Book Review: How to Be a Better Birder

How to Be a Better Birder, by Derek Lovitch, Princeton University Press (http://press.princeton.edu), 2012, 208 pages, $19.95

Whether you are a bird feeder aficionado or a life-listing lunatic, there aren’t many birders who couldn’t aspire to betterdom. With How to Be a Better Birder, birding betterist Derek Lovitch sketches a roadmap to embetterment. Lovitch clearly brings an unparalleled zeal to birding that makes most birders look like hummingbird hobbyists. With his “Whole Bird and More” approach, Lovitch proposes both a return to birding in its purest form and a sibylline synthesis of natural science and technology to develop a sixth sense when it comes to knowing and predicting your quilled quarry.

At its core, the “Whole Bird and More” is a holistic approach to birding: not just seeing, but processing and applying what you know about the bird before you beyond it’s field marks (the meat and potatoes of traditional field guides). To draw a parallel to something more relatable, it’s the difference between bagging a peak by starting out at the trailhead and following the posted trail or orienteering your way to the summit with nothing but a compass, a topo map, and your read of the landscape. Anytime, anywhere, your geography (an oak woodland, the shoreline) as much as a species’ habits and habitats (the plants they frequent, the species’ seasonality) are predictive of the birds you may encounter.

With practice and study come instinct. But with a hybridization of natural science and technology (and, let’s face it, more than a little voodoo) comes an advanced form of instinct often mistaken for obsession: intuition. From here on out, Lovitch seamlessly transmutes science into art, combining geography, meteorology, and technology (Doppler radar) with uncanny legerdemain. Here his years of practice and study shine as he scries the stopovers and fallouts of common migrants and vagrants alike, whether by stalking peninsulas and peaks or by chasing storms and (radar) swarms.

Still, despite his predictive prowess, Lovitch humbly reminds the reader (and himself) that there’s just as much luck in the equation as there is logic. To wit, Lovitch is as quick to admit his success stories as he is to admit strokes of luck and strike-outs. Intuit all you want, but the bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

While Lovitch’s “Whole Bird and More” approach is well presented and his prose concise and illustrative, the book’s one shortcoming – the reckless fallout of typos (“Yes, it’s night and its [sic] dark…”; “But [sic] I want to focus on here is using…”) – left me feeling rushed. Nevertheless, for the birdwatcher beguiled by betterment, Lovitch’s better birding bible is a birder’s boon.

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