Owls, Eats, and Art

July 29, 2021

A review by Frank Izaguirre

Great Gray Owl: A Visual Natural History, by Paul Bannick

Mountaineer Books, 2020

125 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15107

Snowy Owl: A Visual Natural History, by Paul Bannick

Mountaineer Books, 2020

125 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15108

What Birds Eat: How to Preserve the Natural Diet and Behavior of North American Birds, by Kim Long

Skipstone, 2020

368 pages, softcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15028

Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide, by Molly Hashimoto

Mountaineer Books, 2019

192 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 14927

Mountaineer Books, a Seattle-based book publisher specializing in outdoor and conservation titles, has recently produced a slew of exciting bird books. Among the newest are two coffee table books by Paul Bannick that capture the grandeur and charisma of two of the ABA Area and indeed the world’s most beloved owls, Great Gray Owl and Snowy Owl. Given that Great Grays and Snowies are such highly sought-after and often cooperative photographic subjects, one might wonder whether Bannick’s photos are especially noteworthy.

While perusing the book’s photos, one remembers that a majority of Snowy Owl media, understandably, is of irruptive birds, many times in wintry fields or coastal dunes, and typically, irruptive birds are the more spotted females and young males as the mature males hold onto their northern territories in lean years. But because many of Bannick’s birds are breeding Snowy Owls on territory, readers are treated to superb shots of stark white males in their northern haunts as well as females rearing young, including one dramatic capture of a Snowy Owl surrounded by snow…while on the nest! Several images are of large gray chicks filled with character. Readers are further treated to prize-worthy images of Snowy neighbors: a Short-eared Owl harassing a Rough-legged Hawk, streams of King Eiders migrating, a polar bear atop a whale carcass jaw, and, forebodingly, a gas pipeline warning sign, all contextualizing the bird’s life history and even the beauty of its existence in a way birders will appreciate. In this way, the book in some sense resembles a photo essay of the side of the Snowy Owl few birders see: their lives a thousand or more miles away from where we add them to our lifelists.

Although the essence of the book is its images, Snowy Owl is arranged by chapters focusing on physical features, range and habitat, breeding behavior, hunting behavior, and, perhaps most provocatively, the future prospects of this species and the threats it faces. The reader is occasionally treated to some first-person narration, as Bannick documents the harsh Arctic conditions he faced while attempting to get his photos—they certainly didn’t all come easy. Photographers will also appreciate that he sometimes goes into detail on his gear and techniques, but not enough to weigh down the breezy prose, which is mostly comprised of natural history info. Above all, readers will finish Snowy Owl with a heightened understanding of Arctic wildlife and ecology.

Utilizing the same template of images paired with chapters focusing on different aspects of life history of Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl is in particular filled with memorable shots of baby owls: bravely leaping from the nest, gazing up at a parent, attempting to hop between branches. Whereas many of the images from Snowy Owl are of the beautiful but stark Arctic landscape, many of Great Gray Owl’s photos are of northern meadows and the lush summertime boreal forest, complete with neon lichens lining preferred owl perches. Readers are again presented with a thorough but easily digestible treatment of the owl’s natural history, occasionally interspersed with first person insights from the author, alongside the exceptional photography work. Even though these two species are among the most cherished owls of the ABA Area, many birders know just a little about their life histories—Bannick’s books are an invitation to take a a deep dive, all the while enjoying his fine photography. These books are a must-have for any owl book afficionado.

Kim Long’s What Birds Eat is a thorough treatment of this broad topic. Arranged by categories like different feeding behaviors and diets, the book ends with extensive sections on the challenges birds face in procuring their food and how we can support them. Indeed, the book’s intriguing subtitle is How to Preserve the Natural Diet and Behavior of North American Birds, providing a keen insight into the author’s agenda. The book begins with a primer on the evolution of birds, essentially how dinosaurs came to be birds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, birders who enjoy dabbling in other fields of natural history will find much to learn in this book—the sections on insects and grasses, two favorite food items for many bird species, are extensive and will add to your overall natural history knowledge.

