THE AUDUBON SOCIETY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS, by John K. Terres (Knopf, $49.95). This is the book to have even if you are having more than one. Put simply, this is a stunning, almost breathtaking single-volume compendium of anything and everything one would want to know about North American birds. For 1,053 pages -- from abdomen to zygote -- it is brimful. There are almost 6,000 entries, including articles on bird behavior, biographies on species and 875 exquisite color photographs from among the best bird photographers have to offer. Moreover, editor John K. Terres (who edited the Audubon Magazine for a dozen years) has lined the wide margins of the encyclopedia with handsome and informative black and white drawings. Just to browse in this book can be an exciting journey. Take the short essay on "anting," for example. One learns that more than 200 kinds of birds put crushed or live ants among their feathers to delouse themselves. When ants, the ones which give off formic acid, cannot be found, beetles, orange juice, beer, cigarette butts or other acid-abundant substitute material is used. There are 624 more such essays in the volume. Make no mistake. This is not a coffee table book. It is a superb working encyclopedia for anyone with an interest in birds. EDWARD LEAR'S BIRDS, by Susan Hyman (Morrow, $37.95). Lear, the limerick and nonsense man, also was a superb landscape and bird artist. Indeed, Lear may have been Audubon's equal and, as Susan Hyman tells us, may have been more innovative than Audubon. Lear introduced the large folio size for bird illustrations, was the first to work with live birds, and the first to do his own lithographs. This is a quick but interesting survey of the self-taught Lear's wildlife artistry. His bird drawings, especially, are shown to great advantage in this book and betray none of Lear's many illnesses and life-long insecurity (he was the 20th of 21 children and had but one year of formal education). There is no nonsense about Lear's ornithology. THE AGE OF BIRDS, by Alan Feduccia (Harvard, $20). This is a rather scholarly, albeit fascinating, explanation of how birds got that way -- got to be birds, that is. Zoology professor Feduccia takes us on a rather heady evolutionary journey from reptiles to flight. He tells us how the prototypical bird crawled from the slime eventually to soar in endless varieties. And, he also tells how, long the evolutionary trek, some birds were dead-ended and others grounded -- Feduccia labels it "the evolution of flightlessness." There is a very liberal use of informative illustrations, as Feduccia takes us right up to the present; not quite, however, to the recent fossil discovery in Argentina of the largest known bird to have flown -- a body the size of a man and a wingspan of 25 feet. Obviously, birds are still evolving, as is the study of them. BIRDS OF AFRICA, by John Karmali (Viking, $25). John Karmali is a pharmacist cum nature photographer who lives in Nairobi, Kenya. He uses a 35 mm camera. His favorite lens has a focal length of 280 mm. And he has a good eye, great patience and an extraordinary variety of subjects. Accordingly, this book is an irresistible invitation to go bird watching (birding) in East Africa. Included here are a great number of Karmali's color photographs, and a greater number of black and white. The color photos of the Blacksmith Plover, the African Paradise Flycatcher, The Red-Naped Widow-Bird and the male Pin-tailed Whydah are mouth-watering. The accompanying text, by Karmali, is species-specific and well-written. As a bonus, Karmali provides terse, written accounts of how he came by each photo. A SEASON OF BIRDS: A Norfolk Diary, 1911 (A&W, $14.95). This is a curious little book, interesting and disappointing at the same time. It is interesting because it records a warm relationship between a self-taught British wildfowler and a well-born British bird and egg collector. The untutored birder was Jim Vincent. His patron was the Hon. Edwin Montagu, parliamentarian and secretary of state for India.Between them, they helped to preserve the famous Norfolk Broads for birding. This volume was the journal of a year's watching. It is disappointing because the diary entries, themselves, are outdated, repetitious and boring. Aug. 3. "A pair of Nightjars were hawking around the bushes against Lodge at dusk." Aug. 4. "Two of three young Montagu's Harriers [a different Montagu] can fly about." If anything saves this curiosity, it is the quality of the illustrations which were done for the book by the Edwardian bird artist George E. Lodge. They are superb.