The New Bird Bible

A team of 700-plus professional ornithologists is writing profiles on 720 of the continent's existing and extinct species. The goal? To create the most comprehensive work on birds in years.

By Frank Graham Jr.

Each of the towering published works in the history of ornithology--Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, John James Audubon's Birds of America, Arthur Cleveland Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds, and Roger Tory Peterson's original Field Guide to the Birds--was an individual triumph. Now the most recent addition to the pantheon, appearing almost two centuries after Wilson's 1808-14 classic, takes shape as a remarkable collective achievement. A team of more than 700 professional ornithologists, assembled by a pair of indefatigable editors, is writing and reviewing some 15,000 pages of profiles on 720 of the continent's (plus Hawaii's) existing and extinct breeding birds for The Birds of North America: Life Histories for the 21st Century, which is already familiarly referred to as the BNA."

"Ornithological literature is exploding, but until now there was no special place to go and look for, say, all existing information on vocalizations of the Henslow's sparrow," says coeditor Frank Gill, the Audubon Society's senior vice-president for science and a former president of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU). "Every aspect of a bird's biology and its environment is covered here in its profile, and further details are pointed to in the exhaustive bibliography appended to it. The BNA gives researchers on all levels a jump start on their studies."

The most utilitarian aspects of the profiles are sections that pinpoint gaps in our current knowledge and discuss the conservation problems threatening individual species. Within the BNA's enormous scope, readers can truly take in the ever-increasing hazards birds face as they struggle to survive amid our runaway civilization. Specialists describe the conditions that put each bird at risk as well as the possible management options available.

For instance, Jon Atwood, who directs the Conservation Biology Program at Antioch New England Graduate School, summarizes the brush with oblivion experienced by the California gnatcatcher (the bird that stopped a hundred bulldozers) and explains the balance struck between developers and biologists in preserving the gnatcatcher's chaparral habitat. Ian C.T. Nisbet, who has been studying common terns since 1970, discusses the conservation of the species from the early 1900s, when Audubon groups saved it from decimation by plume hunters, to today, when modern management tactics include protecting the species' remnant island colonies from gulls, raccoons, and great horned owls. Even a bird's friends, the reader learns, may bring it to grief. An occasional red-bellied woodpecker, for instance, perishes when its long, sticky, barbed tongue gets tangled in an inattentive researcher's mist net.
The need for such a collection was apparent to many ornithologists during the 1980s, but the question remained: Who would take on such a daunting task? The model was Bent's 26-volume Life Histories of North American Birds, and everyone was all too aware that at the time of his death, in 1954, he had been working on the project for 42 years--and that his successors needed an additional 14 years to complete it. The AOU appointed a committee to look into a new series of life histories. Several members suggested that Frank Gill, then at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences, lead the project. "I kept saying I was too busy," Gill says. "But when this thing was about to be killed, I said, 'It's too important. I'll make it happen, but it's not going to take 56 years!' "

The plan was to complete the series in 10 years, and once Gill put his team together, he kept his word. Having established an office at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and with the academy and the AOU as the project's sponsors, Gill named a publishing committee and set about foraging for early funding. (The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has since taken the academy's place as a sponsor.) One of his brightest ideas was to recruit Alan Poole, an English major and later an ornithologist in Massachusetts, who had written a book on ospreys and understood what sort of material needed to be included in the proposed profiles.

"We sent out a prospectus to people in the ornithological community, offering subscriptions, sight unseen, at $1,875," recalls Poole, who became the BNA's coeditor. "I don't believe anyone thought it would work, but Frank's reputation really helped, and nearly a thousand people bought in to the project. That capitalized the early stages of publication."

Assuming the day-to-day burden in the early 1990s, Poole rounded up 700 to 800 colleagues as writers. He and Gill took a huge gamble by deciding on a piecemeal approach to publication. With so many authors involved, they realized there would be differences in both the quality and delivery time of the individual submissions. So instead of holding up publication until all of the profiles were in hand, tidied up, and peer reviewed, the team began issuing them in sets of eight as soon as the editors deemed them completed. Profile No. 1, "Barn Owl," appeared in 1992.

"We broke all the rules," admits Gill. "We went into this without either capital or any real knowledge of the publishing business. We began publishing the profiles piecemeal and out of taxonomic order, and eventually marketed the 18-volume series for $2,275, plus shipping and handling. But we will have finished it in about a decade, with the last two volumes out by the end of 2002. Of the 2,300 subscriptions we set out to sell, only a couple of hundred remain. A lot of things went right for us."

The unit of publication is a fascicle (from a Latin word meaning "small bundle"), each of which consists of 12- to 32-page accounts of individual species. The profiles appear in a standardized format, with a color photograph of the bird; sections on such topics as its distribution, migration, habitat, diet, behavior, and breeding; accompanying charts and illustrations; and an extensive bibliography. A volume holds 40 fascicles and includes an index. "Librarians love the BNA because it makes their jobs easier," Gill says. "But half of our subscribers are individuals."

Many accounts include snippets of the "betcha didn't know" variety dear to browsers' hearts. Here is a sampling.

  • Green-winged teals are the only ducks that are known to scratch themselves in flight.
  • Loggerhead shrikes, notorious for impaling their prey on thorns or sharp twigs, begin practicing the art when they're just 20 to 25 days old by picking up small objects and pressing them against twigs and branches.
  • Manx shearwaters were the first birds used in successful long-range homing experiments. One individual, from a group of birds removed from their nest in Wales and taken to Boston, returned to Wales in a mere twelve and a half days.
  • Green jays are tool users, pushing twigs under the bark of dead trees to expose insects.
  • The oldest recorded blue-winged warbler--7 years and 11 months--died when it was captured by ornithologists at a bird-banding station.
  • Hooded warblers on their wintering grounds are sometimes taken by neotropical green frogs.

As befits their academic tone, the profiles abound in even meatier fare. Take the strange adaptive changes that occur in the innards of the black-billed cuckoo, a voracious consumer of forest caterpillars. "Stomach contents of individual cuckoos may contain more than 100 large caterpillars or several hundred of the smaller species," writes Janice M. Hughes of Ontario's Lakehead University in her account of the species. "The bristly spines of hairy caterpillars pierce the cuckoo's stomach lining, giving it a furry coating. When the mass obstructs digestion, the entire stomach lining is sloughed off and is regurgitated as a pellet."

Poole assumed the task of riding herd on this enormous team, coaxing writers to keep to their schedules and requesting that some fill gaps in their research. "I think of myself as an orchestra conductor," he says. "They make the music; I wave the baton to keep the time and make the music flow." A number of the individual profiles have two or three authors, while some of the writers produced two or more profiles themselves.

"The champ is Peter Lowther, of Chicago's Field Museum," Poole says. "He likes to do them, volunteering to take over from delinquents, and he's written parts or all of 18 profiles. We can't afford to let the project lag, though we've heard a lot of excuses for delays--kids with illnesses, divorces, a house blown down by a hurricane. One author finished his profile in the hospital, where he was recovering from a road accident. But death is the only acceptable excuse, and one or two people have taken that way out." The survivors have made plain the challenges that should keep ornithologists and conservationists busy through the new century.

FRANK GRAHAM JR. is a longtime field editor for Audubon.




© 2002  NASI

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Where to

What You Can Do

To order the entire BNA (18 volumes, $2,275) or for a free sample of one of the species profiles, write to The Birds of North America, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1195; call 888-373-7900; or e-mail bna@birds ofna.org. Additional information is available on the project web site: www.birdsofna.org.