The book’s prose is accessible and clear—readers will not be burdened with the need to look up unfamiliar scientific terms, although there is an extensive bibliography for those interested in further and perhaps more technical reading. The book is also visually interesting, containing sharp and beautiful pictures the way one might expect from such a reference book, but also diagrams of bird digestive systems and the papillae, comb-like filtering tissue, that line a shoveler tongue. Would you like to know what a bird gizzard looks like? There is a bird gizzard image that explains how different bands of muscles run longitudinally as well as at right angles to churn bird food against the hard surface of a cuticle so the food can be sufficiently pulverized into digestible bits. There is also an identification guide for everybody’s favorite bird food artifact, owl pellets, although it should be noted that only eight species’ pellets are depicted, essentially the owls of the northeastern part of the ABA Area. The mechanics of bird eyes and bills are revealed in detail—readers will learn a lot about bird tongues.

What Birds Eat also does a good job plugging in gaps in bird diet knowledge many birders might have. For instance, most birders will be familiar with terms like insectivore and even frugivore and granivore, but how about vermivore (worm-eaters), crustaceavore (crustacean-eaters), piscivore (fish-eaters), and even avivore (bird-eaters)? Interesting graphics depict aspects of bird diet behaviors like the prevalence of diet types and the relative energy content of different food types.

The book also features 130 diet profiles of common birds of the ABA Area. All this information allows room for birding skill improvement. When searching for birds, birders often focus on appropriate habitat, but a huge aspect of habitat is food availability. By deepening our understanding of bird diets, we can improve our skill in locating them. The book’s fitting final section on the threats bird face to finding enough food, like urbanization and toxins used to control agricultural pests, also features information on how to attract birds to your property with different types of food, from native plants to feeders.

While birders look for and watch birds, birds are dedicating the vast majority of their time and energy to trying to eat. Birders will learn so much about how birds go about the important business of eating from this informative book.

Molly Hashimoto’s innovative Birds of the West: An Artist’s Guide is a fascinating and unique exploration of all the ways artists can engage western birds: from watercolor to sketching to block prints. Enticingly, the book begins with a quote from Michel Foucault’s “The Masked Philosopher” on how curiosity drives one to care for and understand the things around us. The book is an eclectic mix of components—the introduction ranges from memoiresque reflection on the author’s relationship to birds and the books that influenced her to a brief summary of birds in art history.

This book is best suited for birders interested in getting into bird art or non-artists who are nonetheless major bird art appreciators. After the introduction, the book is arranged by habitat types, for instance shoreline and beach, forest and woodland, and even backyard and city. Within each section, about ten to fifteen birds are featured alongside insets on technique tips, mostly for how to make watercolors and block prints, but with attention to other art forms like etching, pen sketching, and egg tempera. The artist’s own work, beautiful and evocative of both the character of the birds and places depicted, pairs along with all of these different birds and art forms. Representation of ABA Area birds has historically skewed to the East, so birders of the West may especially enjoy this book’s focus on western birds. A not-to-be-overlooked joy of the book is the wonderful mix of epigraphs, from famous nature writers to artists to environmental thinkers, that frame the many different sections of the book.

Because the book is arranged by habitat types, but is about making a wide variety of different types of bird art, the arrangement may seem scattered and unfocused, but this creative and unconventional layout is better appreciated for its uniqueness—readers should experience the book less as an exhaustive tome and more as a fun and beautiful art adventure that is still filled with a great deal of insight and wisdom on how to take up and improve being a bird artist. It is a fine entry to the growing contribution of Mountaineer Books to the bird book canon.


Frank Izaguirre is a PhD candidate in English at West Virginia University, where he is dissertating on the influence of field guides on environmental thinking. He edits the Book and Media Reviews column for Birding and recently began writing the biweekly column Birds and... for the ABA website.