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Fifty Uncommon Birds

book review by Diane Porter

An important and thoroughly enjoyable book

Fifty Uncommon Birds of the Upper Midwest
Dana Gardner and Nancy Overcott. University of Iowa Press, 2007. ISBN: 1587295904, 7 ½ x 10 inches, 132 pages, 50 watercolor paintings. Cloth.

Fifty Uncommon BirdsThe commonest reason that uncommon birds are not common is that they are specialists. These are birds are that we can't assume will always be part of our world.

They are birds that depend on habitats that themselves are uncommon, diminished or diminishing. They are birds that often serve as indicator species for the integrity of the environment. Fifty Uncommon Birds brings a few of these special birds to the attention of readers. A double-page spread is devoted to each species, with illustrations on the left, text on the right.

Dana Gardner's strikingly beautiful watercolor portraits provide accurate details of form and plumage, but they go beyond photographic realism. Oriental in feeling, each painting iconographically captures something about the relationship of the bird to its environment.

The form of a northern moorhen emerges from the pattern of leaf-strewn water. Dried oak leaves frame a pair of brown creepers on the trunk of a tree and emphasize the birds' colors. Bare twigs in the northern parula's portrait seem to dance on the page, along with the warbler. I love these pictures!

Nancy Overcott's text describes the special requirements of each bird. She provides insight into what limits the species' population or threatens its survival: the effects of creosote-treated utility poles on red-headed woodpecker nests; how dickcissels lose their grassland nests to mowing machines; the clearing of South American forests to raise coffee and cocaine-based drugs, and the 40-year decline of cerulean warblers who winter there.

Weaving each bird's natural history into a personal anecdote, Overcott often recounts how she first encountered the species. Each chapter includes enough about the species' field marks, food habits, habitat, nesting behavior, migration, and range to give the reader some grasp of its natural history and to help a new birder identify the bird in the field.

Previously, in 2006, Overcott and Gardner collaborated on Fifty Common Birds of the Upper Midwest. The present Fifty Uncommon Birds of the Upper Midwest is a companion volume. The authors hope that the book will give readers the desire to go out of doors, make a point of finding these species, and be inspired to protect them. It certainly had this effect on me. It is an important and thoroughly enjoyable book.

Included species listed at right, in the blue box.

Copyright 2008 by Diane Porter



Species covered in
50 Uncommon Birds