Book Review - Rare Birds of North America


Rare Birds of North America by Steven N. G. Howell

Right about the time I received a review copy of this book from Princeton University Press, someone on the Wisconsin Bird Net listserv thought they might have seen a vagrant bird called a Jackdaw. I looked it up in the book, and sure enough it was there. Now in this case, the person had some idea of what the vagrant could be, so they could have used the Internet to find information. But what if you see a strange bird you think is a vagrant, and have no idea what it could be? That is where this book becomes a "must-have" for the library of serious birders. Here is a resource that you can turn to in that situation!

First of all, the book is beautifully illustrated with 275 color plates by Ian Lewington. Below you can see the illustrations for the Bahama Woodstar, that show the male, female, and juvenile birds along with a "duller" plumage and a closeup of the tail. All of course go towards helping you identify your mystery bird.


Bahama Woodstar illustrations - page 271 Rare Birds of North America
In addition to the illustrations, the book has a Field Identification section of text to aid in your identification. Each species also has sections discussing the occurrence(s) of the birds both in time and geographically along with text on Habitat and Behavior

The book covers 262 species from the Old World, the New World tropics, and the world's oceans. It has birds that have only been seen once, so it is a very thorough guide to the vagrants of North America.

In addition to the identification of vagrants, which forms the heart and soul of the book, there is an interesting educational component to the book. One aspect of this is a discussion as to the 'why' of vagrancy. In summary, these theories are:


  1. Drift
  2. Misorientation
  3. Overshooting
  4. Dispersal
  5. Association (with other birds of a closely related species)
  6. Disorientation
  7. False Vagrancy (they occur more frequently than we know)
There are some excellent maps included that help explain some of the theories - very nice.

And to continue your education on the topic of vagrancy there is a seventeen page section, complete with data laden tables, entitled Where Do North American Vagrants come From?

I personally think this book fills a much needed niche. A lot of filed guides have 'Accidental' species and that is what we have relied on in the past for identification of these birds. But now there is a comprehensive treatise on vagrants in North America and I recommend it for your library.

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