BACKYARD BIRDS OF THE NORTHEAST ;Volume 1 of an introductory guide to bird identification in the NortheastTerra Guides (1997)

Backyard Birds of the Northeast by Eric and Marcia Muller is a good, professional, 90 minute instructional video covering 23 admittedly common species likely to be seen at feeders from Virginia to southern Canada to Michigan. It is aimed at a limited audience; those who know very little about bird identification but want to learn. Backyard Birds uses close up footage with freeze frames and labels to effectively show how to identify the included species (thereby laying a good foundation for the identification of other species). It is 90 minutes long, retails for $34.95, and I strongly recommend it to its intended audience.

Backyard Birds states that it is the first in a series, but apparently the others are not yet available (and I very much look forward to when they become so). The other volumes will reportedly cover about 100 species in detail (with other species being covered to a lesser extent) grouped by habitats: roadside, woodland, wetland, and shoreline.

Backyard Birds nicely groups the birds it examines so that it is unlikely to overwhelm the beginner. The first  group includes Blue Jay and Black-capped Chickadee which are then used as size models. The discussion of the latter species includes mention of the Carolina Chickadee which Backyard Birds handles nicely by noting that the two are difficult to separate. (Had Backyard Birds tried to do more with these species, the result would almost certainly have been counter-productive because of the lack of experience of intended audience.) Also, the tempo encourages learning by being neither too slow nor too fast.

Again, Backyard Birds is a fine instructional video (for its intended audience) with much good content including the nice use of labels to emphasize and summarize field marks; effective quizzes with answers and detailed explanations; good supplemental information such as why males are often more colorful than females and showing the range extension of the Northern Cardinal; an interesting discussion of why it was not wise to have imported House Sparrows, European Starlings, or House Finches; good explanations as to size and proportion as field identification attributes; and nice illustrations and discussions of the different plumages of the species involved.

The opening sequence uses good, close up video of a number of species, including outstanding footage of an adult male Cape May Warbler (always a favorite at CMBO). Likewise, the “tease” for the other volumes (footage used to promote them) is of high quality.

However, the opening and “tease” species present one of the few (and minor) potential problems with Backyard Birds in that they are neither common, covered, nor identified in this volume, and thus could cause confusion and/or discouragement in beginning birders. Perhaps the use of labels (as is done later in the tape) identifying the species would reduce the likelihood of this potential problem while still allowing the use of this quality footage. (Another problem, again minor, is that an enclosed brochure is referenced on the tape, but none is provided.)

On a scale of 0 (truly worthless) to 10 (the outer limit of human ability), I rate Backyard Birds of the Northeast a 9. I do not rate it higher because its intended audience is very limited, and because of the confusion the introductory and “tease” sequences could cause. Nonetheless, these are very minor concerns, and I strongly recommend Backyard Birds of the Northeast to virtually all who do not know how to identify anything beyond an American Robin, but want to learn. Very nicely done.

Mike Hannisian 

2-22-01