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Useful bird books

by Malcolm Ogilvie

I've collected books most of my life - a habit, some would say an obsession, inherited from my father, who turned his collecting hobby into a secondhand book business on his retirement. He traded under the name of Ansford Books for nearly 20 years from the late 1960s. I know many birdwatchers bought books from him.

My book collecting falls under three main headings. Firstly, books about the arctic, its history and exploration as much as its natural history. Secondly, reference books, for example the major avifaunas and standard works on the identification of Britain's flowers, bryophytes, moths and other beasties I may encounter. Finally, I collect readable natural history books, e.g. Collins New Naturalist and Poyser, many of which are also reference works. In addition, I have several subsidiary areas of interest, including, not surprisingly, wildfowl, and also mountaineering and political biographies.

Getting up from my desk to consult a book is a frequent occurrence as I write or as I edit someone else's writing. I was wondering which books I consulted most frequently and which, therefore, I might recommend to others as being among the most useful to own. The following short list is of four works that I would not want to be without and is not in order of importance.

A Dictionary of Birds. Edited by Campbell and Lack. Poyser, 1985
Even though it is now 17 years old, this is still among the most consulted books I own. It's coverage is truly comprehensive and I rarely fail to find at least some of the information I seek.

Birds of the Western Palearctic, 9 volumes. Edited by Cramp and others. OUP 1977-1994.
I must, of course, profess an interest, as I was one of the editors for the first six volumes, but it is an essential possession. Available on CD-ROM and in two condensed volumes at knock-down prices, there is little excuse for not owning at least one version.

Handbook of the Birds of the World, 7 volumes and counting. Edited by del Hoyo, Elliott and Sargatal. Lynx Edicions,1992-.
Yes, it is expensive, but you get a huge amount for your money. The quantity and quality of information, plates and photographs is unrivalled and time and again I find myself taking one of the volumes down to consult.

The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988-1991. Edited by Gibbons, Reid and Chapman. Poyser 1993.
Despite the rapidity of change in some species, still a mine of authoritative information and a must-have - until the next Atlas, of course!


There are probably no surprises in the above, so here are two recent books, one each from Collins and Poyser, which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading, but which are also useful as reference books. They are also both good examples of the quality of books being produced by these two major natural history publishers.

Loch Lomondside. By John Mitchell. Collins New Naturalist, 2001.
Now, obviously, I know the area well, but even if I didn't, this book, by a fine naturalist who was warden of the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve for 27 years, would make me want to visit the area and see its natural history and historical riches for myself.

The Golden Eagle. By Jeff Watson. Poyser, 1997.
A classic Poyser book, readable, well produced and, in this instance, beautifully illustrated by Keith Brockie. If Golden Eagles enthrall you, and that must mean nearly everyone, then this is the book to buy and to read.

I could go on and just might some other time.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.