A Superb New Resource for Improving Your Feeder-watching Experience
March 28, 2021
A review by Justin Peter
Feed the Birds: Attract and Identify 196 Common North American Birds, by Chris Earley
Firefly Books, 2020
296 pages, softcover
Many birders attest that watching birds at their home feeders during their youth played an important role in developing their interest. More generally, many of us can also attest to the mental health benefits of watching birds and the opportunity to study their behaviors. If for no other reason than these, we may all have some interest in encouraging bird awareness and knowledge starting right in our own backyards. That is where Chris Early’s Feed the Birds: Attract and Identify 196 Common North American Birds steps in. While at first glance it may appear to be a simple how-to guide, this book is much more. Once a childhood feeder-watcher himself, Chris Earley sets out to convey the merits of feeder-watching through the opportunity to study birds, while providing the practical information that interested newbies need to move their interest forward.
Prospective readers south of the 49th parallel might wonder how the Ontario-based author of a book endorsed by the Canadian Wildlife Federation is applicable to the U. S. or how the species covered were selected. In fact, the book applies to all of North America north of Mexico. A very well-traveled and well-published naturalist and birder, Earley has previously published a popular series of photographic guides to the Warblers of the Great Lakes & Eastern North America (2003), Sparrows & Finches (2003), Waterfowl of Eastern North America (2005), Hawks & Owls (2012), and various other natural history works from Firefly Books. Earley selected the large number of species in this book by consulting Project FeederWatch’s backyard bird survey observations. Thus while the book’s cover species reflect “expected" birds, the guide gives the curious reader the chance to become acquainted with quite novel species near home and also to gain insight into the distribution and occurrence of birds elsewhere on the continent. As an Ontarian, for example, I’m amused by the fact that quails are backyard feeder birds in the West!
The book covers a variety of pertinent topics well organized to assist readers in finding what’s most important to them, such as: what and how to feed; creating a bird-friendly backyard, including landscaping, nest boxes, and the twin hot-button issues of cats and windows; bird feeder building plans including the merits of each; and then quite an extensive section on bird behavior and biology. Next, Earley covers identification of those 196 species with photos that illustrate salient identification features and make comparisons easy. A suggested reading list provides plenty of opportunity for more in-depth pursuit. The discussion of bird safety is helpful for all of us who want to see birds but would like to ensure it is not coming at some avoidable cost to bird welfare, topical as we are coming to understand the multiple impacts we are having on bird populations globally.
Readers will discover that this book is much more than an organized how-to guide. Feed the Birds is a generously illustrated encyclopedia of bird lore as it relates to backyard birds, lore that sheds light on the birds’ more intimate world. It is possible to home in on specific items of interest or simply flip through the pages to encounter an enlightening anecdote and be entertained and inspired. Cross-referencing adds to the encyclopedic feel. Feed the Birds stands out notably for its slant on bird biology and behavior: Earley addresses some common questions that readers might have about what they are observing, and moreover conveys the intrinsic interest and drama of bird behavior.
A discussion on biology and behavior is not limited, however, to the section bearing those two words in the title. This interest in bird behavior is sprinkled liberally throughout the book and illustrated by ample photos that actually depict birds in action, sometimes doing what might appear odd—such as a Pileated Woodpecker scavenging a deer carcass or a flock of redpolls landing on a person. A number of interesting vignettes are presented in informative, illustrated sidebars recounting personal observations. Furthermore, Earley emphasizes the unique opportunity that bird feeding provides us to build our perceptiveness and satisfy our curiosity. In his section “Recognizing Individual Birds,” Earley suggests that making repeated observations of the same individual birds can allow us to create and follow a line in inquiry and potentially form some conclusions. In other words, bird feeding can be a form of that good old-fashioned thing once popularly called “nature study,” an opportunity that may otherwise be sorely lacking in our highly virtual and increasingly urbanized world.
Part practical guide and part inspiration, this beautiful book will appeal to readers as a fun and multifaceted work that is informative yet succinct. Beyond adults, it should also appeal to children who have an interest in birds. Feed the Birds can find a home on a bookshelf to be consulted when needed, rest on a coffee table for browsing, or, better yet, near the window.
Justin Peter is Past-President of the Toronto Ornithological Club and owner of Quest Nature Tours, Canada’s longest-serving nature travel company. A lifelong world birder, Justin was previously the Senior Park Naturalist at Ontario’s world-renown Algonquin Park. He is @Birder_Justin on Instagram and Twitter.