AUDUBON'S BIRDS OF AMERICA, by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson (Abbeville, $150; limited edition, $300). The big birding book this year is indeed BIG. It weighs 15 pounds; costs $150 for the poor person's edition; has 712 pages and 917 illustrations; and is simply splendid. Having said this, this newest rendition of John James Audubon's historic Birds of America is small compared to the original "Double Elephant Folio," as Audubon tagged it, which in its heaviest edition of volumes weighed 56 pounds, cost the then astronomical sum of $1,000 in the early 19th century and was twice as large as this single-volume effort. This also explains why the late Harry N. Abrams and his son Robert call their modern version "The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio."
Audubon published roughly 200 of his original folios and, remarkably, 134 of the complete sets still exist (14 survive as incomplete sets, 28 were broken up, 11 were destroyed by fire and war, and 14 are missing). According to Robert Abrams, the last folio to be sold, a private deal, fetched $1 million.
Roger Tory and Virginia Marie Peterson have organized this folio and written an introduction and short, pithy commentaries for each plate. The introduction provides a short biographical sketch of Audubon and a rather long paean to other American bird artists. More interestingly, the Petersons have rearranged Audubon's plates so they track phylogenetically and this, itself, makes for interesting comparisons. They also have made Audubon's names for birds conform to accepted contemporary usage. Thus, for example, Audubon's "Spotted grouse" is our "Spruce grouse." Finally, the quality of color reproduction in this marvelous book is rather extraordinary
JOHN GOULD'S BIRDS (A & W Publishers, $39.95). John Gould was a young contemporary of Audubon and was to Victorian England what Audubon was to America--the most assiduous and best publisher of bird plates in his country. Unlike Audubon, however, Gould was not a noted artist and was not responsible for the best of his bird plates, if any. The earliest plates were done by his wife and when she died by other artists. It can be argued, and I'll argue it, that Gould's bird illustrations are equal to or even a bit finer than Audubon's. Either way, this is a nice collection of his Birds, though far less ambitious than the Audubon Baby Elephant Folio.
UTAMARO: A CHORUS OF BIRDS (The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Viking/Studio, $17.95). A different kind of bird book, in its own way absolutely charming, this is the reproduction of a volume of l8th- century Japanese color woodblock prints by Kitagawa Utamaro. They were drawn to accompany comic verse, then all the rage in upper-crust Japan. In this accordion-like book (copied after the original which permits one to see the prints flat) are gentle, lovely, delicate prints. This book has its own delicate joy including the poems: "Going to Meet/His Secret Love,/The Grosbeak/Lets Out a Warble/ And Gives Her Name Away."
THE PLOVERS, SANDPIPERS, AND SNIPES OF THE WORLD, by Paul A. Johnsgard (University of Nebraska Press, $45). Anyone with a love of or interest in shorebirds will want Paul A. Johnsgard's latest book--firstly because the University of Nebraska professor produces the best single volume definitive studies of bird groups, and secondly because this is the first worldwide approach to shorebirds attempted in the last 100 years. One will find comprehensive descriptions, natural history and distribution data on shorebirds from avocets to tattlers, from lapwings to sandpipers. Johnsgard tells us of a trip to Alaska where he finally realized that shorebirds "are a group with every bit as much beauty and grace" as his beloved waterfowl. I agree.
BEYOND THE BIRD FEEDER, by John V. Dennis (Knopf, $13.95). This is a good-reading, fun-thinking book for everyone. Dennis, who gave up keeping bird lists years ago, has put together a personal view of how birds who come to bird feeders behave, as his subtitle suggests, "when they are not at your feeder." This includes chapters on migration, water, enemies, etc. And, biologist Dennis fills his well-written book with tidbits such as: "Until thistle (niger) caught on with those who feed birds, there was no popular, commercially available black foods to use in bird feeding," and "It has been shown that mourning doves drink four times as much water at 100 degrees Fahrenheit as they do at 70 degrees."