by Herbert Spencer Zim, Herbert S. Zim


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After describing the parts of a bird, the book has a table of contents which is also a quick reference list for bird classification. Maps give the location of the area in which the bird is found.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307640536
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/01/2001
Series: Golden Guides
Edition description: Revised

Read an Excerpt


A Guide to Familiar Birds of North America

By Herbert S. Zim, Ira N. Gabrielson, James Gordon Irving

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6464-1



While some kinds of guides are arranged by color, bird guides are generally organized so that closely related species — those of similar shape and behavior — are together. Water birds appear first, followed by more primitive land birds; the true songbirds are last.

You will quickly learn to sort unknown birds into major categories (called orders) such as herons, ducks, hawks, woodpeckers, and perching birds (see here). For water birds, note whether they wade, swim, or dive; for aerial feeders whether they constantly flap, soar, or hover. For all birds, look closely at the size and shape of their bill (here) and the shape and length of their tail. Compare the total length with that of some familiar species. Is it the size of a sparrow, a robin, or a crow? These characteristics will help place birds in the correct family.

Field Marks The next step is to determine the species by looking for the presence or absence of wing bars, tail patterns, eye rings or eye stripes, and color patterns on the head or elsewhere. Is the back plain or streaked? Do the underparts have horizontal bars or longitudinal streaks?

Behavior How a bird acts can also provide valuable clues. Does it walk or hop or run? Does it wag its tail? Does it catch insects on the wing like a swift or a swallow? Or does it repeatedly return to an exposed perch to eat insect prey like a flycatcher or a waxwing? Does it climb up a tree trunk like a woodpecker or climb head-down like a nuthatch? Does it eat berries like a thrush or an oriole, or probe in the ground for worms and grubs like a robin, blackbird, or starling? As a help, the principal foods of each species are listed here.

EQUIPMENT There are ways to increase your enjoyment of birding — none of which involves much expense. This book is one way, for a guide book is an important tool. As you acquire experience, you will want more advanced books (see here). Rugged clothing, waterproof boots, and mosquito repellent are part of an experienced birder's equipment.

Life List Many people keep a list of all the species they have seen, which is known as a life list. A pocket notebook will help you record detailed information, including the date and place you saw a bird. Over time this list will become a valuable tool for reminding you of what you have seen.

Binoculars This is the most important and most expensive item of equipment. A good pair of binoculars is a precision tool and should be selected with care. The best glasses are made with prisms to reduce their size and weight. Weight is an important consideration because you will want to be able to hold your binoculars steady or wear them around your neck for long periods of time.

The power of the glass tells you how much closer it will make a bird appear. Seen through 6× (6-power) glasses, a bird looks six times as close. Glasses of 6x to 8x are best. Remember, the higher the power, the more limited your field of vision. Glasses that admit the most light are also best. This depends on the width of the front lens (usually measured in millimeters). A 6 × 35 lens admits twice as much light as a 6 × 24. Lightweight 7 × 35 or 8 × 42 binoculars are excellent for birding. Some birders use 10 × 50 binoculars, but they tend to be heavy.

Be sure to carefully test a pair of binoculars before you make your purchase. You'll want a comfortable pair that you can focus quickly.

WHERE TO LOOK Birds are everywhere, but to see the most birds try looking in the best places — in moist woodlands or perhaps at the edge of a wooded swamp. Young scrubby woods are likely to have more birds than mature forests. Wood margins are generally good, especially during migration. But no single place is best. Saltwater marshes and shores will yield birds that one will never see in pine woods. Other species prefer open fields, or western deserts. A wooded park in the midst of a city is one of the very best places to look for birds during migration. If you explore your region, you will discover certain spots are favored — perhaps a small glen with a brook, a wooded point on a lake, or trees along a river. Onthis page is a list of some famous places to see birds. Make local inquiries. See also the books and museums and zoos listed here.

HOW TO LOOK Experienced watchers go out early in the morning when birds are most active. They will often sit quietly in a likely spot and let the birds come to them. Keen-eyed birds are easily frightened by movement. Don't make yourself conspicuous against open sky. Move slowly. Try to cover several distinct habitats, if possible — a woodland, marsh, field, river bank, shore, or whatever your locality affords. Eventually you will work out a route that will give you the greatest variety of birds per time spent. Experience in your own region will be your best help. Make bird watching a year-round activity, for each season has its own special surprises and delights to offer the careful observer.

WHY LOOK? Birds are by far the most popular of wildlife because they are easy to see, easy to identify, beautiful to observe, attractive to hear, and ever changing in occurrence and numbers. They can also be surprising. Many species migrate long distances, and at times large numbers of birds are blown off course and discovered hundreds of miles from their usual homes.

Birds are indicators of the health of the environment. Changes in their numbers, the appearance of an unusual or unexpected species, or the disappearance of a familiar one can tell us much about changes in the condition of the natural world. Birds have become the focus of local, national, and international conservation efforts, leading to the establishment of preserves, reclamation of wild lands, and protection of flyways and nesting areas.

