There are lots of bird books: field guides, checklists, ornithological texts and compendia such as the “Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas.”
“Jim Burns’ Arizona Birds: From the Backyard to the Backwoods” is a bird of a different feather. This is not a guidebook, but a “before-and-after book,” to be perused before and after you set out in search of a particular species. It keys in on birds of special importance to Arizona’s “birders,” those dedicated birdwatchers who, alerted to a new sighting via regional hotlines, jump into their Subarus to check it out and check it off.
With an elegant trogon adorning its cover, this 293-page book profiles 75 of our state’s most sought-after birds — each account covering about three pages and containing a superb color photo. The species are arranged in taxonomic order, ranging through a single duck to a finale of borderland sparrows.
The author gives each bird a numerical coding from 1 to 5 based on its rarity. The abundant Gambel’s quail is a Level 1, while the Baird’s sparrow is rated a Level 5 — a bird “requiring either dumb luck or years of perseverance” to observe.
A readable text explains the bird’s inclusion, and tells the reader where to find it; in some cases, even down to which roads to take. Identifying characters and behaviors are provided for each sex as well as for immatures and “look-alikes.” The bird’s song usually is described, along with the subject’s typical habitat, preferred nesting location and distribution within and outside Arizona. The etymology of the bird’s common and Latin names, coupled with such natural history tidbits as the observation that flycatchers are “known to cast up pellets containing the indigestible parts of their insect prey,” make for an engaging read for both amateur and veteran birders.
Burns, a Scottsdale resident who came to Arizona in the late 1970s, is a “life-listing birder” and accomplished photographer. He writes a birding column for The Arizona Republic and contributes regularly to the “Cactus Wrendition,” the newsletter of the Maricopa Audubon Society. He admits the most exciting day of his life was seeing a pair of five-striped sparrows in the Santa Rita Foothills — this is a serious birder.
Like me, you might scan the table of contents for a bird that has challenged you and not find it listed. Don’t be disappointed; remember, this is armchair reading, not a field guide. On the other hand, you might think some birds chosen for inclusion appear odd. Bird hunters will be amused at the author’s difficulties in locating Montezuma quail, one of his Level 5 species. Although a couple exotics of very limited distribution are presented, most species are Arizona residents or inhabitants of birding Meccas near the Mexican border.
But all in all, this is a good reading choice for the audience and purpose intended. Helpful tips include how to find and photograph rufous-winged and other borderland sparrows — species that challenge even the most serious birder.
–David E. Brown
Enjoy the book reviews published in Arizona Wildlife Views magazine? Subscribe or give a gift today.