By Barbara Kessler
Measured against green ideals, a glossy new coffee table book can seem a bit indulgent, even anachronistic. Where’s the soy ink and recycled paper?
Those are valid questions, but in some cases, we’d like to think that the educational and aesthetic powers of a truly fine collection of photographs and words can have such redeeming value that it effectively offsets its environmental weight. Kinda like carbon offsets, except you can hold it in your hands.
One such book that just wows us with its lasting informative value and stunning photography is BIRD, The Definitive Visual Guide, a 485-page collaboration by DK Publishing and the Audubon Society published in October. It just keeps catching our eye. From the arresting cover close up of a Blue-footed Booby through the closing two-page spread featuring a Northern Cardinal radiating red against a snowy background, the photography in this compendium is beyond marvelous. It captures both the elegant motion and the poignant moments of more than 1,400 bird species.
Here birds don’t just fly, they seem to float — over water, skimming the surface with their beaks; over land, scanning the prairies, and at night, owl-eyes blazing. They sink their talons into fish, claw each other in mating rituals, feed their young, mass in migratory clouds of color, preen their gorgeous feathers and guard their nests in communal avian nurseries.
Virtually all types of birds are represented, from colorful Toucans to musical lyrebirds; predatory owls to peaceful songbirds; leggy waterfowl to tiny hummingbirds. All are impressive examples of evolution – some more than others, perhaps, considering the ostrich, the penguin, the Albatross and geese that migrate 6000-plus miles – and yet they appear so vulnerable. Where would be the hummingbirds without the tubular flowers they require? What of the loon, whose habitat has shrunk northward, or California’s condors, whose babies have been afflicted by lead poisoning from ammunition that winds up in its diet? (In October, California banned hunters from using lead shot in the condors’ range.)
Here, too, is the American Bald Eagle, a symbol of might, driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th Century by the use of the pesticide DDT and other pollutants.
For anyone who’s ever interacted with a feathered friend, this book will be a trip down memory lane. I immediately looked up the Barn Owl, fondly remembered from my childhood when I listened to them hooting outside my window, and the Osprey that I studied for a high school science project. I checked on the Blue Heron, the Great Northern Loon, the Red-tailed Hawk and the Northern Goshawk, all of which I have been privileged to see on nature walks bordering places I’ve lived.
It was comforting that all these birds were documented, and still alive somewhere, even if their range has been curtailed. This is where BIRD, the book, can leave a positive imprint on the shape of things to come, by reawakening our sense of stewardship. It is so comprehensive and the birds featured so diverse, you can’t help but come away with a renewed appreciation and concern for these highly evolved creatures.