Birds by Colour
Birds by Colour by Marc Duquet A&C Black 2008 Ł12.99p ISBN 9780713689945
This book has been described as an innovative new guide to identifying birds specifically designed for beginners. It is the first guide to approach identification from the simple angle of looking at birds most visible characteristic – colour. No previous knowledge of ornithology is required to identify the almost 200 bird species common to western Europe. 184 species have been classified according to most typical bird shapes, then groups of species that share physical characteristics and have similar colours are shown together on a spread, to allow direct comparison. There is a fieldguide entry for each bird at the back of the book including information on biology, behaviour, habitat and distribution.
The publisher further claims ‘this is the essential handbook for amateur ornithologists and bird enthusiasts who want to start identifying birds.
Mark Duquet has been an ornithologist since 1975 and is editor of the ornithos review for the L’Oiseau Magazine
Of course, as usual some of these claims do not bear close scrutiny… this is not the first guide by colour, only the first one in Europe and I doubt there is an ornithologist anywhere who ‘wants to start identifying birds’. Such silly publisher’s puffs often distract the reviewer and do little to promote the publication.
I do not doubt that there are many non-birders who would like to know what that unfamiliar bird is that they see on their country walks or that turns up in their garden. I have no doubt that a guide set out in this way would make sense to them. Certainly for the beginner taxonomic order seems a purely arbitrary way to present birds and many would prefer them set out by size or shape or colour. The problem is that this is nowhere near as easy as it might seem.
Firstly, there is the problem of what to include. UK citizens will find it confusing to see such birds as wallcreeper, roller, hoopoe and rock thrush described as common western European birds. Come to think of it birders and ornithologists will be hard pressed to agree that rollers and wallcreepers are common western European birds.
Second is the problem of what to put where. What colour is a jay? Most of us might say well, its predominantly beige or pinkish… but I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me to identify a bird with lots of blue on it that has turned out to be a jay. Objectively there is only a little bit of blue but it is that blue that seems to stick in the mind. In this book it appears amongst those birds with black on their cheeks. Similarly, would most people think of a dunnock’s major characteristic being that it has a grey head or that a female blackcap’s head is red? Obviously this is subjective and to an extent arbitrary. Moreover, I would suggest that the focus on some characteristics that are less than obvious to the non-birder actually reflects the profession of the author. Perhaps some non-birders should have been shown film of common birds and asked what colour they were and what stood out to them. Sometimes it’s very hard to see the world with an uneducated eye.
One last carp… if one is to show a photograph to illustrate the species and help the novice make a good identification then the picture editor needs to be on his or her toes. Take as a great example the pictures of willow and marsh tits. The photographs do nothing to help ID – in fact they are likely to confuse as the light and shadow make wing coverts in one photograph mimic the ID feature of the other species in the line drawing. If you are going to compare birds then the photos have to be taken in the same rough pose in the same light conditions etc… otherwise they are not just no help but a hinderance.
I don’t think that this is a bad book, not even that it’s a bad idea, just that this book doesn’t seem to me to achieve what it sets out to do. The illustrations are very good as is the brief text. There is a strange leaning in the birds chosen to southern Europe and yet an assumption that many readers will be resident in the UK… perhaps it was conceived as a good holiday book for those with some a love of nature but a limited knowledge of birds.
There is a call for such a book and the quality of illustrations alone should mean it sells well… maybe one to consider as a gift for the casual observer.
Buy this book from www.nhbs.com
Created: 24th Jan 2008