Bird books for Christmas

Birds fascinate us. The variety, their colors and songs seems magic, as well as slightly overwhelming, for the first question that most people ask when they see a bird that is unfamiliar is — "What is it?"

If you are drawn to watching birds, whether it's in a duck blind or simply a walk in the park, know that you are not alone. Some 35 million people say they enjoy wildlife watching every year. It's as popular as fishing.

Early on, from a duck blind, I learned that chicken-sized birds that flap their wings very fast are likely to be ducks, and those that flap them slower are sea gulls; and bigger birds with outstretched necks and equally long trailing feet are herons, egrets or cranes, while if they don't have long trailing legs they are probably geese. But beyond that, to ID the ducks my father shot, we took them home and I used a book.

As a child, one of my most favorite books was, and still is, Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson, with 106 color painting plates by Louis Agassiz Fuertes and John Burroughs as the consulting editor. It was first published in 1917. I still have the 1937 edition. The paintings are beautiful, but the book is a coffee table book that weighs several pounds.

Later, when I was in college and studied wildlife management, I bought a copy of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Birds, which I also still own. It was the right size and had a good mixture of color paintings and black and white drawings.

An art book like Birds of America, or one of John James Audubon's books, gives birds and animals character, but due to their size, they cannot be carried into the field. Smaller field guides are practical, but the usual size of images is small, and the paintings and drawings don't seem to have much life in them.

People send me books to review. Recently, when a package arrived from Princeton University Press, I opened it to find three new bird identification books. My first reaction was, "There are already so many good bird identification books. Why would anyone want to get something new?"

Then I looked more closely and saw the answer to that question.

Birds of Western North America and Birds of Eastern North America, both by Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small, (Princeton University Press, $18.95 each) are field guides illustrated by full-color photographic prints, as well as color range maps. The photos in these books are large, crisp and clear, that often show male and female and juveniles of each species.

A similar photographic bird guide, also by Princeton University Press ($35.00), Shorebirds of North America, Europe and Asia, is equally beautiful and well-designed. It covers 134 species.

As one who likes to hunt snipe, I find this book especially valuable as it helps me pick up on subtle features that distinguish snipe from a number of other small, brown birds with long bills that hang out in marshy areas.

Yes, I do know how to use keys to identify a bird, but that's boring. Like most people, I prefer to quickly leaf through the book according to the families of birds and then identify birds by their pictures.

With these three new books, you will find bird identification a joy. They are durable field guides that easily slip into a backpack or even a large pocket in an overcoat, but their pictures are good enough to be a coffee table book.

I have a USFWS permit to band birds for scientific research, but because there are so many bird species, I still need guides to refresh my memory and identify new species.

If I needed to buy a new guide, I would recommend these books to the expert and the novice. Of all the various field guides I have ever seen, these three new books are by far the best.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.