Best is an ephemeral thing. Better is close behind.

Birding has been updating and upgrading forever — better binoculars, spotting scopes, books, phone apps.

"Birdpedia," however, would be hard to improve. It's a marvelous little book, inside and out. Author Christopher W. Leahy describes it as "a brief compendium of avian lore."

He is an emeritus instructor in natural history and field ornithology at the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Leahy writes books about birds, including some of the Peterson field guide series published by Houghton Mifflin. Some years ago he wrote "The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife," a book of 917 pages that the author himself calls "a tome." It was later updated and reissued, that time at over 1,000 pages.

In alphabetical order it explained the short and long of anything and everything bird.

"Birdpedia" is similar, essays and snippets done with style and wit. Leahy gives us lucid explanations of not quite anything and everything, this effort being only 260 pages long. But you won't mind.

The new book's alphabetical order begins with Abundance and ends with Zugunruhe. Abundance is an estimated 100 billion birds in the world, "give or take some hundreds of millions." Zugunruhe is a German term for the restless behavior birds exhibit before they begin migration.

Leahy discusses air conditioning (do birds sweat?), altitude, anting and apocalypse.

He introduces us to noteworthy people in the birding world — John James Audubon, Florence Merriam Bailey, Elliott Coues, Ludlow Griscom, Hildegarde Howard, Edward Lear, Roger Tory Peterson, and many others.

He tells us about lefthanded (footed) and righthanded bird species, about hearing (theirs, not ours), intelligence, longevity, mobbing and navigation. He discusses birds found in art, music and literature.

Shakespeare used birds in his plays. Leahy gives us the dialogue between Romeo and Juliet as they discuss the identity of a bird just heard. A nightingale or a lark? If the latter, a morning bird, it's time for Romeo to get out of Juliet's bed and go home.

Birds are frequently found in poetry, Leahy heavily favoring classic English poets. American bird poetry, he writes, is mostly "sentimental doggerel, of the kind once published in newspapers, as 'Our merry friend the chickadee chirps his song from the tall pine tree.' "

Then we get to letter S, as in sex.

"From the human point of view," he writes, "the avian sex act is both bizarre and, well, anticlimactic."

Most male birds do not have a penis. Both sexes have cloacas, the anal orifice, an all-purpose vent. When mating the male bird stands on the female's back. The birds maneuver so the cloacas touch. Sperm is ejaculated and received. Leahy explains that this is often referred to as a "cloacal kiss."

During mating season the male cloaca swells a bit. Bird banders can determine the sex of a spring bird by looking for this swelling. The enlargement does not function as a penis.

Some waterfowl do have penises, mallards notorious for theirs. The penis facilitates passage of sperm underwater.

Bird sperm once in the female move at 10 times the speed of human sperm, Leahy tells us. Female birds will accept copulation from more than one male in their search for the most fit mate. The sperm are in a rush to beat any competition.

Published by Princeton University Press, Leahy's book is 5 by 7 inches, beautifully bound in yellow linen, title and cover illustration embossed in blue. Lovely graphite illustrations are by Abby McBride. A gem of a book, interesting, intelligent, the best design I've seen in a long time.

Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at

Gleanings from Christopher W. Leahy's "Birdpedia"

It's Superman, it's a plane, it's a bird

How fast can a bird fly? Straight flight, not diving on prey, peregrine style. Normal for most birds would be 20 to 50 mph. Red-breasted mergansers have been clocked at 85 mph. A dunlin (shorebird) kept pace with an airplane at 110 mph. An Asian swift, the white-throated needle-tail, has been accurately timed at 106.25 mph. North America's white-throated swift has been estimated to hit 200 mph.

No two the same

Nature has a rule — no two or more organisms with the same ecological requirements can coexist in the same environment permanently. Ornithologists know this as Gause's Rule. Inevitable competition always favors one species over the other. Every bird has its own job, its own niche.

Cute little birdie

"Thousands of species and subspecies of flies, fleas, lice, ticks and mites have been identified as living to some degree and in various ways on the body of birds. A single small songbird may have an unwelcome guest list numbering dozens of individuals of several species. In the breeding season its nest is likely to contain several times more."