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
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.
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
"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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