Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Binocular Vision by Spencer Schaffner

Many, perhaps most, of the books I review here on A DC Birding Blog are field guides, from new editions of respected guides like Birds of Europe to annotated checklists like Birds of the West Indies to genre-creating guides like The Crossley ID Guide. Birding field guides are primarily tools. While watching birds just requires good vision (usually assisted by binoculars or a spotting scope), one needs to turn to a field guide to identify birds or learn more about them. Since most birders own at least one field guide, how field guides represent birds can influence birders' attitudes towards birds and towards birding as a pursuit. In Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides, Spencer Schaffner analyzes field guides that have assisted birdwatchers since the development of birdwatching as a hobby in the late nineteenth century. In the process, he shows how these books have reflected and guided changes in the ideology of birding, particularly the relationship between birding and aspects of consumer culture and environmentalism.

Early field guides such as Birds through an Opera Glass and Birdcraft sought to make the professional study of ornithology into the widely accessible hobby of birdwatching. In the process, they hoped to turn public opinion against the millinery trade, which at that time made extensive use of real birds and their feathers for decorated fashionable hats. So they made birds as sympathetic as possible by anthropomorphizing them and emphasizing their useful and ethical qualities. Not all birds were portrayed as equally good, however. While some were praised for their beauty or songs, others were denounced for cannibalism or placing their eggs in the nests of other birds. This set up an ideology of birding in which some birds should be protected and appreciated by birdwatchers, while others were to be scorned or controlled.

In the 1920s and 1930s, field guides became more technical and less sentimental, with a narrow focus on helping birders identify birds by visual and auditory clues. Such trends culminated in Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds and continued through most subsequent printed field guides up the present. While field guides presented all birds on equal footing, favoritism lived on culturally, both among birders and society at large. Schaffner examines how favoritism affected four "nuisance birds": Bald Eagle, Mute Swan, gulls, and crows. Each of their fates has changed as public and expert views of them have shifted; however, these shifts are not reflected in field guides. Schaffner argues that the persecution programs that have targeted those and other "nuisance birds" benefit birdwatchers by making those birds rarer, and thus more exciting to see. This is an argument, by the way, that I have not heard from birders, only from people seeking to justify projects that would harm birds.

Most contemporary field guides separate birds from their environments, either by depicting them against a plain background or showing minimal naturalistic backgrounds. These have an advantage of focusing attention on each bird and its key characteristics. However, it deprives field guides of the opportunity to make the user grapple with the environmental problems facing birds. One field guide, All the Birds of North America, breaks from that trend by showing birds in human-altered landscapes such as an airport and a garbage dump. Grappling with the environmental effects of modern society is left for artists outside of the field guide genre. Some companies attempt to make their products appear environmentally friendly by showing birds interacting with them or going about their lives with the products in the background. Meanwhile, some contemporary artists take the opposite perspective, showing birds and other animals being killed by human technology and waste. It would be interesting to read how Schaffner would interpret The Crossley ID Guide, which like All the Birds of North America shows birds in altered landscapes.

Electronic field guides provide new opportunities to help birdwatchers identify birds, as they have the ability to include recordings of bird vocalizations instead of just written descriptions or sonograms of them. Some audio tools like Identiflyer do this on a rudimentary level, but there are already sophisticated apps for mp3 players and smartphones that present audio recordings together with images and descriptions of birds. Meanwhile online guides (Schaffner discusses and Cornell Lab or Ornithology's Online Bird Guide) present illustrations, descriptions, recordings, and life histories. It seems likely that tools will be available in the near future to automate identification of birds based on their appearance or sounds or provide birders with mobile access to vast databases of bird observations. Electronic guides offer the opportunity to present birders with a richer understanding of the birds they encounter than is possible in a standard printed field guide. However, they also link birdwatching to consumer culture, by expanding the number of "essential" products for birders to purchase.

From field guides, Schaffner moves to the phenomenon of competitive birding on polluted lands like landfills and sewage lagoons. This chapter has limited relevance to field guides, though such places are often included in bird-finding guides. However, it is important for Schaffner's major theme of the relationship between birding and environmentalism. Schaffner is fairly persuasive in arguing that birding is not a form radical environmentalism because birders use competitive birding to raise funds for conservation rather than to protest or highlight environmental degradation. (I am not sure that anyone would mistake it as radical, though.) I am less convinced by his argument that birders inadvertently support continued environmental degradation by looking for birds at toxic sites. He connects birding on toxic sites with projecting an image of toxic sites as being safe and friendly to birds if there is no overt mention of the toxicity, which is often hidden from view. Such an image of greenness becomes a tool for businesses or governments that want to minimize the scope of the toxic hazards that a landfill, Superfund site, or sewage lagoon contains. The reason I find this unconvincing is that many birders also engage in various forms of environmental activism from habitat restoration to political advocacy. What projects the image of harmlessness is less the birders than the birds themselves, and birders are at the sites because the birds are there, and not the reverse. Even without birders present, a person who sees a brownfield site covered in plants with birds singing in the shrubs is going to miss the toxins hidden in the soil underneath.

Spencer Schaffner poses important questions about the relationship between birdwatching and environmentalism and how that relationship is reflected in field guides. He offers a vision of a birdwatching that engages more with entire habitats and environmental problems. His prose is somewhat dense (especially towards the beginning of the book) but understandable and engaging. Overall, I think he provides a more useful account of twentieth-century birding than Scott Weidensaul did in Of a Feather, which I reviewed several years ago. I would recommend Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides for anyone interested in the development of field guides or in re-imagining birdwatching for the twenty-first century.