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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

After Houghton-Mifflin quite unexpectedly drew almost a half century of healthy income from its 1934 publication of Peterson’s Field Guide, it seemed clear that a well-designed field guide can sell millions of copies (see Joseph Kastner, “The Battle of the Field Guides,” The New York Times Magazine, April 15, 1979). Many publishers are now producing birders’ tools: field identification manuals, Baedekers to the best locations, and the like.

Alongside these two markets lies another for scholarly publications. There is not much science in the sport of birding, but ornithology rivals botany and astronomy as a field where amateurs can still make serious scholarly contributions. In fact advanced work in ornithology has recently been moving closer in some respects to direct observation of the living bird in nature and doing so in a way still accessible to amateurs.

While some professional ornithologists apply sophisticated mathematics to population dynamics, calculate the expenditure of energy in flight, or analyze blood serum to determine philogenetic kinship, many others are studying matters fully comprehensible to the weekend bird watcher: behavior, communication by call or display, distribution, precise habitat niche. The first ornithologist to win a Nobel Prize, Niko Tinbergen, a Dutch bird specialist at Oxford, had succeeded in decoding plausibly the surprisingly complex language of Herring Gulls. His Herring Gull’s World (1960) explains how after years of observation and experiment he came to realize that the red spot on the adult Herring Gull’s beak was a “releaser” that provoked a chick to peck the bill, in turn stimulating the adult to feed it. The capacity of Tinbergen and his mentor and co-winner Konrad Lorenz to think their way into the sensory universe of a bird and to decode birds’ social responses to each other in the shadowy area between instinct and learned behavior required neither expensive equipment nor esoteric knowledge. Their work required only patient observation—and a remarkable ability to liberate themselves from the commonplace assumptions of their day about animal behavior, which were at once too anthropomorphic and too mechanistic. It was an amateur, the Ohio housewife Margaret Morse Nice (Life History of the Song Sparrow, 1937-1943), who helped found this school of study. Though ethology is now beyond the reach of most amateurs, bird watchers still participate in professional research on bird numbers, distribution, migration, and habitat.

Publishers nowadays are trying to capture all three of these markets: the collectors, the scholars, and the “listers.” The books under consideration here fall into all three categories, and sometimes into more than one at a time. Any one of them would be the ornament of any ornithologist’s library. Cooper and Forshaw’s Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds, with its opulent plates by Cooper, could hardly fail to be the showiest. These extravagantly plumaged birds of New Guinea and Australia fired the European taste for exotic specimens when the first skins were collected by Magellan’s crews in 1521, and then sent as gifts from the king of Spain to the Pope. The Bower Birds’ behavior turns out to be even more elaborate than the plumage of the Birds of Paradise, for the males construct and decorate a displaying arena. The male Satin Bowerbird arranges up to 300 bright blue objects in front of his “bower,” nowadays ranging from the traditional feathers and flowers to buttons and clothespins, and “paints” the bower with his saliva. It is a slight disappointment that Forshaw’s scholarly text limits itself mostly to new observations made since Thomas Gilliard’s Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds (1969). Cooper and Forshaw’s stunning volume on the parrots of the world (1973) is fuller and no less gaudy; a second edition in a slightly reduced format will appear presently.

Hancock and Elliott’s Herons of the World is the work of a British businessman and a former British colonial administrator, a reminder of the thin line dividing amateur from professional. One would have wished for distribution maps with each species, and some sketches of nuptial display; it is also a serious shortcoming that mainly adults in breeding plumage are illustrated. Nevertheless the species accounts set a very high scholarly standard while including a number of enlivening personal observations. The herons are a conservation success story. It was the near-extinction of egrets used in the plume trade during the 1880s and 1890s that aroused the ladies in Boston who founded the first Audubon Society. Today only two species are extinct, and most of the sixty-one are flourishing—at least for now—in proximity to man. The plates by Robert Gillmor are almost Chinese in their elegance and simplification; those by Peter Hayman are rather wooden.

My favorite is S. Dillon Ripley’s Rails, even though it has come under sharp attack for departing in what seems arbitrary fashion from a generally agreed taxonomy. The rails, hen-like marsh birds which fly only reluctantly, are subtly colored and the plates of the Canadian artist Lansdowne have an exceptional delicacy. All these texts are worlds removed from the sentimental anthropomorphizing of a century ago, but Ripley’s text manages with particular freshness to join the author’s unconcealed delight in expeditions afield with clear accounts of all that is known about these secretive birds. He deals ingeniously with the fact that, once launched, these poor flyers can go on for prodigious distances. Rails have colonized the most remote Atlantic and Pacific islands, where some of their descendants evolved into flightlessness. These quickly fell prey to the first human settlers and their rats, dogs, and goats, without ever being studied. About even some thriving species Ripley can only write “behavior and breeding unknown.” Indeed it is astonishing how much remains unknown about most of the world’s birds.

Emmett R. Blake’s Manual of Neo-Tropical Birds illustrates the point. The American tropics are still a zone where basic discoveries are taking place. A dozen or more species “new to science” have been discovered in Peru in the last decade—not obscure birds but brilliantly colored tanagers and hummingbirds and bizarre owls; other birds known only from a specimen or two taken in the nineteenth century are being rediscovered. Blake includes the Imperial Snipe, rediscovered after a century in 1968 by John Terborgh of Princeton and others after a lucky accident followed by nights of exhausting mist-netting on a bare Andean ridge. But Blake’s book went to press too soon for the rediscovery of the White-winged Guan—a large turkey-like bird—in interior Peru. He lists it as extinct.

