Thursday, December 13, 2007

Review: Of a Feather

Scott Weidensaul will be well-known to most readers for writing on conservation, especially Living on the Wind and The Ghost with Trembling Wings. His latest book, Of a Feather, tells the history of birding in the United States.

One of the challenges in writing a history of birding is to decide how to define birding. As readers of this blog know well, there are many ways that people interact with birds, from casual observation to bird feeding, from bird chasing to academic ornithology. (That assumes interaction through observation; people also interact with birds as pests, quarry, or dinner.) Weidensaul defines the term broadly to include the American ornithologists of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the hobbyists that we think of now as birdwatchers or birders.

The first few chapters cover the early American ornithology. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ornithology was practiced less as an academic profession than a pursuit of adventurers. Naturalists like Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon had little training in the sciences but sufficient curiosity and energy to travel in search of new birds to study. Knowledge about western bird species was advanced mainly by military expeditions, starting with Lewis and Clark's journey through the Louisiana Territory. As the nineteenth century progressed, Spencer Fullerton Baird of the Smithsonian Institution organized a network of cavalry officers like Charles Bendire and medical staff like Elliott Coues to collect specimens and record behavioral observations while at their frontier outposts.

In the late nineteenth century, ornithology began to turn from specimen collecting to organizing knowledge about birds. A fundamental question at the time was just how the continent's several hundred bird species related to one another. The American Ornithologists' Union was founded in 1883 for this purpose. Bird watching as a hobby first appeared around the same time that ornithology became steadily more academic. A prototypical field guide, Florence Merriam's Birds Through An Opera Glass, was published in 1889 and instructed readers about how to identify seventy species in the field.

Before the early twentieth century, visual identification and observation of birds was difficult, limited by the lack of good optics and optimal field guides. Following World War I, an influx of imported military-grade binoculars solved the first problem, and the growing popularity of bird study opened a market for field guides. This demand was finally filled in 1934 by the publication of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.

If I have a criticism of the book it is that it feels overly weighted towards the late twentieth century. The narrative for first few chapters on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is tightly-written and fast-paced. Once the book the reaches the mid-twentieth century, the pace of narration slows noticeably. Granted, it is somewhat difficult to avoid this since birding as a hobby boomed and diversified after World War II. Birding's post-war growth spurt was fueled in part by better optics and in part by the rapid expansion of the middle class (in a way not seen before or since). This period saw the founding of many publications devoted to birdwatching and developments in communications technology to support bird chasing on local, national, and world levels.

True to his conservationist roots, Weidensaul devotes the last chapter of his new book to an impassioned plea for birders to devote more effort to bird conservation. The image of listers who care little for birds' welfare is something of a caricature in my opinion. Most devoted listers that I know participate in bird census and atlas projects, contribute to conservation organizations, or lobby for habitat protection. Still, birdwatchers represent a large and enthusiastic constituency whose energy has probably not been tapped to its full potential.

Throughout the book, Weidensaul contextualizes developments in bird study within the larger patterns of American society, from the eighteenth century through the present. Extensive reading in primary source material allows him to put a human face on the trends he cites. Of a Feather is one of the best bird books that I have read this year. I highly recommend it for those who would like to know more about the history of American bird study.

Scott Weidensaul, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 2007. Pp. 358; illustrations, notes and bibliography, and index. $25.00. ISBN: 0151012473.

Kindle version