A Modern Birdwatcher’s Guide to Everything

December 5, 2022

A review by Susan Maakestad

Birdpedia: A Brief Compendium of Avian Lore, by Christopher W. Leahy 

Princeton University Press, 2021

272 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15116

Compared to Christopher W. Leahy’s earlier encyclopedic tome of 917 pages, the Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife (first published in 1982), Birdpedia is indeed a brief compendium. But don’t let its small size and number of pages fool you. This book packs an astonishing amount of information into 272 pages and does so in a delightfully engaging manner.

As suggested by the title, entries are arranged in alphabetical order and cover a wide range of topics. They include the expected subjects of bird biology and behavior, all which Leahy covers in depth. A few examples: He provides comprehensive information on the six types of Display. He explains what a Bill (or beak) is and how it functions followed by an outline of the specialized bills of six species. The section on Migration covers why and how birds migrate. It is cross-referenced with seven other sections including Navigation, Radar, and Speed. Look for entries on Caching, Diving, Mobbing, Sunning, Anting, and many more.

Leahy also addresses the behavior of the humans who watch the birds. See Identification, Listing, and the joys and sorrows of Lumping (and Splitting). A chapter on Birdwatching covers its history, demographics, and the differences between European and American birders. Leahy states that serious birdwatchers of today could easily instruct an ornithologist of 100 years ago. Birders’ jargon is covered in such sections as Fallout and Kettle, which the Swedes call a “screw.” Readers learn why Colloquial Names of Birds are problematic, after which Leahy treats us to a list of fifteen humorous examples, such as “tickle-arse.”

The content of this book is not confined to scientific subjects. Leahy devotes ample space to the humanities, including such fields as Poetry, Music, and Shakespeare. In the section on Painting, he discusses birds in art history and artists who paint birds. Birds in the Bible are mentioned in Religion, as well as bird symbolism in Christianity. Regarding birds in Fiction, Leahy jokes, “The impact of birds in fiction must be accounted as negligible.” After highlighting a few titles, he hints that someone else might like to create a more comprehensive list.

The entries in Birdpedia may be as short as one sentence—Treading—or as long as thirteen pages—The Evolution of Bird Life. This format invites the reader to skip around in the book. Indeed, reading random sections is certainly part of the fun. When read from cover to cover, however, one discovers Leahy has unified individual parts into a whole. He does this by repeating themes in different contexts. Here is just one example: Early in the book under Apocalypse, Leahy mentions plume hunting. The topic appears again briefly in Edibility. Later it appears at length in the biography of Harriet Lawrence Hemmenway, who was instrumental in rallying support for the banning of plume hunting.

Leahy seems to recognize the dearth of information about women in birding. He updates the historical record through his inclusion of women in the biographical profiles. Except for Rachel Carson, many women’s names may be new to readers. He covers the well-known figures in birding history such as Audubon and Wilson, but there are also other less familiar male figures included.

Not all entries are historical in nature. Some address current topics such as Birding While Black and the 2019 article in the journal Science about the drastic loss of birds in North America. Leahy writes about the latter under the aforementioned heading Apocalypse. The House Finch that perched on the podium during a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign speech in 2016 makes an appearance in Politics, Birds In.

Readers will encounter what may be uncommon topics and terms, such as Edibility (of birds, eggs, nests), Crepuscular in the context of animal life, and Odor of birds. Even the well-read bird enthusiast will discover new information. Halcyon is a literary name for a kingfisher which originates from Greek myth. The word Lek derives from the Swedish leka, which in certain contexts refers to “sex play.” There are numerous interesting tidbits like these scattered throughout the text.

The volume itself is beautiful: seven inches tall, a hard cover with debossed illustrations and text. The end pages feature illustrations of bird feathers that carry the yellow color of the cover into the book’s interior. There are lovely black-and-white illustrations by Abby McBride throughout the book. It feels good in the hands, which helps make it irresistible to pick up. There is no index, but many topics are cross referenced within the text.

Birdpedia is part of a series of seven titles published by Princeton University Press including Dinopedia and Insectpedia. On its website, the press includes the following quote from Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune, “This series…is a charming reminder of the analog joy of looking it up.” Agreed. But this particular title is not merely a reference guide. It is an engaging story of bird life, from Abundance to Zugunruhe.


Susan Maakestad is a Memphis-based visual artist and academic. Three decades ago in Minnesota, a friend with a scope drove her to partially thawed lakes in search of ducks. That experience converted her from casual observer to serious birder. Lately she enjoys the study and pursuit of shorebirds and wintering sparrows.