What makes any bird a "great" bird? For some birders, it's the rarity of a species that they've finally added to their life list after years of patient watching. Others will tell you that the great birds are the most beautiful ones. But most people know that the great birds are simply the ones we like the best, rare or common-the ones that have imprinted themselves indelibly on our lives.
This beautiful book presents exquisite paintings of forty-eight Texas birds chosen by John O'Neill and Suzanne Winckler as their own personal "greats." Some of the birds are as common as they are beloved. Others are definitely life-list birds-rare, beautiful, exotic-sounding, or all three at once. The authors have also gathered a flock of well-known Texas birders and nature writers to offer personal, scientific, or literary observations about each bird. In all, forty-eight writers, one to a bird, are included here.
These beautifully detailed paintings and the observations that accompany them make a convincing case that these are, indeed, the great Texas birds. Whether you're a serious birder or simply a backyard bird watcher, you'll find in this book a "lovely edifice" where people who care about birds can be together.
When you are born in Texas, you grow up knowing you are different. After all, the state is the largest in the lower forty-eight, and everyone firmly believes that everything is bigger and better here than in any other state. It may stretching the truth to say that all things are truly bigger and better, but when it comes to ecological diversity the facts speak for themselves. Where else can one travel from lush eastern deciduous forests to aspen and spruce woodlands near the peaks of mountains more than eight thousand feet high, or from seemingly endless short-grass prairies to tropical woodlands of trees with exotic names like brasil, anacua, ebony, and guayacán? And for relief from summertime heat there is always a trip to beaches along the 624-mile Texas Gulf Coast, much of which is composed of marshlands protected by some of the longest barrier islands in the world! A state with such an incredible diversity of habitats has a corresponding diversity of organisms, and none are more obvious than are its birds. More than six hundred species have been recorded within its borders—more than in any other state in the Union, including Alaska.
As a child growing up on the western side of Houston, I was fortunate to be able to get out in the woods and fields near my home and discover the wonder of the birds of that region. The Texas Gulf Coast not only has a diverse resident avifauna but also lies within an area traversed twice annually by one of the largest concentrations of migratory birds in the world. I will never forget the experience of coming home from school after a spring thunderstorm and finding half a dozen full-plumaged adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in my backyard, or that autumn day when the first strong cold front came through and five hundred Broad-winged Hawks chose to spend the night in the trees by my home. After learning about the local birds, I began seeking new and exotic places to look for others. At first it was the nearby coast, but soon I was lured by the tropical woodlands of the lower Rio Grande Valley with their Green Jays, Red-billed Pigeons, Altamira Orioles, and other exotic species, and then by the excitement of the Big Bend area, where Colima Warblers (which nest nowhere else in the United States) and Band-tailed Pigeons, Phainopeplas, and Gray-breasted Jays were calling me to visit. I was fortunate to be able to go birding with many friends through the years, to experience most of the habitats in Texas, and to see most of the state's birds.
I began painting birds when I was about five, copying a picture of a bantam chicken to give to my mother. My dedication to painting birds has never waned—I even chose the University of Oklahoma as my undergraduate university because of the presence of George Miksch Sutton, one of the world's most talented painters of birds. Today, painting remains an integral part of my profession.
Although my research interests are primarily concerned with the distribution, ecology, and systematics of neotropical birds, and I have studied mainly those of Peru for the past thirty-five years, I still take great delight in looking at and study ing Texas birds. The rush to find new species for my "life list" has slowed, but the sheer beauty of birds like the Black-throated Sparrow, the Green Jay, or the Northern Cardinal cannot be outdone by any bird anywhere in the world.
I can't remember when I first met Suzanne Winckler, but we have both had many similar experiences with birds in Texas and have carried our love of these creatures well into our adult lives. We both had a desire to do something in the way of a book that would express our feelings about a selection of incredible Texas birds that seemed to stand out among all the species found in the state. In 1986 we learned of each other's interests and decided to do a book that we would tentatively call "Great Texas Birds." I was a painter and Suzanne a writer—we could each do our part and get the project completed in about three years. We decided that each of us would begin by listing our favorite or "greatest" species and then compare the lists. We were only slightly surprised to find that our lists were about 75 percent alike! Certainly there is a core of Texas birds that most people would consider, for one reason or another, to be GREAT!
Neither Suzanne nor I thought that we would encounter as many interruptions in our personal schedules as we did, but that is how life is; our three-year estimate turned into a ten-year reality. As is usual with this sort of project, I am sure we both agree that the final product is actually much better for the amount of time that has passed since its inception. Having a good reason to revisit a number of places in Texas was probably one of the best parts of doing this book. Suzanne came up with the novel idea of asking Texas birders and ornithologists to share their knowledge and experiences by writing one species account each. As a result, not only did I get to see many birds again while painting the pictures, but I also got to visit and revisit a lot of wonderful friends around the state. We hope you will enjoy the results of our efforts!
John P. O'Neill
Baton Rouge, Louisiana