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The Birds of Alberta "An Old Friend"

By Lyle Weis
Introduction by Ken Tingley

For many Albertans, The Birds of Alberta by Ray Salt and Bert Wilk has become a field guide that stands out on the shelf - a little bit more weather-beaten than the others, a little more redolent of the outdoors. It was reasonably priced and widely available. My parents gave me a copy for Christmas 1966, and it's been a constant summer travelling companion ever since. Although many other guide books are now available, "Salt and Wilk", or "Salt and Salt," as the most recent edition is more properly called, retains its sentimental quality for me to this day. Perhaps this is because of those trips we've shared.

Lyle Weis shares this enthusiasm. He describes how this book opened his eyes to another dimension of life in Alberta when he moved here from British Columbia. Lyle has lived in Edmonton for 20 years, working as a writer. He has been published in many anthologies and literary journals, and has taught English throughout the educational system, from elementary schools to university level courses. For some time he served as Executive Director of the Writers Guild of Alberta, and his literary arts column appears regularly in Culture Shock.

In The Mill Under His Skin, [Saskatoon: Thistledown Press, 1992], several poems powerfully convey his fascination with the avian inhabitants of the prairie. In "Over the Rosebud" he writes of sighting a peregrine falcon from the high river cliffs, and of the hypnotic "Beauty here so final it draws/ the wavering body forward/ teetering balanced/ as a falcon rides up and past/ close enough almost to touch/ or join in flight."

One of the first books I bought after moving to Alberta in 1976 was the recent edition of The Birds of Alberta. A strange blue and black bird with an outrageously long tail had jeered at me one morning on my walk to the university in Edmonton, crying "Kek-kek-kek!" When I later learned that this was a magpie, my curiosity led me to buy this special bird book.

The gorgeous new volume, based on the original 1958 edition, was just what a bird lover and a newcomer to the province needed. Editors W. Ray Salt and Jim R. Salt offered range maps, rich photographs and text that spoke with affectionate authority. I fell in love with the book.

The Birds of Alberta came with me outdoors, where I learned the habits and personalities of corvids - magpies, crows and jays. Boisterous and tough, they seemed blessed with special personalities. I once witnessed a territorial battle for the same nesting tree between a couple of blue jays and a pair of robins. Naturally, after a full day of screaming skirmishes, the jays muscled out the robins. Afterwards the blue jays celebrated, using their bills to offer each other victory drinks of water from the birdbath. It struck me as a corvid thing to do. As the Salt commentary says about the magpie's appearance: "cannot be confused with any other species."

The Salts' love of birds helped inspire me to write my first novel, a mystery for young adults. Reading the entries about accipiters, I discovered that insecticides had nearly wiped out the peregrine falcon population. My subsequent research revealed that the birds, ironically, were being smuggled from Canadian locations - including Alberta - and sold because they were rare. The peregrine became for me a kind of obsession. From The Birds of Alberta, I went on to find everything I could on these dramatic hunters of the air. Finally, on the cliffs of he Rosebud valley, I was able to photograph for myself a nesting pair of peregrines. In the meantime, my novel's ecological subplot seemed to be unfolding itself for me, like wings onto a page.

Looking back, I realize this book helped me shape my values and perceptions about nature. After reading the entry on the blue heron, for example, I was determined to see for myself one of these magnificent but shy creatures. This desire led me to take my first combined camping and canoeing trip, down the Red Deer River. There, on a secluded bank, I got my first glimpse of a heron. As my canoe drew nearer, the large bird leaned forward and stroked off ahead, revealing its distinctive curved neck in flight. It was a good moment.

Some books are important to us as longtime friends. We find them, they help us grow and we never really leave each others' lives. Always handy in my study, The Birds of Alberta is an old friend, prepared to introduce me if a stranger comes winging into my yard.

Reproduced with permission from the author and Legacy Magazine.

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