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Books. Keith Corlis

Books make great gifts for fans of natural history

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We made it. Christmas is finally here. Today we can all take a step back, breathe a sigh of relief, and wonder how we made it through the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. The baking, the gift buying, the card sending, the church services, the office parties, and the trips to grandma's house culminate in this one special day. It's a high point on the Christian calendar and a crescendo for all.

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Somewhere among the pile of presents and wrapping paper is likely an item which appears to be growing in popularity every year, the gift card. While I find this a cop-out of sorts, the cards are actually a pretty smart way to optimize giving by letting the recipient choose the end result. Hopefully, one of those cards is from a book store.

With that in mind, I took a look at my meager natural history library and wondered how I would rebuild it from scratch; a sort of prioritization, or a literary triage if you will. Which books could I live without, which are sources of timeless pleasure, inspiration or streams of useful information? Given a gift card from a book store, where then would I start?

First and foremost would have to be the field guides, all of them. I count no less than eight basic bird field guides but each one offers something a little different. Each offers bite-sized nuggets of information about the birds and a slight variance in illustrations or photographs to give readers a taste of what may be encountered in the field. Still the best among this group is "The Sibley Guide to Birds." Second is probably National Geographic's "Field Guide to the Birds of North America," which is more portable.

Beyond the basic field guides a person steps into a deepening ocean of resource material catering to the growing interest in worldwide birding. I own just a few of these with an obvious North American bias. And as a raptorphile, my stack is heavy on hawks, falcons and eagles. Brian Wheeler came out with eastern and western versions of "Raptors of North America" in 2003. These two volumes encompass everything a person could want in a compilation. There are extremely detailed up-to-date range maps, multiple crisp photographs of each hawk in various postures, and exhaustive treatment of every raptor species and subspecies. It's a must-have for those interested in these flying carnivores.

In terms of songbirds, warblers are the hands-down favorites of virtually every birder I know. Given the dizzying palette of colors they appear in and the endless repertoire of different songs, it's really no surprise. "A Field Guide to the Warblers of North America" by Jon Dunn and Kimball Garrett is the hands down winner for me. Published in 1997 under the Peterson Field Guide series, this book is indispensable for folks wanting to dig deep into the natural history of these neotropical migrants. Highly accurate illustrations, thorough range maps, and abundant data combine to make this an essential volume for any birder's library.

Bird watchers from all over North America actually treat North Dakota as a destination in summer. No group is more represented here than the sparrows. Among this group, no less than 28 species are found at various times of the year on the northern Great Plains. "The Sparrows of the United States and Canada" by James Rising and David Beadle will satisfy anyone's lust for these mostly grasslands specialists. Deftly describing identification features, voice, habits, breeding behavior, range, and geographical variations, this book should fill an empty spot on the shelf of any birder, especially a prairie dweller.

Beyond birds there are numerous other natural history field guides to consider. I use Jeffrey Glassberg's "Butterflies through Binoculars" quite a bit as well as Sidney Dunkle's "Dragonflies through Binoculars." Conant and Collins' "Reptiles and Amphibians" (Eastern North America) is another useful tool along with Burt and Grossenheider's "Mammals;" both are found in the Peterson Field Guide series.

The books mentioned above represent the mere tip of the iceberg in terms of what's out there. But they are treasures to me, worth more than their actual cost. They are the openings to pathways of possibilities, to greater understanding, and an aid to enriching one's life through careful observation.

Redeem those gift cards carefully. Books can contribute to a lifetime of gratification extending even well beyond the hopes of the giver. Choose wisely.

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