Monday, December 9, 2013

W49: Birds of Western Canada

Continuing the theme of thick texts that could be used as weapons of bludgeoning, this week’s Biblio-Met book hit home with a slice right out of my childhood.

Aged just like it should.
Published in 1928, Birds of Western Canada was a 356 page reference book by P. A. Taverner. The $2.00 listed price adjusted for inflation would put it at about $26.00, which was surprisingly affordable for a textbook quality book like this. With a battered cloth cover and a spine that was falling apart, this was the first book from the Biblio-Mat that looked like what a book almost a century old should look like. The title on the cover, though, read like it was hand doodled by a circa 1990 me trying to create a new font between block text and bubble lettering.

Comic sans in 1928.
Birds of Western Canada begins with an introduction stating the objective of the book, which one can only assume were for those people who blindly pick up books without reading covers. Once it was established that this was indeed a book about Canadian birds, it continues on to give a brief summary of nomenclature, migration, protection, and ways to attract them, which all happen in the span of sixteen pages. Another five pages were spent densely listing what appears to be every single text on Canadian birds printed up till 1928 before getting to the heart of the book - 320 pages of encyclopedic entries on Western Canadian bird species.

By royal decree. Or at least royally permitted.
It should be noted that “Western Canada” in this book meant everything west of the Ontario border, which lumps the prairies in with the West Coast. As such, there were a lot of species covered that I had not even heard about in British Columbia. Set up with a peculiar table of contents that had illustrations of some characteristic of a random bird, the listings were not ordered by region or alphabetically. They were, however, grouped by family and related subspecies. Funny enough, the index had the species names listed in French next to the English, which makes for a great translation tool if you ever want to discuss bird taxonomy in Quebec or New Brunswick.

Goatsuckers: stuff of nightmares.
Each entry was about half a page long and was broken down into headings, which made it very easy to read and digest. Starting with a quick background followed by entries on distinction and markings, nesting habits, distribution, and a small illustration of the head, it presented a quick and concise snapshot of each bird species. Interspersed through were also eighty-four colour plates that were exactly what one would picture to be in a 1920’s encyclopedia.  

Cormorants: colourful stuff of nightmares.
The most interesting aspects of these entries were the information on some entries that dated the book. For instance, the American Goshawk’s entry on its diet came from a study of twenty stomachs, which seems hardly enough for a school project sample size let alone a published piece of scientific work. The entry on Williamson’s Sapsucker simply ended with “Too rare in Canada, and so confined to the wilder elevations to as to have little economic influence”, which pretty much translates to “We can’t find them, so they’re probably not a huge deal”.

Feather details are also not a huge deal.
What the book did do well, though, was outline the need for conservation and protection of endangered species. Sadly, most of the endangered species called out in are still endangered and the Eskimo Curlew has gone extinct since the publication of the book. There is some progress made, though, in a few species like the Whooping Crane where conservation efforts over the years have led to an increase to the population but these are few and far in between.

Everyone loves puffins.
Reading this brought me back a lot to my childhood where growing up in Surrey just outside of Vancouver lead to a lot of fieldtrips to the various nature conservation areas and the marshlands of Burns Bog to watch the wildlife. Funny enough, one of my most vivid memories was visiting the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in elementary and after reading up on the Red-Winged Blackbird, I had wanted to see one more than anything else but they never appeared anywhere and believed them to be a myth until I graduated film school twenty years later. Moving away for the first time, I took the train out of the city and right before leaving the outskirts of Vancouver, one fly by the window with the unmistakable red and yellow on black wings and I felt completed in a strange serene way. Then I move to Toronto and they’re everywhere. 

Book rating: 8/10 (A decent reference for birds in Central/Western Canada)

Random quote: “More and more people are beginning to realize the pleasure and profit that can be derived from observation of common natural objects.” (Still trying to figure out how one profits from staring)

1 comment:

  1. In the city, one sits and stares and hopes for natural activity; but out in the countryside--the birds are more active and it is the thrill of the 'scavenger hunt' to see if one can spot the bird.