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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Essentially Dunne

How much would you pay to travel across the country for a year birding with one of America's biggest birding celebrities? While such a trip might set you back tens of thousands of dollars, about $30 can get you the next best thing if you buy Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Reading this new book is like following Pete Dunne on an extended field trip across the continent as he rattles off his own impressions of over 700 bird species--including his own nicknames for the birds, tips on identifying them, their characteristic behaviors, and even unique aspects of the the way each species flies.

While labeling a book as "essential" is a pretty tall claim, what about this book might give someone the idea that they would really, really need it? First off, its important to discuss what this book is and isn't. Basically, this book is an identification guide...but not the traditional bird guide that you might take out into the field and hold up to see which bird picture matches the bird you are looking at through your binoculars. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this book is that it may be the first bird identification book in a hundred years to have no illustrations. That's right. Over 680 pages of how to identify birds, without a single sketch, drawing, painting, or photograph of a bird.

So, how are you supposed to identify birds without pictures? Here's where this book is different. While most bird identification books are designed to be taken into the field, this one is not. It isn't a field guide. As the title indicates, its a companion or supplement to your field guide--something that Dunne might call a Field Guide Helper (and if he was designing his own book cover, pattern if after a box of hamburger helper). Instead of reading it while looking at a bird, this book is designed to be read while looking at another field guide. It doesn't belong in your hand or backpack in the field, it belongs on your desk or table top next to your field guide.

Dunne explains that he wanted to write this book because he felt that the text in modern field guides is just too brief. He got frustrated working on the last edition of the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds, because he wanted to include more text but there wasn't room. Dunne was also inspired by the old Audubon field guides, the ones with paintings by Eckleberry, that had lengthy written descriptions and notes about each bird. The modern Audubon photo guides also have a lot of text, more than the other more recent guides.

So, this book is intended to provide all the text that couldn't be put into a normal field guide, but that could help you better identify the birds you see in the field, but are still puzzling about when you get home. In this way, it is different than Kenn Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds, which is a field guide companion focused on the life history details for each species rather than bird identification issues. The other book which this one needs to be compared with is the new National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. The National Geographic book contains illustrations from their field guide, with expanded text giving additional information on how to identify the birds. So, what might make Pete Dunne's book more "essential" than the National Geographic book?

While it may not be possible to answer that question directly, an exploration of Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion quickly shows that it makes a unique contribution to the bird identification literature. First of all, instead of focusing on all the details of the plumage of each species, this book is meant to illustrate how GISS is put into practice. If you aren't familiar with GISS, this is your introduction to the Cape May school of birding, where General Impression of Shape and Size (GISS, pronounced jizz--but don't google that spelling!) is of primary importance, and color patterns often secondary. While the use of GISS as a primary identification technique goes back to the early days of birdwatching, Dunne has done as much as anyone to promote its use over the past few decades, beginning with the identification of distant hawks and falcons during migration, as outlined in the classic Dunne, Sutton, and Sibley book Hawks in Flight.

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion provides almost a full-page Hawks in Flight style treatment to practically all the regularly occuring birds found in North America. Dunne and his wife traveled across the country to revisit all of these species while writing this book, so he claims that this book is the first bird identification book to be written in the field while watching each species. Reading the species accounts, you do get the feeling that you are there with Dunne as he calls out the identifying features while watching the birds. As I mentioned before, this may be the most engaging and valuable feature of the book, giving the reader a chance to vicariously bird with Dunne as he leads us to see all the birds of North America.

For each species, Dunne begins by offering us his own nickname for each species. Why would he do that? The idea is hardly original to Dunne, though he can be credited for resurrecting an idea first suggested long ago. According to Joseph Hickey in A Guide to Bird Watching (1943),
Not many years ago, Professor Samuel Eliot (perhaps thinking of beginners for the next thousand years) bravely suggested new names for some of the more mistitled species. The northern water-thrush, which isn't a thrush at all, he said could be called 'bogbird'...if one is still distracted with the multiplicity of bird names and often confused by species that look very much alike, a simple solution is to work out a series of private and temporary names for harder species. The two water-thrushes, for instance, could almost pass for twins. One has a yellow line over the eye, the other a white one. Many observers can never remember which has which. Try privately calling one the 'wihte Louisiana' for a while, and the other the 'yellow northern.' In a surprising short time, a once-vexing personal problem will have benn permanently settled. This trick can be extended to many other species..."

So, taking up the challenge, Dunne offers nicknames for all the birds in North America. While this feature is just a small part of his book, it has drawn many comments. Most readers will find some of the names useful, while others may leave them cold. Bronx Petrel (Rock Pigeon) doesn't do anything for me, and I'm puzzled as to why he called the Yellow-rumped Warbler (which already has a well-known moniker of 'butterbut') The Swarm Warbler. So, take them or leave them, perhaps the greatest charm of this attempt is a look into the mind of Dunne. You can see the inner wheels of the mind turning as he tries to come up with over 700 nicknames, and the names often say as much or more about Dunne as they do about the essential qualities of each bird.

