A cuckoo's song and bachelor birds

Every winter, I do my bit to encourage winged visitors to my backyard. Not that it's been too difficult: Through more art than science, I've found just the right squirrel-protected spot for my feeder, and seed that keeps the birds coming back for more. With that settled, all I have to do is sit in my family room and take in a show that is surprisingly absorbing.

My talents as a host betray weakness, though, when it comes to remembering names. That puts me in good company with many other casual observers who can tell you only that four beautiful something-or-others dropped by the other day.

Still, I've taken a tiny step toward remedying that shortcoming by dipping into Diana Wells's book, "100 Birds" (Algonquin).

For an armchair birder, it's a lovely A to Z glide through the world of common and unfamiliar avians. The slim volume's charms include pen-and-ink drawings as well as forays into medieval Cornwall (the gull), John Milton (the cormorant), and Edgar Allan Poe (that raven). We learn that boobies got their common name from the Spanish bobo, or silly, while the bird of paradise, flashy plumage notwithstanding, was so named because of a "16th-century misperception" that a lack of feet and wings would let it to float toward heaven.

My newfound knowledge, I'm hoping, will help me with the Great Backyard Bird Count, a four-day event that kicks off tomorrow (story, page 14). All you need is the ability to watch and jot down notes that experts will use to help document who's flying where in North America. So I'm heading out. It's finally time to start naming names.

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