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Review of Oklahoma Winter Bird Atlas

By Dan L. Reinking

University of Oklahoma Press, 2017

52 pages, 367 maps, 255 color photos, 11 figures, 256 tables; $39.95 paperback, $65.00 hardcover.

ISBN: 978-0-8061-5897-6 (paperback); 978-0-8061-5898-3 (hardcover)

Review by: John Cloud, University of Maryland and National Museum of Natural History

Oklahoma Winter Bird Atlas

The Oklahoma Winter Bird Atlas is based on many years of work—conducted from late 2003 through early 2008—by many bird observers, many (or most) associated with the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It was compiled and written by Dan L. Reinking, a biologist at the Center, who was also author of the 2004 Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas (Reinking 2004), or OBBA, based on research undertaken between 1997 and 2001. I think the earlier atlas might be the key to evaluating this companion volume and especially its cartography, which is singular in several senses.

As the author notes, most bird atlases focus on the birds’ nesting seasons and places. After completion of the OBBA project, staff at the Avian Research Center decided to develop another project focused instead on birds that spend part or all of the winter in Oklahoma, whether they nested there or not. Because migratory birds pass through Oklahoma at all seasons, “winter” was defined for purposes of this project as December 1 to February 14. The focus was on live observation and counting of bird species by Center staff and volunteer observers during this specific period.

Oklahoma is situated in the center-south of the contiguous United States, and while it might seem small, perching like a bird on top of the much larger Texas, it is actually the twentieth-largest state by area. However challenged Oklahoma might be latitudinally, it makes up for it in its span of longitude. It stretches over an enormous gradient of land sloping down from the front range of the Rocky Mountains eastwards towards the Mississippi River. The land is generally warmer and wetter in the east, cooler and drier in the west. Oklahoma has thick woodlands in the east that thin to buffalo grasslands, then reduce to shrub thickets and grass steppes in the middle, and transition to rugged, juniper-filled canyons in the western Panhandle. I mention all this because there is exactly one basemap—showing the county boundaries of the state—for all 367 maps in the atlas. Each map consists of observational data placed upon the basemap, shown with small colored square or round dots, representing sightings (or the lack thereof) for 250 species of birds during the seventy-six day “winter.”

Bird observations were gathered using three sampling patterns. The primary pattern consisted of 583 blocks of land, each about five kilometers on a side. A map shows the 577 so-called “atlas” blocks that were surveyed, and the six that were “incompleted” [sic] and not included (6; Figure 1). These blocks were randomly selected. However, anyone who knows birds or other animals knows that their distributions are almost never random—they frequent the places that are good for them. Random blocks of “land” will not, for example, sample the distributions of waterfowl. Therefore, a second set of “lake” surveys, centered on and around Oklahoma's abundant reservoirs were also included. Finally, special interest surveys and observations of “birds of opportunity” were solicited to round out the winter birds project data—as were the limited observations from the Audubon Society’s traditional Christmas Bird Counts.

Figure 1. Survey blocks in the atlas.

Figure 1. Survey blocks in the atlas.

Atlas entries for the 250 bird species are organized by bird orders using the traditional sequence—waterfowl, for example, always come first, and so on—with each bird species getting a double-page spread. The left-hand page names the species and includes a good color photograph of a representative bird, along with basic habitat types preferred, general information about their distributions in North America and in Oklahoma, and short descriptions of their behavior. The right-hand pages are where the cartography gets curious. The Oklahoma basemap is displayed 367 times. The first presentation, on the frontispiece, gives the names of the counties within their boundaries. All the other maps, if they display any data at all, present small squares showing the blocks where that species was observed, and small circles for observations from the lake surveys. In both cases, the squares and dots are color-coded in ranges of numbers of birds observed. An amazing 75 maps present neither dots nor squares—absence of data as data—and generally indicate the bird was observed in one of the special interest surveys. Below the maps there are specific journal references for that bird species, and then, generally, a lot of white space.

The species distribution maps, with their absence of information about landforms, landscape vegetation classes, or any depiction at all of the lakes or drainage, have an oddly abstract quality, somewhat like a Mondrian painting. Their starkness makes me think that perhaps the author assumed the reader would have access to the breeding bird atlas, which might supply what is missing from the winter atlas.

I’m not quite sure what the intended use of the Oklahoma Winter Bird Atlas might be. The atlas is a four-and-a-quarter-pound coffee table book, so it is clearly not optimized for use in the field. It is possibly most at home on a coffee table, to be looked through for ideas about where to go in Oklahoma to see birds in the middle of winter—or at least where they were seen in the winters of 2003 through 2008.

Out in the field, ornithology seems to be shifting profoundly to small digital systems, especially those designed and released by the legendary Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. MERLIN assists in bird identifications (allaboutbirds.org/guide/Merlin), and eBird allows birds’ locations, numbers, and dates to be uploaded to global databases instantly (ebird.org). eBird can even compile lists of birds “likely” to be found at a specified spot. Perhaps the Winter Bird Atlas can be reborn in a smartphone?


Reinking, Dan L., ed. 2004. Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.