Double Hummingbird, Oh My God, It's So Intense! (But what kind were they?)
August 1, 2010 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn more about wildlife/natural science in my local area. Can you recommend books? More on what I'm looking for inside.

I'm in central Illinois. We have a large prairie garden with a mix of plants appropriate to our area, as well as some more traditional garden areas and a veggie garden. We are starting to see a lot more native animals (two hummingbirds today!), and I am curious about their habits and habitats and breeding and growth and food and all that stuff.

I would like to read stuff fairly specific to my area, ideally with lots of pictures, and that will help me identify what I'm looking at. ("Birds of Illinois" is good ... "Birds of the Eastern US" is okay ... "Big Book of Interesting Birds from All Over The Place" is useless.) Ideally books would go into a fair amount of detail about several animals. I have an Audubon guide that helps me identify birds, for example, but then it's up to me to go read more about them, usually from many sources. (And not just after birds but mammals, insects, etc.)

As I have no background in this, I have no idea what sorts of books are even out there. I'm not even sure how to clarify more, I feel like I'm casting about. Webpages are okay, but books are even better.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Science & Nature (13 answers total)
The University of Illinois Extension may have have what you're looking for. Or someone on staff can make recommendations; call the extension office for your county. One example, and another.
posted by wryly at 3:03 PM on August 1, 2010

My first thought was to check out your local natural history museum. I looked at the Field Museum (no idea how close that is to you) but they don't seem to have anything on local flora and fauna. There

I know that you said you didn't want general resources but the Birder's Handbook is a very good reference to birds that includes a lot of details (nest shape, size, location, foraging behaviour, breeding system, incubation roles, etc., etc.). For mushrooms, I'm going to have to recommend another general guide (Mushrooms Demystified) that goes into amazing detail.

Neither of these are picture heavy but maybe check out the National Geographic guides. I know that the one dedicated to color is filled with pictures and information.

You could also look into becoming a Master Naturalist. The University of Illinois extension program offers certification and includes information about mammals, birds, herps and other field like archeology, geology, ecology and wetlands. That actually sounds really fun; I wish I was closer.
posted by hydrobatidae at 3:05 PM on August 1, 2010

Look for "natural history guides" to either your state or the ecosystem you're interested in on Amazon. I don't know if you have tall or short grass prairie but you should be able to figure that out by googling. Audubon does a decent series of very basic ones.

Local museums and book stores tend to have good local guides, just be sure to tell them you want natural history books.
posted by fshgrl at 3:21 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another kind of book you can look for is naturalist histories. They are less like field guides and more the author's recollection of an area. Googling around I came across an article in Chicago Wilderness Magazine (another resource?) about Donald Culross Peattie who wrote about wildlife in the Chicago area. He and his wife both wrote a lot of book and his at least are available on Amazon.

The author of that article wrote a book about urban wildlife (The Suburban Wildlife) that might also be interesting.

Used books stores often have a selection of natural history books that are a little old but very charming.
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:07 PM on August 1, 2010

I am familiar with the extension programs; I guess I'm hoping for more narrative explanations (perhaps like hydrobatidae is suggesting), less strings of facts/museum placards. I seem to retain better when I learn in narrative.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:12 PM on August 1, 2010

For a more narrative style you definitely want a natural history guide.
posted by fshgrl at 4:34 PM on August 1, 2010

If there is a state/national park near you, see if their visitors center (if they have one) has a bookstore; it will have local field guides to your birds, grasses, rocks, etc., and you can chat with the rangers about how to learn more.
posted by rtha at 4:41 PM on August 1, 2010

Maybe a publication from this list of IL Department of Natural Resources offerings?

Another idea is to visit (in person, or their web site) a local state park or forest preserve district, especially if there is a headquarters or education center near you. There may be a reading room, or at least a list of guides or other resources. Often there are resources for teachers, such as this page from the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 4:42 PM on August 1, 2010

Thayer makes a series of birding software, customized state by state. (So you can get "Birds of Illinois" rather than "Birds of North America." Here's the link. The software allows you to look up a bird you just saw, by its identifying traits, or to do exercises to practice IDing birds (flash card game, quiz game).

National Geographic makes really good bird guides, but there doesn't seem to be one specific to Illinois, unfortunately. Their North American guide (like all bird guides) has maps that let you narrow down the possibility of of what you've seen.

For web resources, check out the Illinois Natural History Survey. Looks like they have good profiles for birds found in the state, but not so much for mammals.
posted by scrambles at 4:44 PM on August 1, 2010

Check out any local environmental education centers that might be near you. They'll likely have a gift shop with appropriate materials for your area. They should also have a naturalist on staff who might be willing to answer specific questions and point you in the right direction. They might even have adult oriented programs. You might also look to see if your area has a local Audubon Society chapter. If you do it will be chock full of people who know a lot more about nature than just birds.
posted by mollweide at 5:10 PM on August 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not a book, but there's a small restored prairie in Virginia, IL - They've got this wonderful Really Old guy who seems to know damn near everything about the plants, animals, and bugs on "his" prairie. I haven't tried their guided nature walks - he's just always puttering around when I go. (It's rather close to a relative's house)

As a bonus, I believe they're fine with you taking seeds to replant in your area. They also have two restored cabins that they rebuilt log by log.

There's not much information online because it's so tiny, but here's a little blurb from a book: Google Books Link.

Here's a google maps link, you can just park on the side of the road where the B marker is. I can't remember if they have an actual parking lot or not.
posted by WowLookStars at 4:15 AM on August 2, 2010

What you want, I think, are called 'naturalist guides' - they give basic identification and life history information, with lots of photos to help you identify what it is you're seeing. Two I scared up with minimal googling are the Illinois Pocket Birds Guide and Illinois Wildlife: An Introduction to Familiar Species.

posted by faineant at 10:51 AM on August 2, 2010

Lots of useful info here, I marked the ones that I actually ended up using. I had forgotten about this question! Gave my husband a Peattie book for Christmas, even.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:28 PM on January 21, 2011

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