How To Know the Birds by Ted Floyd

How To Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding
By Ted Floyd
National Geographic, 2019

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Ted Floyd is the editor of Birding, the monthly magazine of the American Birding Association, so readers innocently encountering his terrific new book How to Know the Birds: The Art & Adventure of Birding will have no illusions about the wonkish experience that awaits them in these pages. The pages themselves are wonderfully illustrated in black-and-white drawings by N. John Schmitt, but that isn’t enough to save How to Know the Birds from the well-deserved mockery of bigger and cooler books in the school cafeteria.

Floyd himself has been an avid birder for nearly 40 years, as he freely confesses early on, noting that the birding world has radically changed in even so relatively short an interval:

Back in 1980, when I first started to self-identify as a birder, you could get by with binoculars (or field glasses, as some folks still called them), a field guide (there were two main choices at the time), and a notebook (for writing it all down). Going to the library was common, taking photos was rare, and recording birdsong was practically unheard of. It was a time when we used telephones, stationary objects in homes and offices, for talking to one another - and for no other purpose.

“Apps, blogs, and online social media have been huge; same goes for the photo sharing sites, multimedia checklists, and online libraries designed specifically with the bird lover in mind,” he writes. “We have accumulated a critical mass of new resources for bird study. And in doing so, we have arrived at a substantially revised conception of what it means to be a birder.”

These sentiments are entirely true, and they provide an extra note of irony to the fact that How To Know the Birds is, right from its rococo title, a decidedly non-revised birding production. Floyd calls it a “storybook for bird lovers” and knows with precise experience how many hundreds and hundreds of such books there have been in the past three centuries. Floyd organizes his book roughly by season and also by general type of birding experience, from encountering “spark” birds in mid-winter to grappling with the minutiae of identification in the field, extending even to the grubby House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): “The adult House Sparrow in spring and summer is complexly patterned in Quaker gray and chestnut above; below, the throat and breast are strikingly black,” we’re told (that “Quaker gray” is a good example of the rhetorical sharpness that runs throughout the book). “In fall and winter, however, the male’s markings are much subtler, with just a few black flecks on the throat and breast.”

200 of the 1000 United States bird species are profiled in these pages, and the energy Floyd brings to the project never flags - nor does the diplomacy he shows toward his fellow nature-nerds. “Sooner or later in the birding life, we get serious, or at least semi-serious, about the whole business of bird identification,” he explains, for instance. “Maybe ‘serious’ isn’t quite the right word. ‘Methodical’ is closer to the birder’s way of engaging bird ID.”

Normal, well-adjusted people, people who will never be found tramping through the Ramble on freezing-cold March mornings with up-to-the-second app-fed information about a rumor of an early migrating Eastern Phoebe, might, if pressed, supply even more accurate words than ‘serious’ or ‘methodical’ to describe the motley crowd to which Ted Floyd openly pledges fealty. How to Know the Birds will please that crowd enormously - and it will serve as a both field guide and meta field guide for the rest of us.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is