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Birding Books – A Collector’s Confession

Updated on July 7, 2015
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

Birding Books

Three books for home state birding helps
Three books for home state birding helps | Source

I have to confess, I love reading, so I love books. I have collected quite a few (hundreds) over the years. What ever my passion at the time was, I amassed a reference library on the subject. When I started quilting, I bought several that included patterns. When I got into dressmaking, I bought sewing guides. While I was a merit badge leader in Scouting, I gathered up merit badge books and a few (dozens) of books for reference on trees, plants, astronomy, and other naturalist subjects. I also have a large selection of books on Texas history to use when I get around to writing a novel that is running through my head. And that’s just a sampling of the non-fiction books.

The prompt for this confession has to do with my most recent passion, birding. I have always loved birding, but have only prioritized the doing in the last few years. As such, I had put off building a reference library.

Electronic verses Paper

In this day and age of electronic reference, some people may question having a paper library. They take up so much room after all. Those people would be right, but I’m from a before internet generation, so the idea of having my big collection switched to Kindle format sounds interesting, but what if the reader gets broken? The idea of all that information disappearing due to some hardware or software malfunction just makes me shiver. I could lose my library all in a house fire, but which happens more often? Also, how many storage mediums have there been in the last ten years? Do I really want to have to convert every time one becomes obsolete?

Louis L'amour mentioned his library in his autobiography, a massive collection mine doesn’t begin to resemble. He considers a private library a kind of depository of knowledge for safe keeping. He said that if ever the electronic world fell apart and was in need, he had books on every conceivable subject from woodsman survival to basic engineering.

However, I am writing this article with a computer and you will see it as an electronic medium. Many of my articles use facts gleaned from websites as much as print books sitting open on my desk. I may not keep a Kindle electronic library, but I most certainly do use electronic reading materials. There is a shift, but as the below video says, while people are enjoying the use of electronic books, they are still keeping their paper books and buying new ones. The shift seems to be toward a blend.

E-Books or Print Books?

Texas Bird Guide

Where It Began

But back to birding; the first book I ever bought about birding was the Golden Guides Birds of North America, one with one bird per page. This was part of a series of pocket-sized books that were created by Western Publishing and published under their "Golden Press" line of children's books. I bought it while I was in middle school from a visiting Bookmobile. (Is there anyone reading this old enough to remember those?) I used that book from the age of 11 until 45. Another early purchase to learn birds was a large picture book, Birds of Texas by John Tveten, a well-known local Houstonian. He also wrote a popular column in the Houston Chronicle and has many other books on wildlife and naturalist subjects. I have four of his books now, but the two I first mentioned were my only bird books for over thirty years.

When I started putting some time into birding in the field, I needed a better book for identification, which put me on the road to the world of birding guides. These books can be a life’s work for some authors or a culminating work after many years of bird watching. My first purchase was the National Wildlife Association’s Field Guide to Birds of North America, nothing against Peterson, Sibley or Crosby and others. The book was smaller, had great photographic illustrations and could be brought with me in a carry-all during excursions. Granted, it was like carrying a brick, but I dealt with it and have loved having it.

I later added Keith Arnold and Gregory Kennedy’s Birds of Texas as a local go to book. I loved the way they designed this book. If I ever wrote a field guide of my own, I would design it like this one. It had colored tabs to make finding sections easier and best of all, a reference guide in the front with small pictures to make hunting quicker. I use the reference section to record my first sighting dates and locations. It had beautiful illustration plates; not photos, but color drawings giving emphasis toward field marks.

Illustrations verses Photography

Being a photographer, I bought the National Wildlife Federation's guide because I thought seeing photographs would be of more use than painted illustrations. I discovered pretty quick that I was wrong. A thousand pictures of birds in the field might gain only one or two good shots that show field marks to good advantage. And, unfortunately, those fantastic shots are often too good. They look like zoo portraits as opposed to trail photography.

A certain birder of renown, Kenn Kauffman, built a bird guide for beginners back in 2000 trying to blend the two. He used field photographs with a bit of retouching to make field marks more apparent. It was worth doing and, for beginners; his efforts were very helpful. Some birding and photography purists, however, came down on him pretty hard for doctoring pictures, even with the Peterson style arrow marks making a point of the enhancements as illustrative.

