Avian behaviour illuminated

There are all types of birdwatchers out there, from casual weekenders to ultracompetitive "twitchers", who descend on rare-bird sightings like wasps on a picnic. Personally, I'm a dabbler. I enjoy observing and identifying birds, but I doubt that I'll ever have a life list. The more time I spend looking at birds, though, the more questions I have. Where do they go at night, for instance? Don't their nests get fouled with droppings? How long do they live? What do birds that spend most of their lives on the open ocean drink?

You will find answers to these questions in Birds of the Raincoast (Harbour Publishing, $44.95), by Harvey Thommasen and Kevin Hutchings, with contributions from Wayne Campbell and Mark Hume. For those who already own (and use) an identification guide, this book is billed as "the next step": a look at the "habitats, behaviours, migration patterns and survival secrets" of B.C.'s coastal birds. It's a handsome, hardcover volume, with sensational colour photography by Michael Wigle, Campbell, and others, and for the most part, it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do.

Birds of the Raincoast is organized into nine chapters, each one an essay on species occupying a certain place or time. Thus, we have chapters on birds of the estuary, river birds, birds of the night, and birds of winter. There are also sections on birds of open fields and farmlands; old-growth coniferous forest; second-growth deciduous forest; town, garden, and glade; and alpine and subalpine. As you might imagine, this is not a perfect arrangement (woodpeckers and ruffed grouse as birds of fields and farmlands?), and there's a certain amount of overlap, but as an organizing device it works well.

The discussion of individual species is a bit superficial, which is only to be expected from a 224-page book half-filled with vivid imagery. For my liking, too much space is devoted to detailed descriptions of all the different birds: colour, size, markings, et cetera. This seems of limited use, especially when a bird is illustrated with a stunning colour photo. Describing and distinguishing birds would appear to be the job of an identification guide, which this book is not, but the authors don't seem willing to let go of this traditional role of the bird book.

I would rather have had more commentary on the mating, nest-building, young-rearing, hunting, and feeding habits of B.C.'s coastal species. This is where Birds of the Raincoast shines, in its treatment of avian behaviour. The book is especially good at explaining the inspired adaptation of certain birds to particular ecosystems, a process that sometimes ends in an interdependence between bird and plant species. For instance, by gathering and storing far more seeds from whitebark pine cones than it could ever consume, the Clark's nutcracker ensures that the trees spread and survive. Fruit-eating cedar waxwings and band-tailed pigeons play similarly symbiotic roles, as do plant pollinators such as rufous hummingbirds.

Bird species or families with especially fascinating natural histories are dealt with at greater length. One example is the brown-headed cowbird, which has greatly expanded its range in recent years. The parasitic cowbird lays its eggs, cuckoo-style, in the nests of other birds-a bizarre survival strategy that appears all too successful, as the cowbird chicks are usually larger and stronger than the nest's rightful inhabitants, whose parents don't seem aware that they have strangers in their midst. T?here's also a good analysis of the role that woodpeckers play in creating nest and food-storage cavities for other creatures, and the importance of maintaining old-growth snags in areas targeted for logging.

The authors like to add odd little historical tidbits to the text-birding quotes from classical poets and explanations of bird-name origins-and these, although awkward at first, tend to grow on the reader. Intriguing "Campbell facts" (contributed by Wayne Campbell, B.C.'s best-known ornithologist) are boxed off throughout the text. Did you know, for instance, that the prominent red spot on a seagull's yellow beak is where its chick pecks to stimulate the parent to regurgitate food? Or that ocean-faring birds have large salt glands between their eyes that remove excess salt from their blood and allow them to drink seawater?

Birds of the Raincoast is a satisfying read and a worthy recipient of the Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Award at last month's B.C. Book Prizes-it's a beautiful, well-rounded introduction to the world of coastal B.C. birds. The book won't assuage the cravings of advanced birders, mind you, and it leaves plenty of opportunity for future books to answer additional questions. What must we do to maintain adequate habitat for birds? Why don't ducks' feet freeze when they're standing on ice? How do birds weather big windstorms? Do they ever have heart attacks and drop dead out of the sky? Ornithological curiosity never sleeps.

Andrew Scott's latest book, Secret Coastline II: More Journeys and Discoveries Along BC's Shores (Whitecap Books, $22.95), will launch on June 2, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Sechelt Arts Centre, corner of Trail Avenue and Medusa Street, Sechelt. The writer can be contacted through www.andrew-scott.ca/.