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Saskatchewan Birds (review)

by Dave Yanko

Alan Smith mug
Alan Smith.

Saskatchewan now has its very own bird guide. Saskatchewan Birds, by respected naturalist Alan Smith, is a smart, handy and well-organized reference tool intended for backyard dabblers and experienced birders alike. And it's full of interesting facts on 145 of the more common or noteworthy birds that can be seen in Saskatchewan.

Take the spotted sandpiper, for instance. Smith writes that it wasn't until 1972 that the "unexpected truths" about the shorebird came to light: the sandpiper engages in "polyandry".

Cover: Saskatchewan Birds.

After mating with one male, the female sets off to find another while leaving the first to incubate the eggs and care for the brood - she'll typically mate with several males during breeding season. Polyandry is found in only 1 per cent of all bird species.

Here are a few others: the peregrine falcon can reach a speed of 360 km/h (220 mph) in a dive; the yellow-headed blackbird, whose numbers are growing at a dramatic rate across North America, is considered by many birders to be the worst crooner on the continent; and the ubiquitous house sparrow is actually native to Eurasia and North Africa, having arrived in Saskatchewan about 50 years after its mid-1800s release in eastern Canada.

Spotted Sandpiper

Avid birders may know some of these already. But that's fine because the guide's real strength is its well-measured mix of character traits, illustrations, and the straight goods on species' details, all set out in a consistent format that should facilitate quick identification of birds in the field. The superb, color illustrations by three wildlife artists appear consistent in style and nicely complement Smith's informal prose.

The guide devotes a full page to each bird. Beneath the prose and illustration is a series of brief items beginning with the bird's identifying features and including its size, habitat, nesting habits, feeding preferences, song, the best spots to view it, and any species for which it might be easily mistaken. A miniature, color-coded map of the province illustrates the bird's distribution in Saskatchewan during an average year.

Peregrine Falcon

Smith, author of Atlas of Saskatchewan Birds and a career naturalist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, for years travelled Saskatchewan chronicling the province's unique bird population. Most recently, he was involved in the establishment of Last Mountain Lake Bird Observatory, located about 60 km northwest of Regina.

His collaboration with Lone Pine Publishing, of Edmonton, appears to benefit from Lone Pine's experience producing regional guides. The "quick reference" section at the front of the volume, with its thumbnail illustrations and associated page numbers, is an effective way to accommodate the birder in the field who's scrambling to find information before the object of her attention takes wing.

And for those who think they know what they're looking at, there are scientific and common-name indices in the back of the book. Included is a glossary of birding terms and a checklist containing the 427 species of birds recorded in Saskatchewan.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds

Considering Saskatchewan's wealth of birds, it was about time somebody created a publication just like this one. It's a sturdy little guide that should be useful to birding aficionados as well as those among us who simply want to know what's perched in the pine out back. The curious and interesting little factoids are a bonus.

Saskatchewan Birds, by Alan Smith, $17.95 (soft cover), Lone Pine Publishing, Edmonton, AB

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