Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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The Cornell course: unleashing the inner nerd

January 31, 2010

After three years of hemming and hawing over whether I would get something out of it, I finally caved and decided to enroll in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s home study course. This is the course where you basically read the entire Handbook of Bird Biology, cover to cover, and take open-book written exams on it after each chapter and send them in to be graded and discussed by the course staff. You can take the course as fast or as slowly as you like, and when you’re finished they’ll send you a certificate of completion. There’s no automatic college credit given for completion, although with some finagling and persuasive argument you may be able to bargain some credit from an institution.

The Handbook of Bird Biology is big textbook. The creators seemed to know that, and to make the book slightly less intimidating they don’t even number the pages in typical fashion. The pages are numbered separately in each chapter, so the reader can’t just thumb to the back and say “Good grief, this book is a thousand pages!” or whatever it is. Subtle, but oddly effective.

The book is also quite expensive. To enroll in the course with the book is about $300, but if you already have your own copy it’s only $200. The book retails for a little over a $100, but I’ve borrowed mine from the CSU library for 3 years now, and I just renew it electronically every month. No one else at CSU seems to want to check it out, so this system works for me.

Bridled Titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi)

Bridled Titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi), Madera Canyon, Arizona © 2008 Eric DeFonso

I’m also “augmenting” my taking of the course by creating my own syllabus where I do supplementary reads to the chapters in the Handbook, in other ornithology text books or on web sites. I’m an information packrat, and I have the Gill as well as the Proctor & Lynch textbooks on ornithology, and I’ve planned out which chapters to read in those books along with the chapters in the Handbook to improve my contextual understanding of the topics covered. Another highly detailed resource I’ll be using is the Ritchisong ornithology syllabus from Eastern Kentucky University. I’ve found that I learn things really well this way, when I can see the same information but presented in different ways or formats. I think it’s called synthesis. It makes for more work for me I suppose, but my goal is to learn the stuff in and out, and well, if this is what it takes for me to get the most out of it, that’s what I’ll do. It’s fun for me anyway, so I don’t really mind.

So what changed my mind to make me want to take this course in the first place? Well, you may have read about my recent decision to take the Macaulay Library Workshop on Recording this June, from an earlier post. This decision is obviously related to that. I’m really going to take the plunge, and I mean plunge headlong into ornithology. I have another announcement in the coming weeks about things I’m going to do soon that will really put all this into perspective.

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On the Last Day of Christmas, My In-laws gave to me…

January 4, 2006

Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia, by Olsen and Larsson. OK, so it’s not as catchy a tune, but it does spread joy in this household nonetheless.

What a great book, and a great way to cap off the holiday season. Now I have absolutely no excuse for not becoming a local pro on gulls. Gulls are of course the nemesis of most birders – I liken the phenomenon to the way many otherwise intelligent college students treat math. “Oh, I suck at math/gulls – it’s just not my thing.” I can understand this feeling, too, for I’ve shared it in the past. All the North American gulls combined can sport over 200 different plumages and appearances, many of which closely resemble each other. Combined with their “trashiness”, they unfortunately become low-priority sightings for a number of birdwatchers. And although I did put forth an effort to learn them when I was back in Santa Cruz a few years ago, my effort was limited and unsupported by either a good guide or by anyone in the area who knew gulls well (I was a much more solitary birder then.)

But the commonness of gulls is a blessing. They are gregarious, and because of that many species can be seen together in relatively easy-to-find flocks, including rarities. All you have to do is learn how to separate them out – a challenge to be sure, but something any birder should take the time to do. And with neighbor Nick, Sibley, free time, and now this book, I hope to make some headway on these birds myself. Thanks, Marilyn and Tim – This is awesome!

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Classy Birds

November 30, 2005

The deeper one delves into the study of birds, the thornier (and more intriguing) the issue of bird taxonomy becomes. My own interest in birds began over a decade ago, but only in the past year have I made a concerted effort to learn about family relationships and overall classification – before that, my lack of bioscience background inclined me to stay away from such topics, which appeared to me to be merely academic. (Bear in mind that my own science background has an adage, only semi-joking, that “all science is either physics or stamp-collecting”!)

Once I realized how much understanding bird relationships could help me be a better birder, I started to take the topic far more seriously. I took the trouble to classify my whole life list, so that I could figure out which families I’d seen in my travels. Traveling abroad definitely gives an impetus to studying these things, because it is when you see birds that don’t fit at all into your previous experience (or better yet, you see birds that do resemble those you see at home), it is natural to wonder if they are relatives. Also, learning family relationships allows one to consider morphology and behavioral differences between species, especially the subtle ones, and those often are key to making proper identifications on hard-to-see birds. Besides, learning all these things turns out to be quite rewarding in its own right – having context for your observations makes the experience in the field all the more enjoyable. And, it allows you to recognize when you’re actually seeing something unusual, if the bird happens to deviate from its usual appearance or actions.

I’ve been using several resources so far to gain knowledge on bird families, but the main two at my disposal are Don Roberson’s Creagrus website, and my copy of Firefly’s Encyclopedia of Birds, edited by Christopher Perrins. The Firefly series may be familiar as one popular for getting kids more interested in science, especially animals, as they have similar books to this¬† on insects, the human body, mammals, and the earth. But this book, despite its supersized photography and eye-candy layout, is hardly a book just for the younger set. The articles are written by the world experts on each bird family (or grouping, strictly speaking), and are quite detailed. Of course, it is only meant as an introduction to the field, and isn’t as in-depth as the Handbook of the Birds of the World series, the 16-volume set that covers every single species in the world. But the Perrins’ book does its job well, and makes the continued study of bird classification very fun.

And thorny, as I mentioned at the outset. I’ll post more soon about some of the more difficult problems of classification, because even to a neophyte like me, it is clear that there are plenty of deep mysteries in bird relationships.