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Web-Footed Gentry

The Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds

by William T. Cooper, by Joseph M. Forshaw
Godine, 304 pp., $150.00

The Herons of the World

by James Hancock, by Hugh Elliott, paintings by Robert Gillmor, by Peter Hayman
Harper & Row, 304 pp., $65.00

Rails of the World

by S. Dillon Ripley, paintings by J. Fenwick Lansdowne
Godine, 432 pp., deluxe edition $400.00

Manual of Neo-Tropical Birds, Volume I

by Emmett Reid Blake
University of Chicago Press, 674 pp., $60.00

Eleanora’s Falcon: Adaptations to Prey and Habitat in a Social Raptor

by Hartmut Walter
University of Chicago Press, 410 pp., $35.00

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region

by John Bull, by John Farrand Jr.
Knopf, 778 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Western Region

by Miklos D.F. Udvardy
Knopf, 852 pp., $9.95 (paper)

To a novice it seems curious that men of the first intelligence should pay so much attention to web-footed gentry with wings.” So Dr. Edmund Porter wrote to a friend after hearing Charles Lucien Bonaparte—a nephew of the emperor—read a paper on the Golden Plover to the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences on October 11, 1825.1

Yet people have always noticed birds. There are bird images among Iron Age cave paintings in northern Europe and in Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is not merely that birds are striking or graceful. Birds communicate with each other by the same senses that are most highly developed in human beings—sight and hearing. There is a better sensory “fit” between birds and people than between people and some mammals which may be more closely related but whose sensory universes are dominated by smell.

But there are many ways of being interested in birds. Aristotle and Linnaeus described them in order to arrange them in a “natural” order. The Emperor William II of Hohenstaufen, the polymath thirteenth-century ruler of Sicily, whose astonishingly fresh firsthand observations of birds were republished twenty years ago,2 was infatuated by hunting with trained falcons. Teddy Roosevelt collected trophies, not only the big game he shot but the birds he recorded in his notebooks. The Viscount Grey of Fallodon, retired from the British Foreign Office, took delight in possessing and nurturing exotic species of ducks and geese on his estate. For Thoreau and John Muir birds were expressions of free nature unfettered by human acquisitiveness.

During the last few decades the most popular way of enjoying birds has been to take up binoculars and see how many species one can find. The sport of bird-watching (or birding, as this non-contemplative chase is more aptly termed) has become a mass phenomenon in recent years in the United States and northwestern Europe. More than four million copies of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds are in print, and the Bull, Farrand, Udvardy guide, reviewed here, remained for several weeks in first place on The New York Times paperback bestseller list. Membership in the National Audubon Society has tripled in the last decade to 400,000. The 3,000 hardy souls who took part in the Christmas Bird Count in 1948—a day-long midwinter marathon census of the bird population within a fifteen-mile circle—had become more than 31,000 by Christmas 1978, in nearly 1,300 communities across the United States and Canada.

These are not necessarily the same people who put out food for wild birds. They are emphatically not the same people who cherish a pet Budgerigar. The birder is no more interested by a cockatoo in a cage than a fisherman by a guppy in a bowl. The chase is the thing, and the rarer the species, and the more of them, the better. In close second place comes the fascination of the spectacle: thousands of hawks riding thermal updrafts southward along the Kittatinny Ridge on a September day, ten thousand shorebirds of thirty species southbound from the Arctic feeding together at Jamaica Bay, hundreds of heron nests in the mangrove. But it is the mark of a true birder to be far more excited by a small brown bird that is rare, or that breaks a record, than by a large gaudy one that is common or captive.

Birding satisfies the urge to hunt, and to identify and classify. There are enough obscure bird species to make the hunt challenging without being difficult to the point of discouragement, as with, say, insects or grasses. Since birds have wings, they may turn up almost anywhere, so the possibility of a rarity is ever present—most rarities being merely someone else’s common bird that took a wrong turn. There is also the satisfaction of exercising a somewhat esoteric skill in public, for an expert birder can almost miraculously call off in English, Latin, and quite possibly another language the name of any one of several thousand species at a glimpse or upon hearing one note. Nowadays all of this is sharpened by competition, as each tries to find more and better birds than the rest: a “life list” of 700 in North America, a “year list” of 320 in New York State, a “big day” of 170 on Long Island, some species never found before in one’s locality, the various exploits that make one a Roger Bannister or Sir Edmund Hillary among birders.

Infatuation with the list is not a purely American vagary. What are called “listers” in North America are called “twitchers” in England and “cocheurs” in France, with more than a trace of condescension from those whose interest in birds is more scholarly, more relaxed, or simply less well endowed with time and money. But not one of the condescenders would fail to reach for binoculars and boots when the phone rings with news of a rarity in the neighborhood.

Popular interest in birds varies according to certain social and cultural settings. As readers of Lévi-Strauss would expect, primitive peoples seem generally to have immense vocabularies of precise bird names. In Europe, curiosity about birds was quickened by the sixteenth-century voyages of discovery. The first compendia of bird species based on direct observation (as distinct from copyings from Pliny or morality fables) date from those voyages: for example, the work of Francisco Hernandez, the personal physician of Philip II, who sent him to Mexico to report on the flora and fauna in 1570-1577. This was also the epoch of the first private zoos, such as the aviary of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II, which, as is known from paintings made by his court artists, contained a live dodo.

