09 July 2011


"Avian Architecture", by Peter Goodfellow, was published in 2011 by Princeton University Press.

You will notice a couple of things when you first pick up this book without even opening it.  First, this hardcover book is large overall but is rather thin.  To me, this immediately puts it in the "coffee-table" category.  Note that this is NOT a field guide.

It is about 160 pages long and, as the title explains, it looks in-depth at many interesting examples of birds building things (nests, mostly).

First things first, there is a two-page Forward by Mike Hansell before the the two-page Introduction.  In the Introduction, the author describes how the book is laid out.  Each chapter studies a different type of nest:

Chapter 1 - Scrape Nests
Chapter 2 - Holes & Tunnels
Chapter 3 - Platform Nests
Chapter 4 - Aquatic Nests
Chapter 5 - Cup-Shaped Nests
Chapter 6 - Domed Nests
Chapter 7 - Mud Nests
Chapter 8 - Hanging, Woven & Stitched Nests
Chapter 9 - Mound Nests
Chapter 10 - Colonies & Group Nests
Chapter 11 - Courts & Bowers
Chapter 12 - Edible Nests & Food Stores

Let's walk through the first chapter, Scrape Nests.  When you open up to the chapter page, you'll immediately notice the full-size picture on the right of a Piping Plover standing over a nest.  

And that brings me to the photo aspect; this book is filled with numerous photos, some of which are breathtakingly large and attractive.  From bee-eaters to bowerbirds to Firewood Gatherers (yeah, I didn't know that was an actual bird name either), the photos complement the rest of the content very nicely.

But back to Scrape Nests.  The chapter starts out with an introduction about scrape nests covering what kinds of birds build them, advantages of this nest type, and some interesting examples.  Next comes the Blueprint.  Each chapter has a Blueprint (printed on blue paper, none the less) that contains 2-3 figures, each an illustration of a different nest: 

For this chapter they are Northern Lapwing (leftmost), Red-necked Phalarope (middle), and Snowy Plover (rightmost).  Each of these nest illustrations give exact dimensions of the nest (the Red-necked Phalarope nest is 2-4 cm deep and 6.5-10 cm in diameter, for example).  But remember, these illustrations aren't meant to be a field guide to nests, but rather just an explanation of different sizes and other interesting facts related to dimensions.

Each chapter also has a "Materials and Features" portion which is always printed on a black background.  This portion of the chapter always focuses on one species in particular.  For the Scape Nests chapter, it focuses on the Courser:

It's in this section that you learn things about the materials; such as how coursers use pellets of animal dung to help camouflage their eggs.

Sometimes this section gets followed by a "techniques" portion which gives a step-by-step illustration with how that particular nest-type is made.  Here is an example of a Song Thrush:

This aspect of the books is really quite intriguing.  Not very often do we get to watch birds actually make nests step-by-step; usually we spot an already-finished nest, or maybe a nest with begging chicks screaming out of it.  But this section of the book gives detailed information on the actual process of nest-building.  The Song Thrush, for example, starts by selecting a triple fork in a laurel and then laying down "beams" of silver birch twigs.  Then comes the dried grass stems and moss.  Later she attaches mosses to the outside of the nest, some leaves near the rim, and lines the inside with wood pulp (of three different colors, mind you).  I honestly had no idea that these schemes some birds use were so repeatable.

Following comes 2-4 case studies of species that use scrape nests.  For the first chapter, they are Killdeer, Ostrich, Arctic Tern, and Common Eider.  Here is a look at an example of a case study:

Each case study gives the name of the bird, the classification (order, family, species), as well as a list of related species, the nest type they use, a list of species with similar nests, and nest specialization.  The headers within each case study are not kept consistent throughout chapters but essentially focus on the interesting aspect of that study.   For example, the Eastern Meadowlark case study mentions nest and nest building, young, and defense/parasitism/predators whereas the Winter Wren case study mentions males and multiple nests, nest building, and female nest lining.  Either way, the case study is an interesting and in-depth look at the nest of each species.

This book examines birds from around the world and so it was very easy for me to become fascinated about birds or nest techniques I hadn't even heard of before.  For example, I had no idea that some hummingbirds actually add hanging counterweights underneath their nests to keep it from capsizing!  I'll admit that I had never heard of the Firewood Gatherer either.  These furnariids live in South America and build a huge domed nest out of sticks that they gather one-by-one.

This book is not a field guide of any sort, but instead an attention-grabbing collection of colorful illustrations, photos, and diagrams.  I wouldn't classify it as a textbook either, but more of a coffee-table book.  With that said, it is surprisingly detailed.  I don't think I have ever seen a book with so many interesting facts about birds and what they build. 

So if you have ever asked yourself about how a Cactus Wren actually makes a nest in the middle of a cactus (like I have), this is the perfect book for you (just turn to page 74).  Enjoy!

I received a complementary copy from the publisher for review purposes, but the viewpoint expressed in this article is entirely my own.