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Volume VIII Number 10 . . . . January 18, 2002
The book doesn't pretend to be a field guide for bird identification. Rather, it is a volume to follow the many excellent field guides out there. After a rewarding day of birding, curl up in your favourite chair and learn more about the lives of the birds you've just seen. We have three bird feeders in our back yard, each one offering a different fare. Among the regular winter attendees at the sunflower feeder are Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees. Unlike the big noisy Jays who just come and gorge themselves on the sunflower seeds, the Chickadees repeatedly flit in, grab just one seed and fly away, only to return almost immediately, grab another seed and fly away again. I could not understand the behavior of these relatively tame little birds, especially when there were no cats or other competing birds around. I had resigned myself to simply accepting it as just one of nature's little mysteries, but then I found the answer in Canadian Feathers. In the section on "The Chickadee Family - Paridae," I discovered in the "Diet" section that "Seeds are cached in various locations for periods of shortage, which is why chickadees do not stay long at back yard feeders. They constantly pick up a seed and then fly away to cache it." As Pat Bumstead has noted in the excerpt above taken from the book's "Preface," Canadian Feathers is not a book for identifying birds in the wild. Instead, it is the volume you use to get to know more about birds either before or after you can identify them by sight. As Bumstead explains in the "Introduction," "Of the 426 species represented here, the majority nest in Canada, but the book also includes pelagic wanderers who nest in the Pacific, or on other oceanic islands."
Like any good reference book, Canadian Feathers is well organized. The major organizing arrangement is alphabetical by common family names, beginning with "The Albatross Family - Diomedeidae" and concluding with the sixty-third family, "The Wren Family - Troglodytidae." At the top of the page introducing the family, there is a statement of the number of species of that bird family in the world, plus information about how many species are found in Canada. For example, globally there are 65 species of the Chickadee Family with seven of them in Canada.
The family page utilizes five major headings: Characteristics (a physical description of the range of size, weight, colours, bill shapes, etc. of members of that family); Behaviour (general characteristics of members of that family. For example, among other behaviours, Cuckoos are "shy, retiring birds...difficult to see in the woodlands, and more likely to be heard than seen."); Diet (their preferred foods); Reproduction (information about mating habits, such as whether they mate for life, the types of nests they build, preferred building materials, number of eggs laid, incubation period, plus who feeds the young and what they are fed); Family Status (a general statement about the world-wide status of the family which includes information about any of the family members which have become extinct and why).
After the family has been introduced, Bumstead then moves, alphabetically, to each member of that bird family which is found in Canada. For example, of the 125 world species of the Finch family, 16 species live in Canada, and I have seen several of them, including the Pine Siskin, visiting my feeders. The entry for this bird is typical of the kind of information provided. Next to the bird's name can be found one or more of the nine symbols that are used to illustrate that particular bird's normal habitats. In the case of the Pine Siskin, the symbols indicate "Mixed Woodlands" and "Coniferous Forests." The Pine Siskin's size is provided in metric and imperial units and its range is given as "Alaska, Canada, USA." After this basic information, Bumstead then moves to bulleted points about the specific bird. For instance, for the Pine Siskin, there are five.
* attracted to the minerals in clay, ashes, cement and salt blocks (which explains why I see them on the poured patio)
* the name siskin comes from the Scandinavian word for "a chirper," referring to a similar European species
* females are known to dismantle old American goldfinch nests and use the materials to build their own
* highly gregarious. Often in mixed flocks with redpolls and goldfinches
* lifespan 11 years.
That "gregarious" was in bold print indicated that, should I not know the word's meaning, I could locate it in the three page glossary at the book's conclusion. (Gregarious - living in groups with a social organization) The entry concludes with information regarding the Pine Siskin's nesting range ("Nest in Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and across central Canada.") If the Pine Siskin had been on Canada's endangered species list, that fact would have been noted via an hour-glass symbol.
Sidebars and "Did You Know..." boxes provide other interesting bits of bird-related information. For instance, in conversation, I have used the expression "swan song," and, while I knew what it meant, I did not know the term's origins. Now, thanks to a sidebar, I do. ("During the Golden Age of Greece, it was believed that a swan would sing only just prior to his death, thus the origin of the term 'swan song.'" p. 166) The book also contains some 80 black and white illustrations, most decorative since Canadian Feathers is not a bird identification volume. However, some, such as "Types of Beaks" (p. 59) or "Types of Feet" (p. 110), do have functional purposes.
Finally, Canadian Feathers concludes with eight useful appendices plus a glossary, a list of resources used in producing the book, and an index. Among the appendices is one which provides the names for groups of a specific bird (eg. A charm of goldfinches) while another offers a guide to the average life span of specific birds within a family. Among the Loon family, for example, the Common loon typically lives just seven years while the Red-throated loon can anticipate 23 years of life. Other appendices provide bird related website URLs, but likely the most useful appendix is the lengthy one which is organized by Canadian province/territory and indicates provincial/territorial web links, addresses of local natural history clubs, and the names of migratory bird sanctuaries and national wildlife areas located within that political entity. The provincial/territorial bird, tree, flag and floral emblem are also illustrated. For those readers wanting to connect with a local naturalist club, Bumstead offers club names and phone numbers.
As my wife only too quickly found out when I was reading Canadian Feathers the book is somewhat addictive in that, when you are reading it, you just want to share its informative contents with others. For instance, did you know that the nest of the American Goldfinch is so thick-walled that it will hold water and that, consequently, unprotected chicks have drowned in heavy rain? Or better still, that the male Red-winged Blackbird is a bit of a cad, having a harem of three to eight females nesting in his territory? However, he does redeem himself somewhat for evidently he helps feed all of his young after they leave the nest. Just in case you encounter a blue- eyed crow, do not be alarmed. The eye colour simply means it is immature. Adult crows have brown eyes. OK, maybe all this information is not going to make me the hit of the next office party, but look out "Jeopardy."
A most useful addition for school and public libraries, Canadian Feathers should also be on the resource shelves of youth-serving organizations, like Scouting and Guiding, which focus on the outdoors.
An amateur birder, Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and adolescent literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.