Some birders prefer to do their observing by themselves, others prefer the sociability of birding in a small group. Many enjoy competition, such as finding more species than a friend or being the first to spot a returning migrant. There are hundreds of bird clubs you can join in the United States and Canada. Thousands of people take bird tours to exotic places. Others keep impressive lists of the species they have seen. Even a simple bird feeder or birdbath can bring much pleasure right at home.

An interest in birds can be enjoyed throughout life and can give pleasure at any place and at any time. It often expands into a greater appreciation for all wildlife, and for the habitats that are essential to its survival.



Bird experts have dozens of technical names for the various parts of birds. Using these terms, they can describe a bird with great accuracy. A beginner does not have the experience to use these terms, so only the essential technical terms are used in this book. When you see a bird you cannot identify, try to observe the bird as well as you can. Study its size, habits, and the color and form of the parts illustrated above. Put your information down on paper (don't trust your memory). By keeping these few parts in mind you will systematize your observations and record the details needed to get your bird identified.



Birds are grouped into orders, families, and genera according to similarities in their bills, feet, and internal anatomy. This simplified list of the bird groups in this book will help you understand how they are classified and what to look for. The scientific name of each bird in this guide is listed here. Those names and the English names used have been adopted by the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU).

LOONS Large swimming and diving birds with short tails, legs set far back, and sharply pointed bills. They often float with only their head above water.

GREBES Smaller swimmers and divers. Tail lacking; legs set far back; bill slender and pointed. They dive by thrusting their head down, disappearing without a ripple.

HERONS, BITTERNS, and EGRETS Long-legged wading birds with long necks and straight pointed bills. In flight, their feet extend beyond their tail but their neck is pulled in. They are often seen wading or walking along a shore.

DUCKS, GEESE, and SWANS Swimming birds with distinct tails. They walk well compared to grebes or loons. Feet have four toes with the front three webbed. Bill broad and flat. Often found in large flocks.

RAILS and COOTS Marsh birds that fly with their neck extended and feet dangling (rails); wings rounded. Feet are unwebbed, except for coot's, which has lobes (see illus. here). Rails usually hunt alone in dense marsh grasses. Coots often gather in large flocks on open water.

PLOVERS and SANDPIPERS Long-legged shorebirds, mostly small. Although their silhouettes are similar, plovers are considered a separate family from sandpipers. Plovers are often found on open ground, darting about in a stop-and-go fashion. Sandpipers are found along shores. They probe for food in the mud with their bills.

GULLS and TERNS Mostly light-colored marine birds with long, pointed wings. They are often found in noisy flocks, usually near water. Terns are smaller and more slender than gulls, and fly more gracefully,

VULTURES, EAGLES, and HAWKS Large birds with strong hooked bills and powerful curved talons. Vultures are scavengers with bare heads. They often are seen in flocks. Eagles and hawks are hunters that are usually seen alone.

GROUSE, QUAIL, and TURKEY Plump, chicken-like birds that scratch for food. Their bills are short and stout, their feet heavy and strong, and their wings short and rounded. They spend most of their time on the ground, but may fly up into trees when alarmed.

PIGEONS and DOVES Small headed birds with short bills, stout bodies, and short legs. They feed on seeds and grain on the ground, but some also eat fruit. All are very fast fliers.

CUCKOOS Long, slim birds with slightly curved bill and long tail. Most hide in dense foliage.

OWLS Although their shapes and behavior are similar, owls are now divided into two families: Barn Owls and Typical Owls. Both have strongly hooked bills, large curved claws, and soft feathers that allow them to fly almost completely silently at night.

SWIFTS Small swallow-like birds with streamlined bodies and long, slender wings. They are fast fliers and seldom land, feeding on insects caught in flight.

NIGHTHAWKS and NIGHTJARS With large heads, small bills, and wide mouths, they scoop insects out of the air. They usually hunt at night and roost on the ground during the day.

HUMMINGBIRDS Tiny birds with slender, needle-like bills. Their rapid wing beats allow them to hover and even fly backwards. Their feathers often shine brilliantly.

KINGFISHERS With large heads, long, pointed bills, and small feet, kingfishers often hover over water, then plunge head-first to catch fish. They also perch above water.

WOODPECKERS Climbing birds with strong, pointed bills, and stiff, pointed tail feathers. They creep up the sides of trees and pound on bark for their food,

PERCHING BIRDS The largest bird group (also known as passerines), accounting for almost 60 percent of all birds. All are land birds adapted for perching on small branches or twigs. Many sing.



The over 900 species of birds seen in North America north of Mexico are classified into around 70 families. The major families and their approximate relationships are shown here. Families with the most species north of Mexico are represented by the thickest branches.




Birds show unusual adaptations to their way of life. The most important and obvious is their covering of feathers which developed from the scaly covering of reptiles or dinosaurs. Each feather has rows of branched barbs that hook together. On long flight feathers, these barbs mesh tightly to form a firm structure. Contour feathers and an undercoat of finer feathers cover a bird's body. The form and structure of feathers vary with different birds.

