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Book review: BIRD, by Andrew Zuckerman

2009 Chronicle Books, USA; Hachette Australia, Australia
by Walter Sliva
March 28, 2010

I have a backyard feeder that attracts a steady stream of black-capped chickadees. Their brazen nature is such that they will ignore your presence if you sit quietly only a few feet away, allowing you to examine them quite intimately. I love the delicate whispiness of their plumage, the contrast and subtlety of their colours in the morning light, the cockiness and quickness of their actions.

Looking through Andrew Zuckerman's 'Bird' is a bit like visiting my feeder. Its for those people who love birds as living works of art, and for those who marvel at their perfect shapes and incredible range of colors, as I do my chickadees. Through the use of high-speed photography, perfect lighting and a glaring white background, Zuckerman's subjects are captured in magnificent, high-definition clarity.

Some are almost 3-dimensional and seem ready to spring from the page. Others are presented in such surrealistic, shocking detail that they seem to be creatures of someone's vivid imagination. Ordinary birds are frozen in ways that remind us of their primitive origins, and highlight the features they share with other life forms. An aracari's beak looks like the claw of a lobster, a spoonbill's bill more like that of a duck-billed platypus than a bird. Each page introduces us to a new dimension of the incredible variety of avian form and structure. The scales and claws and horns and knobs of these weird and wonderful creatures remind us of anything but the cute passerines at my feeder. They remind us that survival requires very specialized tools and adaptations.

With only 73 species represented, the book isn't intended as a guide book for identifying species. The birds are representatives of different continents and families - from African Fish Eagles to Andean Condors - from black-faced tanagers to Trumpeter Hornbills - so it is more of a tantalizing appetizer than a full menu. I was pleased to see a healthy representation of North and Central-American species (18, from a quick count), that gave me a nice comparison with the amazing variety of exotics from around the world. Familiar they may be, but I've never seen an American Kestrel or a Peregrine Falcon isolated in such perfect light, in such exquisite detail.

What I really love about this book is that it contains a wide variety of bird images that freeze the subjects with natural positions and expressions, all in nightmarishly stark clarity and perfect focus. It invites quiet admiration and study. It stimulates your imagination. Any photographer will appreciate the collection, and any bird lover will cherish it.

Walter lives in Canada, and is an amateur photographer. Birding is his lifelong passion, and his favourite birding sites are southern Ontario during migration, SE Arizona, and anywhere he can get to that has a new bird species for his life list.

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