How to Know the Birds — by Ted Floyd
a review by Larry Neel —
Ted Floyd and I go way back… to our times together in Reno, greater Nevada, and the Partners In Flight West At Large from 1999 to 2002 when he was the Breeding Bird Atlas Coordinator at the nascent Great Basin Bird Observatory (of which I was also a founding board member) and I was a wildlife diversity biologist for Nevada Department Of Wildlife. Ted and I partnered in many a visionary scheme during an epoch of extraordinary apotheosis and growth of the Nevada birding/ornithology/bird conservation scene – and we used to talk about THIS BOOK!
Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be THIS book, but perhaps Ted knew it was going to be this all along – he just couldn’t quite make me understand his vision. Ted’s book “How To Know The Birds” is a child of at least two and perhaps three previous classic entries in the birding literature – for certain Joseph Hickey’s “A Guide To Bird Watching” (1943) and Ludlow Griscom’s “Modern Bird Study” (1945), and I would also suggest (although Ted might balk at this) “The Complete Birder – A Guide To Better Bird Watching” by Jack Connor (1988). Once Roger Tory Peterson had put his “Field Guide To The Birds” (1934) and “Field Guide To Western Birds” (1941) into the hands of the American bird hobbyist, each of these important and delightful works contributed to the growth of the pastime of birding in America from a garden club hobby to both a global ecotourism economy AND a citizen science corps indispensable to the furtherance of bird population and distribution studies designed to inform strategic bird conservation planning.
Each of the three venerable ancestors ably instructed the serious amateur birder in the ways of birding as a pleasurable pastime as well as the opportunities to contribute the outputs of the birding endeavor to conservation science. With the emergence of E-Bird on the birding horizon after the turn of the millennium, Ted and I both recognized the need to upgrade the “How-to Bird” guide to the 21st century. While I knew I would never have the time, resources, or opportunity to be that person, I suspected even at the time over pastrami-on-black-rye sandwiches at Schlotzky’s that Ted very likely was going to be the person to cross the end zone with the book.
And here it is. Only this is the book that was forming in TED’s head – so much more than the polemic dustoff and update I envisioned. And thank God for that. Rather than take the encyclopedic, chaptered by activity approach of each predecessor, Ted has slipped the bonds of earth by recreating a birder’s year season-by-season in which 200 bird species are encountered each as a symbol of some important element of the birding experience – species identification, taking field notes, E-Bird reporting, bird club and field trip attendance, local bird festivals, Big Day and Big Year listing, Breeding Bird Survey participation, advanced ornithological studies in molt and migration – oh my gosh, it is all wrapped up in 200 little one-page essays that inform, delight, cajole, and inspire the emergent birder to deeper meaningful immersion in the life of a bird student/conservationist. It is more than clever; it is more than ingenious; in fact, it is perfect…
You don’t have to read this book all in one sitting. I suspect had I picked up this book when I was 14 years old, I would have – but no, it is designed to be consumed and subsumed page by page, essay by essay, idea by idea. You can read one a day; or put it down and not read it for a few days; or even try to synchronize it within the birder’s year it purports to create day by day activity by activity. It was particularly symbolic for me that he ended his year with Essay 200 – “Who Knew?” Eastern Screech-owl – as it brought back bucolic memories of sitting with a bird festival tour group listening to Ted conjure up Western Screech-owls in the gloom of Timber Lake north of Fallon, Nevada with his skillful mouth-only rendition of Western Screech-owl gossip and blather. Of course they answered. It was Ted Floyd – what else were they going to do?
If you are a beginning birder serious about fully developing your birding regimen, you will want this book for what it teaches. If you are already a committed birder fully connected to the endeavors of citizen science and outdoor sport, you will want this book for its literary turn of the phrase – to marvel and say, “I wish I’d written this book!” In Ted’s own words, the text ends – “We were drawn to birds in the first place by their beauty. We were sustained by the majesty and pageantry of their dawn choruses and hemispheric migrations. And we were buoyed – we still are, we evermore shall be – by their promise to delight and surprise and amaze us. We may not have realized it at first, but we know it now: We are madly and wonderfully and perfectly in love with birds.” May it ever be so.
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