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Here for the Birds

“In your travels,” writes Larkin Powell, “you may stumble upon birders who make you wonder how a human being can drift so far away from the mainstream--these are the folks with binoculars that cost more than the car you are driving, and a camera with a lens longer than their walking stick.

“You can learn a lot by talking to these intense birders,” observes the author of Great Plains Birds, “but do not expect this to be a long friendship. They are here for the birds.”

Great Plains Birds is a new volume in the series of little books, Discover the Great Plains, from University of Nebraska Press. And yes, I am told that the name given for the author, Larkin, is in fact his real name. Which is worth noting, because he has a puckish sense of humor. He might have a lark with us, but I won’t grouse about that.

As you can tell from the quote I gave at the outset, Larkin does not take himself too seriously. He credits his wife for the decision to transform his academic prose (he’s a conservation biologist at UN-L) into user-friendly vernacular. The result is the best introduction to birdlife on the Great Plains I have encountered.

The book is not a field manual or an identification guide. It is, rather, a book to inform your experiences in the field and your attempts at identification. The message is, let us come together to understand and appreciate the feathered life around us on the prairies. Let me catalog just a few of the explanatory insights available.

It is possible, we learn from Larkin, to identify and map the ranges of the endemic bird species of the Great Plains. By this Larkin means species that are native to and characteristic of the region. Personally, I like to go back to the Greek etymology of the term, endemic, and conclude that these are birds of the people. Hence the designation of the western meadowlark as the state bird of North Dakota--a popular choice.

It is also possible to identify the prairie birds that are most endangered, beginning with two grouse species: sage grouse and lesser prairie-chicken. These birds are sensitive to both habitat fragmentation and human disturbance.

The Great Plains are “a house divided” when it comes to birds, on the edges of eastern guides and of western guides. This is not to say they are an empty quarter, but rather a space where ranges overlap--the reason why I keep both eastern and western bird guides side-by-side.

Then there are the species that are like alter egos of one another--western meadowlarks and eastern, western kingbirds and eastern, Bullock’s orioles and Baltimore. Larking disputes traditional explanations that late Pleistocene glaciation fostered the differentiation; it goes back way farther than that, he says.

The author encourages us to enjoy the pure spectacle of such magnificent migrations as sandhill cranes and snow geese. These are visual events that attract spectators who are not ordinarily birders.

Here, finally, is what I most like about Larking and his book. He understands that it’s not just about birds, it’s about a sense of place on the Great Plains of North America. “I have a thing about sacred places,” he says. “You will find birds, and sometimes the birds will find you. I hope you are able to use birds to find a sacred space.”

Great Plains Birds is a keeper. Put it on your life list.

~Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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