Internal adaptations of birds include air sacs and light, hollow bones that are an advantage for flying. A rapid heartbeat and high body temperature (several degrees higher than ours) favor a very active existence. The animal food birds eat includes insects, worms, mollusks, fish, and small mammals. Plant foods include seeds, buds, leaves, and fruits. The bills of different birds show obvious adaptations related to diet. The four birds shown above, each from a different family, have similar bills adapted for eating fish.


The five birds above all come from a common ancestor and belong to the same order — perching birds (or passerines). But each of these species has developed a different type of bill suited for eating different foods. This type of divergent development is found in many species.

Other adaptations are found in the legs and feet of birds. A bird's three or four toes have been modified for climbing, scratching, grasping and tearing, or swimming. Long toes distribute the weight of birds that walk on mud and sand. Extra feathering protects the feet of ptarmigans and owls that live in the Arctic. The long legs of waders, the webbed feet of swimmers, and other adaptations indicate specialized uses of various kinds.

Most interesting of all adaptations are those of behavior. Many species have developed distinct patterns of living. As you watch, you will discover the "personalities" of different birds and their social adaptations.


Most of us start watching birds close to home, at a window or in our backyard. One way to see more birds is to make your home more attractive to them. The key is to provide the basic necessities for birds: food, water, and shelter.

FEEDING BIRDS If you want to attract birds to your yard or window, then feeding them will help. Many places sell bird seed and bird feeders, but even scattering seed on the ground will attract some species. Black-oil sunflower seed is one of the best choices because it is eaten by so many different birds: cardinals, jays, chickadees, finches, even woodpeckers. Seed mixes that include hemp, millet, thistle (Niger) seed, or cracked corn also work.

Bird feeders come in many shapes and sizes but it's best to start simply. Birds will come to a raised platform or window shelf, but a tube feeder or hopper feeder needs to be replenished less often. During winter you can place lumps of suet in a wire container outside. It will attract chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. Try replacing the suet with a sandwich made with peanut butter, especially during warmer months. When they find it, your birds will come back to it.

WATER FOR BIRDS Birds need drinking and bathing water just as much as they need food. They are attracted to moving, shallow water. A dripping hose or a trickle of water running into a one-inch pan with gravel on the bottom is excellent. An old bucket with a triangular piece of cloth pulled through a drip hole and hung over an old baking pan will do as well as an elaborate pool.

COVER AND SHELTER Birds need cover for protection against wind, cold, and their enemies. The best kind of cover is shrubs or vines that provide food as well as a place to hide. Make sure that there is some place to hide near your bird feeders. Predators are sometimes attracted to the commotion at a feeder and your birds will need a safe place to fly to.

Plants for birds can be added to any garden. These include shrubs, such as sumac and boxwood, and small trees, such as holly or dogwood. Shrubs and trees that produce berries or fruits, such as cherry, crab apple, or hawthorn, are also good, but native plants that retain their fruit in winter are best. Evergreens may be planted for shelter. Annual flowers such as sunflower, marigold, and zinnia produce seed that attract birds, as do perennials such as aster and black-eyed Susan.

NESTING BOXES Some birds will take advantage of a nesting box or bird house made by humans. But different boxes will attract different species. For example, a box made for a wren is very different from one made for a flicker. Bird houses and plans for bird houses come in hundreds of different sizes and types. When you have become familiar with the birds in your area, you can choose the right one for those species. Build or buy a box that can be used year after year. Don't place boxes too close together; three or four nesting boxes to an acre are usually enough. Most birds set up their own territory and will keep other birds away.

BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY Photographing a bird calls for patience and skill, but one fine shot makes it all worthwhile. Try focusing on a bird feeder for a start. Use a camera with a fast lens. A flash is usually necessary for close photos even in daylight.

BIRD BANDING Lightweight aluminum or plastic bands are put around birds' legs by many organizations to help in scientific studies. It doesn't hurt the bird, but much of what we know about migration, flyways, life spans, and population changes has been learned from banded birds. More than a million birds are banded each year.

Bird banding takes place in almost every part of North America, and most groups use volunteers to help. If you are interested, you can find out more through your local birding club. If you find a sick or dead bird with an aluminum band (except a pigeon), look for an 8 or 9 digit number on the band. It may also have a message that reads "CALL 1-800-327-BAND and WRITE BIRD BAND LAUREL MD 20708 USA" or "AVISE BIRD BAND WASH DC." These bands can be reported by calling toll-free 1-800-327-BAND (2263) or by writing to the Bird Banding Laboratory, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 12100 Beech Forest Road, Laurel, MD 20708-4039 ( In either case, you should provide the band number and how, when, and where the bird or band was found.


Excerpted from Birds by Herbert S. Zim, Ira N. Gabrielson, James Gordon Irving. Copyright © 2001 St. Martin's Press. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
How to Use This Book,
How to Identify Birds,
Parts of a Bird,
Bird Classification,
A Family Tree of Birds,
Adaptations of Birds,
Attracting Birds,
Migrations of Birds,
The Birds at a Glance,
Aids for Birding,

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