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Reprinted birding book blends art and science

For those who enjoy birding, resources specific to Kentucky are limited. Not until 1973 did such a resource exist at all, and it named only 228 species, a woefully inaccurate number. In fact, 345 species of birds are now recorded in Kentucky, with 331 of these on the state’s documented list. 

The Birds of Kentucky, originally published in 1994 and reprinted this year with an updated cover, filled this resource void and documented a lifetime of work by the late Burt L. Monroe Jr., who was professor and chairman of the University of Louisville’s Department of Biology from 1970 until 1993. 

Monroe describes each species in intricate detail with textbook accuracy, but also writes with an almost conversational style, as if the reader is on a birding trip with Monroe himself as the guide. Monroe discusses migration and feeding patterns, nesting behaviors, and where in the state the species is most commonly found. 

An elaborate chart notes the months during which each species can be spotted in the state, along with the commonality of occurrence, creating a helpful tool to those looking for a particular bird. A graphic provides a regional look at the entries. 

The inclusion of 51 color paintings by renowned wildlife artist William Zimmerman makes this work so much more than a field guide. Beautiful, full-page depictions of birds in their natural habitats, some almost photographic in quality, accompanied by equally informative captions, lend to the feeling of a birding expedition in progress. 

Interestingly, Monroe seems to have followed in his father’s footsteps. Burt L. Monroe Sr. began studying Kentucky birds in 1917 and served as the state ornithologist for Kentucky in 1941. He went on to achieve fame in the birding world and was the first Kentuckian to be granted elective membership in the American Ornithologists’ Union. 

The Birds of Kentucky notes the history of Kentucky ornithology began with John James Audubon, who resided both in Louisville and Henderson between 1807 and 1820. During his stay here, Audubon wrote his Ornithological Biography as well as compiled Birds of America, a printed volume of 431 life-size watercolors of North American birds. Zimmerman’s artwork has been favorably compared to Audubon’s. 

The Birds of Kentucky, (University Press of Kentucky, $40, hardcover 9-by-12 inches, 152 pages). Monroe was president of the Kentucky Ornithological Society from 1972 to 1975. He is the only Kentuckian to have been president of the American Ornithologists Union, serving from 1990 to 1992. He authored more than 100 scientific articles before his death in 1994. 

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