Before nature could appeal as an object of appreciation and not mere curiosity, however, it had to be sweetened from an adversary to a benign realm. The wilderness had to be sentimentalized. A decisive shift in sensibility in urbanized parts of northwestern Europe in the late eighteenth century merged the urge to collect with the desire to experience nature directly. The Genevan Rousseau carried a plant-collecting kit on his rural walks (it may be seen today in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris). It was in 1774 that a young Frenchman named Horace Benedict de Saussure decided that he wanted to climb Mont Blanc for the sheer joy and challenge of it.3 The transformation of the Alps in northern European sensibilities from a fearsome landscape to a sporting challenge, and from the repair of evil spirits to a setting conducive to lofty thoughts, parallels the transformation of birds from agricultural pests, magical signs, or prize specimens into something to be enjoyed alive in nature.

Enjoying birds in a natural setting seems to have followed the domestication and emptying of the countryside in those parts of urbanized northwestern Europe touched by a romantic sensibility. Attitudes toward nature in a no less urban but preindustrial Mediterranean Europe were quite different. The first English essayist to combine the old naturalists’ curiosity with sensibility for the natural setting was the rural parson Gilbert White, whose Natural History of Selborne (1774) has remained a classic. White showed the scientific value of direct observation of the living bird; with his intimate knowledge of voice and behavior, he was first to separate Chiff-Chaff from Willow Warbler, which had looked just alike among the mounted specimens of the natural history “cabinet.”

In the United States, naturalists found their support in the east coast cities in the early and middle nineteenth century: the Philadelphia of the Bartrams, the Peales, and Alexander Wilson; the Charleston of the Rev. Dr. Bachman; the Boston of Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray. Today the distribution of birders, seen, for example, in a map of the 1,300 communities that have Christmas Bird Counts, is largely urban—or, more accurately, suburban. This is not surprising. Pleasure in nature study usually manifests itself in the early teens. In rural America teenaged boys are taught to hunt by their fathers or older brothers as part of coming of age, while the boys or girls who would rather observe nature are likely to feel under hostile pressure from their peers. Suburban boys and girls discover nature under quite different auspices, as something slightly exotic, and no longer something to be shot, eaten, or appeased.

The nineteenth-century naturalists and their patrons—the 450 gentlemen who subscribed $120 apiece for Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808) or those who could afford $1,000 for the great elephant folios of Audubon a generation later—were a narrow elite. Wide democratization was necessary to arrive at today’s birder, a quite ordinary person, often without intellectual pretension, who gets swept up in a surrogate hunt. Good optical equipment helped. Wide-field prism binoculars replaced the old field glass after World War I, and light-weight cameras of high quality after World War II. In 1934, a young bird artist, Roger Tory Peterson, invented the field guide—a book that replaced artistic plates and feather-by-feather museum descriptions by schematic drawings that singled out the precise detail or two that sufficed to tell one species from its nearest resembler. Thereafter it was no longer necessary to shoot a bird to be sure of its identification.

Then a network of interstate highways and cheap gas enabled a restless population to take to the road. Where Thomas Jefferson once kept a list of the birds he had seen at Monticello—a creditable 109, without benefit of binoculars or Peterson—the modern American birder is a nomad, at Monomoy one day and Laguna Atascosa the next, and not content until his North American “life list” passes 600. A final technical preparation was the telephone network, by which news of rarities is relayed across the continent in a matter of hours. Birding was then ready to arrive on the front page of The New York Times on March 4, 1975, when thousands of people from all over the United States—including then Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and Roger Tory Peterson himself—descended upon the somnolent offseason beaches of Newburyport, Massachusetts, to see their “life” Ross’ Gull, a pale pink arctic seabird strayed unaccountably from the edge of the pack ice.

The democratizing and nomadic spread of the once gentlemanly taste for birds, and the sublimation of collecting in listing, have begun to have palpable economic and social effects. A dozen tour agencies in the United States and Britain now organize serious birding tours of such places as Nepal, Cuba, and Namibia—not normally part of the tourist circuit. Some remote settlements feel the impact of birding as some medieval sheikhdoms have felt the impact of oil. In early June 1979 the village of Gambell, at the edge of the Bering Sea on St. Lawrence Island, housed 59 birders and 400 Eskimos, to the dazzling profit of a few enterprising Eskimo families and the disgruntlement of the rest.

Early naturalists’ accounts of what they had found in the wilderness, illustrated by the copper engravings of Gould or Audubon, colored by hand, were subscription ventures purchased by the rich to grace their mansions. This collector’s market has not vanished. Indeed it has undergone a renaissance in the last few years with a number of lavishly illustrated, oversized monographs each surveying a single bird family throughout the world. These volumes combine the best that modern technology can provide in the way of illustration with a survey of up-to-date biological knowledge of the family and its species by an expert. The success of high-quality bird books began with Crawford H. Greenewalt’s Hummingbirds (1960), the work of a DuPont executive whose fascination with the technical problems of freezing ultrarapid wing motion photographically shifted over to the subjects of his photography, and who criss-crossed Latin America tracking down species never illustrated before. That book, which originally cost $25, now fetches more than ten times that on the rare book market. Audubon’s elephant folios, of course, have multiplied in value over two hundred times in a century. Audubon’s imaginative but eccentric poses—as theatrical as the coonskin cap he affected in the English salons where he sought patrons—were much criticized by his fellow naturalists at the time. They evoked a romantic wilderness, however, and still do. The complete octavo edition of his birds and mammals issued by Times Books this fall keeps up the steady flow of Audubon reproductions.4

  1. 1

    Erwin Stresemann, Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present (Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 155.

  2. 2

    De arte venandi cum avibus (Stanford University Press, 1958).

  3. 3

    Horace Benedict de Saussure, Premières ascensions de Mont Blanc, 1774-1787 (re-edition, Paris: Maspéro 1979).

  4. 4

    The Art of Audubon: The Complete Birds and Mammals, edited by Roger Tory Peterson (Times Books, 647 $35.00).

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