Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Mabel Osgood Wright's Birdcraft

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) is an initiative to make old science books available to the general public by scanning them and posting them online. The books are generally out of copyright and cover a wide variety of plants and wildlife from many regions. I believe I have linked to their blog a few times in my Loose Feathers series. They also maintain a Flickr account where they often post individual plates from the books to highlight the best images. Unfortunately the images do not come with a lot of descriptive text, so you need to go to the scanned book on BHL's website to find keys for unfamiliar species.

One of the latest books to be posted on their Flickr account is Mabel Osgood Wright's Birdcraft. First published in 1895 (with many subsequent printings), this book is notable as being one of the very first to promote bird watching and identification. Another was Birds through an Opera-Glass by Florence Merriam Bailey, published in 1898. (The significance of those two women in the history of field guides and birdwatching is covered in two books I reviewed, Of a Feather by Scott Weidensaul and Binocular Vision by Spencer Schaffner.) You can find the set of images from Birdcraft here, and the images on this page are linked to posts within that Flickr set.

Most of the birds on these plates are immediately recognizable, and many are posed as if engaging in characteristic behaviors. In the plate above, the nightjars are chasing after moths, and the swallows are building the nests characteristic to each species. However, the names are in a key a few pages away, and descriptive text resides somewhere else in the book. The birds are also somewhat oddly proportioned and often out of scale with their neighbors. Consider how huge the Brown Creeper two plates above looks compared to most of the other birds on the page! Field guides have clearly come a long way in their visual depictions and organization since then, but we can still enjoy and appreciate them.