Two Books of Western Birds

IT is doubtless the attraction of levitation which makes any book of the West readable, provided it be sincerely done; but such a book as Florence Merriam Bailey’s Handbook of Birds of the Western United States 1 is its own excuse. In pursuance of the late discovery that the real service of scientific books is to make knowledge handier, Mrs. Bailey presents her work with technical accuracy without technical finicality. One feels particularly grateful for such concessions as the reduction of measurements to inches rather than to centimeters, which the lay mind never quite masters.

Besides the key to genera the book contains several interesting local check lists, bibliographia, and over six hundred illustrations as an aid to identification. Most acceptable to the amateur collector is the chapter of instruction on the taking of field notes and the preservation of specimens.

The notes on the life history of species by the author and Vernon Bailey have the literary charm. Such happy touches as the account of the flight of the sandhill cranes, such hints of human interest as Brigham Young praying for the flocks of Franklin gulls, make the book an acquisition to the nature lover whose bird knowledge is neighborly rather than scientific. Quite as admirable is the restraint with which the notes are selected. Very evidently Mr. Bailey does not tell all he knows, nor weary with telling what you know too well. Naturally the Westerner turns for a touchstone to the most notable examples, the water ousel, the cañon wren, the burrowing owl, and the road-runner. It is reassuring to mark that in the case of the last-named free lance of the chaparral, Mr. Bailey has contented himself with merely hinting at, without relating, the pipe yarns of the Old Timer; but it is a little surprising to find no mention of the roadrunner’s predatory attacks on the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds.

Throughout the book credit is given very handsomely where it is due, so that one reads what Mr. Loomis observed, or Mr. Grinnell says, with that comfortable sense of fellowship that it is the business of serious books to promote. Altogether this handbook of Western birds gives just that impression of impartial ease that is possible only to the competent. Certainly Mrs. Bailey has done nothing better.

Very different in scope, but quite as much to the point, is Leander Keyser’s Birds of the Rockies.2 The book is beautifully made up, with illustrations by Bruce Horsfall and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, who have done some excellent work for Mrs. Bailey, and it has the generous margins that all outdoor books should have to admit of annotations.

In this work Mr. Keyser gives the field notes of his rambles in and about the Rockies, with an additional check list of the birds of Colorado. The tone of the book is fresh and interested, though perhaps not compelling; and the observations are of real value. Doubtless many such books as Mr. Keyser’s must be written before one such as Mrs. Bailey’s could be produced. There is no method that yields so much as the daily recording of insistent looking, and the author of Birds of the Rockies has looked to some purpose. One could wish, however, that he had overcome his confessed indifference to the burrowing owl to have made such a study of its habits as would have saved him from giving even casual support to the attenuated fable of the bird, the rattlesnake, and the prairie dog. It is evidently an oversight by which he claims the Rocky Mountains as the sole habitat of the water ousel, for he plainly mentions, a few pages further on, the existence of that feathered delight in the mountains of California and Alaska, but no Westerner should be forgiven such spelling as “coyotte.” One makes these suggestions with no misgiving, for Mr. Keyser is too evidently in search of realities not to be worth reminding. It would be pleasant to think that there were other quarters in the West from which work of such quality could be confidently expected.

Mary Austin.

  1. Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. Illustrated. By FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1902.
  2. Birds of the Rockies. By LEANDER S. KEYSER. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co. 1902.