After hearing about this tempest in a teapot, and looking at many guides, I have to say that I still like photos better than color drawings, but I will use those drawings for learning field mark details. A photograph is a momentary impression, not the all in all of a subject. An illustrative drawing, on the other hand, is by design a detailed study.

When Those First Books aren’t Enough

In time, I started looking at those bigger books again, especially when my Birds of Texas book was found out of date in a few instances. I can't blame the authors for that. Bird ranges do change over time, so a newer book seemed to be needed.

I visited the book store again comparing one book to the other and then got chummy with the Amazon website. Finally, I settled on Sibley’s Guide to Birds. It was mostly the fact that it was a newer up to date edition to his highly acclaimed guide and the way he organized the illustrations that made my decision. Through color drawings, he included underside views, flying views, juvenile images and adult male and female views when they were different. I also picked up The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior for its more in depth information. By then I had learned enough to want to know more. I was craving information about bird lives, not just identification helps.

Around the same time I bought these, I was shown my grandmother’s old bird book, a Golden Field Guide Birds of North America which had species groups illustrated together on a single page for easy comparison. The Field Guide series was also published by Western Publishing. These books were more in depth, meant or High-School/College age audiences. This particular book was mentioned by Scott Weidensaul as his preferred field guide back in the day. It was a small book that could be carried in your pocket with a sturdy cover. The illustrations were designed for showing field marks as the bird would be seen at a distance. I headed back to Amazon and found the second edition to purchase.

Bird Books with Different Purposes

Bird guides are not all there is to birding books. In the gift shop at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) after my first visits, I ran across a book called Birding Texas by Ronald Wauer and Mark Elwonger. That book led to the discovery of the Texas Ornithological Society’s (TOS) Handbook of Texas Birds. Neither book is a bird guide; but they are the go to books for finding birds. Birding Texas breaks up the state into 10 areas listing State Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, Nature Centers as well as out of the way places the authors discovered that offered good birding. The TOS book included occurrence dates and range maps by county. I used these books to help find Sandhill Cranes the winter after buying them. The TOS book has since been updated. I now have the second revised edition too.

The trouble with buying bird books, as with all types of collecting, is that it can get addictive. While reading Of a Feather by Scott Weidensaul, a brief overview of the history of American birding, I found out about Roger Tory Peterson’s Birds of Texas and Ajacent States, commissioned by the Department of Texas Fish and Wildlife. It was an older book, written three years before I was born, but had more species listed than the book I was presently using. Diving into that book introduced me to Bird Life of Texas by Harry C. Oberholser.

Roger Tory Peterson said Dr. Oberholser was the authority on Texas birds. This book sounded like it would be his life’s work. The book would be a more technical listing that would include subspecies covering 800 or more birds. It had not been completed when Peterson mentioned it, but in a search; I discovered that Dr. Oberholser had finally published the work in 1974. To my good luck, I found this two volume set on Ebay, like new.

The Future of the Bookcase(s)

What’s next? Well, regional books of course. Most of these are written by local birders who have a more intimate knowledge of the landscape, local bird behavior and habitat preferences. Texas has eight recognized birding regions. Each one contains its own special species groups as well as state-wide birds. As I continue to travel the state gathering up knowledge and personal sightings, having books for specific regions could be a big help. I have books for Northeast Texas, the Hill Country and the upper gulf coast so far. They are prized additions to my collection right next to the backyard birding guides, and birder's handbooks.

To Readers from Other States,

I am talking a lot about Texas books because that is the state I live in, but other states have their own sets of bird guides and locator books along with histories and other related birding subjects. In a quick search I found nine books for the State of Virginia, fourteen books for California and seven for Montana. If I were planning a state by state study of birds. I might get a few for each.

Yes, I know, I am going to need more bookcases. They were ordered yesterday.

Happy Birding

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg


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    • Sherry Thornburg profile imageAUTHOR

      Sherry Thornburg 

      3 years ago from Kern County California

      You flatter me. I just got started good three years ago. I'm a serious enthusiast at best. Working toward professional.

    • Buildreps profile image


      3 years ago from Europe

      I love bird watching too, although I'm not as professional as you are. Just love to listen to their call and try to determine what bird it is. Nice Hub, thanks!


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