For a book meant to be read alongside a modern field guide, the status and distribution sections that start each of the over 700 individual species accounts is perhaps the least helpful. If you have a good map from any of the modern field guides, you can tell at a glance where each species is supposed to be--so in this case, where a picture is worth a thousand words, the dozens of words spent describing the range of each species might have been better used elsewhere.

Sections on habitat are a bit sketchy, though one innovation Dunne employs is to list other birds or animals that each species is often associated with. Sometimes this is useful (maybe you can look for Northern Bobwhites where you hear Field Sparrows), other times not (while Golden-cheeked Warblers and Black-capped Vireos may be found in relative proximity in Central Texas, they usually occupy very different habitats, and you wouldn't necessarily look for both of them in the same locations). Another innovation that doesn't work as well for me is Dunne's classification of species based on their likelihood to wander and turn up outside of their normal range. Again, for a book that is meant to be read with a field guide, the little green circles in the Sibley guide or the lighter shaded range map colors in Kenn Kaufman's guide provide this type of information about vagrancy or species wanderings already.

The second half of each species account is where Dunne's book becomes more useful and interesting to me. His descriptions of each species attempt to be more lyrical and evocative than that usually found in field guides. Again, this isn't a feather by feather description of each bird--that type of info might be more easily found in the new National Geographic book, though even there the descriptions aren't usually that detailed--the best info on sexing and aging most species by feather details is probably Pyle's Identification Guide to North American Birds. What you get from Dunne is a description of his General Impression of Size and Shape (GISS) of each species. These descriptions are best read while looking at an illustration of the bird in a field guide--where a picture may be worth a thousand words, but only if one knows what to look for. Again, in this way its almost like having Pete Dunne in the field showing you what to look at in your field guide as you puzzle out the identification of a bird. If you've birded with a professional guide, you know that they do this all the time. This book allows Dunne to do this for all of us, since together we would make up a larger birding party than would be feasible to manage in the field!

For me, the most interesting sections of the species accounts are those noting the behavior and flight characteristics of each species. While some of this information is gleaned from the comprehensive Birds of North America life history accounts published by Cornell, they also reflect Dunne's experience with the birds in the field. If you are trying to identify birds in flight, Sibley's illustrations of birds on the wing are great, but doubly useful when linked to Dunne's notes about wingbeats and other aspects of the way the birds move or behave. I found these sections to be the most useful, and the most deserving to be called "essential".

Bird songs and calls are difficult for almost everyone to learn. Its easier when you can be in the field with an expert, and have each call and its distinctive features pointed out to you. While most field guides provide some description of bird sounds, Dunne here provides his own interpretation and hints at how to identify them. While a field guide is needed to accompany most sections of this book, the vocalization sections might be most profitably read while listening to a good bird CD collection like the Petersen or Stokes series.

Just like a field guide, this probably isn't a book you are going to sit down and read cover to cover--though most readers would learn a ton if they could. Its more for dipping into here and there. In a final analysis, how well does this book instruct the reader in the GISS school of birding, and how "essential" is it? While I enjoyed Dunne's descriptions and sections on behavior, flight, and vocalizations, its unclear to me that written descriptions are the best way to "illustrate" GISS principles. In the field, GISS are processed by a different part of the brain then language--so the trick here is that Dunne's descriptions require the formation of strong connections between two parts of the brain. To effectively use GISS, you have to be able to identify birds without using the language processing part of your brain. When pushed, the language processing part of your brain should be able to interpret--as Dunne has done here--the GISS that the other part of your brain has cued into. But all this takes practice, and experience with real birds. In some ways, Roger Tory Peterson's simple and almost impressionistic early field guide illustrations were perhaps even more effective at conveying the GISS of each species than any lengthy, jocular, or folksy description might be. I think we have yet to find the ideal way to teach people the GISS method of bird identification, though this book will be useful to most readers.

So, while "essential" might be a bit of an oversell (for which I'm sure we can thank Houghton Mifflin, rather than Dunne himself), this field guide companion will be useful to most birders, as well as a treat. It provides more information than most birders will master in a lifetime, as well as the closest approximation that most birders will get to actually birding with Pete Dunne in the field. As such, this book is valuable and fun to read, as in the final analysis, it provides a window into birds and the joys of birding that is essentially Dunne.

Other reviews of this book in the blogosphere:
Birding Gear Big Board
Living the Scientific Life
Aimophila Adventures

1 comment:

Mike said...

Very thorough review, Rob!

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