones, anyhow—have been liberated by the internet. I’m here to tell you that Rick’s book isn’t your go-to reference for nailing the ID of that Field Sparrow, for delineating the ranges of oriantha and nominate leucophrys, or for learning how to recognize those streak-breasted sparrows with the great songs. Go online for all that. And then dig deep into Sparrows of North America for the rest of the story. It’s a story that, perversely and paradoxically, sort of got lost during the first flourishing of modern birding books in the latter decades of the 20th century.


Rick Wright coined the word—I’ve used it in this quasi-review already—birderly. It refers to the collective of the social and psychological dimensions, a multivariate sum greater than its parts, of being a birder and, especially, a community of birders. ABA President Jeffrey A. Gordon has independently conceived a related idea, and, honestly, this way of thinking is out there more broadly. But Rick has done much to advance the cause, and I think he’s engaged it more intentionally, and certainly more formally, than any of the rest of us.

Being birderly goes way beyond Vesper vs. Savannah, even beyond oriantha vs. nominate leucophrys. It’s all about what those words—are they ideas? constructs? actual things?—really mean for us, what they really are. Get a group of birders on a Socorro Towhee or White-throated Sparrow or Cassiar Junco or any other sparrow, and let the debate and discussion begin! How did certain sparrows come to be known as “towhees”? Why do White-throated Sparrows have two color morphs? Who or where is “Cassiar,” and what exactly is the junco named for it? And, ultimately, what does it all mean for us, individually and corporately? How do bird names define us?—as a community of like-minded individuals, but also as a community somewhat apart from the rest of our species.

Those sorts of ponderings are the essence of being birderly. They’re what’s talked about on bird club outings, at birding festivals, and in ornithological society meetings every day of the year and practically every hour of the day. And they’re the heart and soul of the Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America, although perforce with a greater formality in the book itself than when we’re actually out birding.

Do you wish to know, really know, all about the sparrows of North America? Then flip to any page in Sparrows of North America. Read this book to learn about sparrows. And something else: To get a full sense, rich and deep and broad and full of feeling, for what it’s like to be a birder in 2019, read Rick’s book, the whole book, from start to finish. To know what it means to be birderly, Ask Rick Wright.


– Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding. His latest book, How to Know the Birds, was published by National Geographic this spring. 

Recommended citation:

Floyd, T. 2019. “Ask Rick Wright”–Thoughts on Being Birderly [a review of Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America, by Rick Wright]. Birding 51(3): 68–70.