Review: Mammals of North America, second edition

It should be immediately stated that I am most definitely not the bird enthusiast in the Weber household. Indeed, while Drew can easily get up at 4am to find some passing warblers, or stare through a scope at a flock of gulls for (what may seem like) hours, I enjoy sleeping in until the sun rises and there are times where I purposefully forgo the binoculars so that I can carry a camera. I am partial to no particular taxonomic class, phylum, or kingdom, I simply enjoy the natural world.  If birds happen to be attending that party, the more the merrier.

When Drew asked me to review a book for the Nemesis Bird, however, I was hesitant. Not because I don’t enjoy birds or can’t hold my own on birding excursions. The daunting part was that the book being reviewed is not about birds. It’s about mammals.

So I considered the merits of trying to interest a readership full of birders with a book about animals who have fur, not feathers. And I decided it was worth it. Bird watchers are some of the most observant and inquisitive people that I know. And, being married to an obsessive birder, I understand that even those immersed in the cult of birdwatching enjoy occasional non-avian sightings in nature.   So bear with me as I take a bit of a tangential journey away from this blog’s main focus, and look at another charismatic taxon in the animal kingdom. The book? Princeton Field Guides’ Mammals of North America, second edition, by Roland W. Kays and Don E. Wilson.

Unlike birds, which can generally be found with relative ease, even the most abundant mammals can be very elusive. Guides for mammals are also comparatively elusive; unlike bird guides which are numerous (I should know this as I just rearranged an entire bookcase full of them), mammal guides aren’t as widely used. After all, there are over 10,000 species of birds on Earth and only somewhere around 5000 species of mammals. And, let’s face it. Is there really a doppelganger to the quintessential birder – a person consumed with finding mammals? (Mammalers, anyone?)

At any rate, I’m guessing if you read this blog, you have a high proportion of bird:mammal guides. If so, consider this field guide a good candidate to add to your collection.

It’s first and foremost just that – a field guide. That is, unlike the The Crossley ID Guide, it is intended to be used in the field. It’s small enough to fit in a large pocket, and light enough that it won’t weigh down your backpack. It’s cover is even somewhat waterproof, and the pages inside aren’t fragile. Basically, you should expect the book itself to last a long time – an important qualification for a field guide.

The content of the book is rather surprising (for a book so small) and extremely useful. Though natural history is limited (it is a field guide after all), it covers all 462 species of mammals (including marine mammals!) found in North America, with the birder-familiar layout of species information on the left page and corresponding color image plates on the right. The information is concise and focused primarily on species’ identification features, but there are a surprising amount of other helpful things included such as range maps and habitat preferences for each species.

There are also marine mammal dive sequences (silhouettes to help you identify what you’re seeing if your whaling or ocean-viewing and just see the dorsal part of an animal), as well as images of tracks and scat of the most likely mammals observed for each.

Perhaps the one downfall I noticed in the guide is the appearance of some of the color plates. Most images are well-painted, and seem to be proportionally and visually accurate. For quite a few of the larger mammals (i.e. cats and bears), however, the drawings are awkward and contrived. I think this is made even more noticeable by the crisp, pleasing appearance and function of the rest of the book, and the fact that these large mammals are some of the most charismatic – and easily recognized – of the entire class.

Note the awkward illustrations for one of the bear plates. Specifically, compare the images here with the marmot plate above (which is extremely well done).


So, the bottom line? The book is worth it. The awkward pictures are few and far between. And honestly, the use of illustrations instead of photographs does make emphasis of important features easier; many mammal field guides use photographs, and it can be difficult to catch the animal in a perfect pose for the single photo that fits in a field guide. (Think about how useful the Sibley Guide is in the bird guide world.) This book will definitely find a spot in our own box of field guides kept in the car for quick reference – which is a pretty high honor as we try to be selective – so it probably would be a good fit for other birder/naturalist households, too.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Princeton University Press.