It’s not easy to write a book review of a birding field guide. One cannot write the wonderful zingers that other book reviewers sometimes get off:
“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” (Dorothy Parker)
“I did not know that fourteen publishers had turned down this book. If true, it’s the most encouraging thing I have heard about the publishing industry in years.” (A.J. Liebling)
“The poet accepts oblivion; his lessers seek survival.” (Murray Kempton)
“I never read a book before reviewing it – it prejudices a man so.” (Sydney Smith.)
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging. . .” (E.B. White)
But one cannot dodge the task assigned. The Princeton University Press just sent us a review copy of its revised, updated Birds of Peru from its Princeton Field Guide series, so we can hardly decline to review it. That would be rude and birders are never rude.
Besides, the book covers all of Peru’s 1,817 confirmed species. That’s right, 1,817. Hummingbirds consume forty pages all by themselves. We count 91 species of Tanagers alone. Where else could you expect to find the field markings and range map for the Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant that lives on the ribs of the Andes? Or examine detailed, excellent illustrations of the thirty species of Antwrens that live in Peru. Or learn about the “professional” followers of the Army Ants that swarm on the floor of tropical forests. These birds follow the swarms and dine on the spiders and small vertebrates that flee the ants.
You may not have known that the Stygian Owl’s status in Peru is not clear. It may be rare or local or just “overlooked.” It’s probably easy to overlook birds in the vast Amazonian Basin. It’s full of trees after all. Twenty-nine major rivers drain the Andes in Peru; most end up in the Amazon.
Five authors and five principal illustrators fill the book with orderly information with a range map just to the left of each species and a right-hand page full of truly fine illustrations of each bird. If there is a bird in Peru that can’t be identified using this field guide and a pair of binoculars, I’d like to see it. The news release announcing the publication date (June 2, 2010) claims that this book is “the most complete and authoritative field guide to this diverse, neotropical landscape.” We believe it. If you’ve never looked at any of Princeton’s bird books, you’ll be surprised at the amount of detailed information they all contain.
It is the fashion in short book reviews these days to insert a paragraph toward the end complaining about something. We expect that is to prove that the reviewer actually read the thing. We have such a complaint: This book is 664 pages of print that is too small for eyes over forty years of age to read without reading glasses. I suppose Princeton claims that the print had to be small or the book would have weighed too much for a field guide. (It almost is too heavy as it is.) The authors admit to having jettisoned, “often with great reluctance” much additional information.
Plus, 1,817 bird species do rather fill up a field guide.
And what a field guide it is. We’ve never been to Peru and haven’t got a trip planned and we’ve spent hours just thumbing through it. The Peruvian Tourist Authority ought to buy several thousand copies to distribute to tourist agencies. If you never wanted to see Peru, you will after spending some time inside the covers of this book. And you can go anytime. According to the book, most Peruvian species live there year-round.
We’re just sorry that it doesn’t lend itself to any book review zingers like Ambrose Bierce’s, “The covers of this book are too far apart.”
The paperback version costs $39.50 and is worth every penny. We’ll be happy to get it for you.