A bird in the hand 

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A bird in the hand

By Susan Pagani

Finally, a guide for the gesticulating public

Get out your life list folks; these are not your ordinary backyard birds. Forget the dandy plumage of the vermilion flycatcher, the elusive behavior of the Virginia rail, the raspy trill of the juniper titmouse - these birds are bald, bold, silent, and deadly.

Inspired by a lifetime of sibling rivalry, Field Guide to the North American Bird, by Adam Blank and Lauren Blank, is a comprehensive pocket guide to a species of gesture recognized, if not appreciated, universally as the bird.

You probably recognize the Pristine (fingers bent at the first knuckle, thumbkin elegantly extended), and the Vulgar (pointer, ring, and pinky retract to the center of your palm, thumbkin holds them in place), but did you know the bird presents in forms as diverse as its avian counterparts? The bird flies where words dare not go, silently expressing anger of all kinds: cheeky, mocking, rude, scornful, and, sometimes, ridiculously funny.

Field Guide To The North American Bird

By Adam Blank and Lauren Blank
Ten Speed Press
$9.95, 112 pages
ISBN: 1580085741
Emerging as preeminent authorities on a subject that has long held the fascination of the gesticulating public, Blank and Blank provide vivid insight into the origins of this lewd yet socially vital use of the middle finger. According to the authors, one popular theory sets the bird's birth at the Hundred Years' War (1336-1565). "Anticipating victory over the British, the French decided to cut the middle fingers off ... captured English soldiers," rendering them useless with the longbow. Later, the English, giddy with victory at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), "began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at their defeated enemy, saying, 'See, we can still pluck yew!'" (The longbow was made from the wood of the yew tree.)

True bird enthusiasts will enjoy the practicality of the handbook: more than 90 pages of systematic, detailed description and artwork profiling nearly as many birds. Blank and Blank go beyond distinguishing characteristics, providing fabulous annotations that allow even the most amateur birder to not only identify, but also master each manifestation of the species. And, because not all birds are created equal, the authors have developed a precise rating system that helps the reader gauge the difficulty and impact of each bird, as well as its applicability.

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For the novice, the Cell Phone is a bird for all seasons: Place thumbkin to your ear and bird to your lips as if holding a phone; answer your phone and then pause, as if your caller was asking for your friend; look surprised and say, "Sure she is, I'll get her"; extend the bird as if to offer her the phone, and say "It's for you." Blank and Blank rate this maneuver easy and appropriate to most situations, but rather low impact.

What makes a bird difficult? Technique. A serious birder must also be a gifted mime. The Fly Fisherman, which carries the highest rating in all categories, requires the bird-flipper to flick an imaginary rod-and-reel, hook a lunker - or the bird - and then manipulate the rod and fish to simulate the tug of war between fisherman and fish. Can't quite picture it? Fear not: Audubon has nothing on Michael H. Moore, whose cartoon illustrations are both edifying and hilarious.

From Birds of Prey (the Switchblade) to Bird Plumage (the Mascara) and Mechanical Birds (the Jack-in-the-Box), the diversity of the guide promises something for everyone. Everyone who enjoys a good fart joke, that is. Though sophisticated in its breadth, this book is for the terminally juvenile - long may they live. Put it on your coffee table, it makes excellent cocktail conversation. Or tuck it away, practice the various and sundry single-digit salutes in private, then wait for the perfect moment to set your bird free. •

By Susan Pagani

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