Blake’s Manual, the first of four volumes designed as a working guide to museum collections, is a compendium of physical description, weights, measurements, and keys for the determination of museum specimens. By design, there is nothing here on the behavior of the living bird, or room for some of the discursive chat of the collectors’ volumes. Even so, the traveling lister to South America (a good choice, since the continent contains over a third of the world’s 8,600 species; Peru alone, with 1,700 species, is the richest country ornithologically on earth) will refer to this book often, in the absence of field guides to much of the region. When completed, this manual will supplant the one by Meyer de Schauensee as the standard reference work on South America. There are also some very fine plates by Guy Tudor, probably the ablest of the younger bird illustrators, although, regrettably, only some of them are in color.

It is the business of a manual to complete the task begun by Aristotle: to describe and to classify all the species of birds. Since Lorenz and Tinbergen, a new frontier lies in the study of the social structure and “language” of the living bird. Hartmut Walter’s Eleanora’s Falcon: Adaptations to Prey and Habitat in a Social Raptor deals with a particularly attractive example. This elegant, long-winged bird of prey, discovered only in the 1830s and named for a medieval Sardinian princess who decreed protection for falcons, has evolved one of the oddest breeding adaptations of any known bird of prey. A bird of the Mediterranean and Africa, it lives on locusts and grasshoppers most of the year. These do not meet the enormous energy needs of growing young, however. The falcons have found the necessary increase of nutrients for breeding in the stream of small migrant birds that cross the Mediterranean each fall to winter in sub-Saharan Africa.

Each fall the 12,000 or so Eleanora’s Falcons gather in colonies on Aegean and North African coastal cliffs, lay eggs, and feed their young by snatching migrant shrikes and warblers out of the air. Walter estimated, by watching the “Paximada wall”—a “curtain” of falcons patroling above the Aegean island of Paximada—that in all the falcons down about 1,600,000 small birds each autumn (only about 1/1000 of the number that cross the Mediterranean). Since bird migration is thought to have begun in Europe during the last ice age, Walter believes that the Eleanora’s Falcon has evolved from adaptation to this new opportunity only in the last 15,000 years.

The Eleanora’s Falcons are different from most of the other social predators we know, which are (like lions, for example) usually characterized by some kind of sexual dominance by an older male. These falcons combine individualist hunting, monogamy, and dense colonial nesting by resolving a number of complicated problems that Walter analyzes with great care. One can never again idly watch an Eleanora’s Falcon, as I did once on Mykonos, without feeling new curiosity about what its apparently random actions actually mean.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, which comes in two volumes covering the eastern and western halves of the continent, is obviously directed to the listers’ market. Sad to say, this guide rests upon a mistaken notion of what a field guide is supposed to do. The guide claims to be simpler than Peterson’s because of two innovations: the heavy use of color photographs, and the arrangement of the birds as one finds them in the field rather than in the scientists’ taxonomic order. The photographs are arranged by color and shape. For example, there is a page of small, bright blue birds such as Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, and the three species of Bluebirds that are separated by forty-five pages in Peterson. The trouble is that some of these birds are not blue all the time, and the beginner who finds a female or immature Blue Grosbeak is out of luck. Other photographs are in postures or plumages that few of us ever see: soaring hawks are pictured perched, and many alcids are pictured as they breed in the Arctic. The text is arranged by a different principle: by habitat—birds of the marsh, birds of the forest, etc. Trying to find one’s way from text to pictures can be an exhausting process.

A more fundamental problem is the editors’ assumption that photographs are somehow more “real” than drawings. Let us leave aside the problems of lighting and accidents of posture that make many of the photographs misleading. The beauty of the Peterson field guide was its suppression of detail. No one “sees” a bird in totality, feather by feather. One sees parts of it, and the mind fills in the rest by guesswork or (if one knows birds already) by memory. Peterson’s drawings abstracted the essential details that one must learn to look for. There is probably no substitute for learning these “field marks” before an observer can place an unknown bird reliably in its family and then eliminate one by one its nearest resemblers. This is no harder or more mysterious than learning the five hundred faces or two hundred voices that most of us recognize at once (and imagine how difficult it would be to reduce those subtle differences to system in a “field guide to the faces”). It simply takes years of practice.

The editors seem to have wanted to reach two markets: those who want pretty pictures, and those who want a quick and easy way to identify birds. The result is a hybrid that will discourage or mislead beginners. Most experienced bird watchers, on the other hand, will want to own these volumes. The photographs, often excellent in themselves, confirm subtle distinctions of bill shape or wing pattern that are not depicted anywhere else. There is much of interest in the text on behavior, habitat, and the discovery or naming of many species, for the authors are excellent naturalists.

The ideal field guide would probably combine drawing and photography: sketches illustrating principal field marks, and comparative photographs of crucial details (e.g., underwing patterns and bill and head shapes of Common and Arctic Terns). Until that ideal volume arrives, there is no substitute for Peterson’s book and its main emulator, the guide by Chandler Robbins and Bertel Bruun with illustrations by Arthur Singer,5 as well as the more discursive Audubon Bird Guide by Richard Pough with illustrations by Don Eckelberry.6 And there is no short cut to hours of practice in the field. But that is no hardship for a birder.


Not a Chaser March 6, 1980

  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).

  5. 5

    Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification (Western Publishing Company, 1966).

  6. 6

    Audubon Land Bird Guide (Doubleday, 1951). Audubon Water Bird Guide (Doubleday, 1951).

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