This is for the birds

July 25, 2014 | Carolyn

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I recently returned from a vacation where I spent a lot of time watching birds - mostly seabirds. A National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America was my trusted companion as I learned to identify terns, cormorants, herons and osprey.

A good identification book is a necessity for anyone interested in watching, identifying and learning about birds, and there are many guides available at library branches.

Columbia Jay from Birds of America. Public domain image.One of the earliest, and most celebrated, guides for North American birds is Birds of America by John James Audubon.

Audubon was a naturalist who identified several new species of birds, but he is best known for the beauty and detail of the paintings he created for his book.

Toronto Public Library owns a rare copy of Birds of America, "a four volume double-elephant folio set of 435 hand-coloured, engraved prints." The TD Audubon Collection, one of TPL's most  important and valuable possessions, is housed at the Toronto Reference Library. Prints can be viewed by appointment at 416 393-7156.

The Library owns several other editions of Birds of America, including an ebook version that has embedded recordings of birdcalls.

One advantage to using websites is that you can listen to bird calls, which helps with identification. Here are a couple of sites I've found useful:

All About Birds is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, appreciation and conservation of birds. The National Audubon Society publishes an Online Guide to North American Birds.


There are lots of apps for birders, though not many are free. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a free app called Merlin which helps identify over 400 of the most common North American birds.

Apparently the holy grail of bird identification is a Shazam-like app that would identify the bird calls recorded by users. Several prototypes are available, but the technology hasn't yet been perfected. I can understand how exciting this might be for dedicated birders, but as a casual observer of birds and a newcomer to their world I'm happy just to spend the occasional hour watching and listening to these creatures whose world intersects so closely with our own.

If you're interested in learning more about birds, check out the print or eBook version of these books:

The Bird Detective The Thing With Feathers Bird Sense

For identification, try one of these guides:

The Sibley Guide to Birds National Geographic field guide to the birds of North America Birds of Canada

And finally, if you're interested in bird calls and songs:

The Stokes field guide to bird songs. Eastern region