BY: Bob Montgomerie, Queen’s University | 27 August 2018
Books on the birds of this or that region have been exceptionally popular for the last 200 years or more. Once travel to foreign lands became feasible—as early as the 1500s—there was clearly a desire for naturalists to write about—and read about—the birds that might be encountered in different countries. One of my old birding buddies had a library of hundreds of these books—his ‘dream books’. Whether or not he actually planned to visit all of those places was not the point—it was just fun for him to learn about what might see if he did actually travel to those distant lands.
By my count on a couple of used bookseller websites, there may be as many as 1000 ‘Birds of…’ books available, from the birds of continents and countries, to states and provinces, to biomes and habitats, and eventually evolving into field guides to the birds of virtually every country on earth. There appears, for example, to be a ‘Birds of…’ book for every American state and Canadian province , and in many cases several for each region.
The first work of this genre to be published was probably Georg Marcgraf’s section on birds, Qui agit de Avibus, in Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae published in 1648. Several other books about birds were published in the 16th and 17th centuries but this is the only one I could find that was specifically about the birds of a particular country or region , at least as indicated by the title. Marcgraf died in 1644 so his research was written up by Willem Piso with Marcgraf as the (albeit posthumous) coauthor.
Marcgraf’s bird section in Historia Naturalis Brasiliae is a masterpiece that was THE authority on South American birds for the next two centuries. Even the paintings are pretty good given the quality of bird art in books by his contemporaries, and each species gets a separate account. Unfortunately for most scientists today, Marcgraf’s work is in Latin  and relatively inaccessible. It would really be worth translating into English and republishing if only for its historical value.
As far as I can tell the next regional bird books to be published were Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published from 1731 to 1743 and Eleazar Albin’s A Natural History of British Song Birds in 1731. Albin’s was probably the first regional bird book to be exclusively about birds. The 18th and, particularly the 19th, centuries saw a flourishing of regional bird books in Europe and North America with books on British Birds alone appearing every few years in the late 1800s .
Last week, at the International Ornithological Congress in Vancouver, UBC Press launched a new book, Birds of Nunavut , a 2-volume work containing species accounts and subject chapters, profusely illustrated with photos of birds, habitats, nests, eggs, and chicks. The book contains full species accounts of 150 breeding, and 145 non-breeding species that summarize life histories appearances, ranges, conservation status, and research conducted in Nunavut.
While this new book is likely to be of tremendous use to libraries, schools and environmental biologists in northern Canada, it may be an—albeit very fine—example of a dying genre of bird books. With the ready availability of information about birds on the internet—at Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Birds of North America Online, xeno-canto, ebird, for example—I really do not see much point in regional books that publish extensive information on life histories, appearance, ranges and songs. That information on the internet is likely to be more extensive, more up-to-date, and more readily searchable than could be achieved in a printed book. A few regional bird books—like Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond’s Birds of Northern Melanesia—seemed to herald a change in regional bird books by focusing on broad patterns as well as ecological and evolutionary analyses. But not many authors have risen to that challenge.
Despite my reservations, I have little doubt that books on the Birds of … will continue to be published at regular intervals. I do most of my reading on my tablet but still, when it comes to reading about—and dreaming about—birds, nothing beats a good book.
Albin E (1731) A Natural History of Birds: illustrated with a hundred and one copper plates, curiously engraven from the life (v. 1). London: Printed for the author and sold by William Innys in St. Paul’s Church yard, John Clarke under the Royal-Exchange, Cornhill, and John Brindley at the King’s Arms in New Bond-Street.
Catesby M (1731–43). The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. London: Privately published.
Marcgraf G. (1648) Qui agit de avibus. in Piso, W, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. Lugdunum Batavorum and Amstelodami: Apud Franciscum Hackium and Apud Lud. Elzevirium.
Mayr E, Diamond JM (2001) The birds of northern Melanesia: speciation, ecology & biogeography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Richards JM, Gaston AJ, editors (2018) The Birds of Nunavut. Vancouver: UBC Press
- books for every state and province: I did not search for all 60 regions but instead randomly sampled 12 titles on Amazon and each one yielded a half dozen books or more
- Marcgraf’s work is in Latin: like many students of my generation, I studied Latin for 5 years in high school and one in university. While I have found that education to be immensely useful, and I can read Marcgraf’s work, a good translation requires a proper Latin scholar.
- Books on British Birds: a quick survey of online bookstores yielded more than 30 books with ‘British Birds in the tile published between 1750 and 1900
- Birds of Nunavut: see also here. I wrote a couple of chapters and 11 species accounts for this book so I am not the least bit impartial.