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A Field Guide to the Birders

On August 12, 1970, FBI agents landed on Block Island, a speck of glacial deposit off Rhode Island, looking for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, one of the “Catonsville Nine” Vietnam War protesters who had burned draft records in Maryland. Hoping to pass unobserved, the G-men disguised themselves as bird-watchers. Block Island, known for its rare birds, was one of the few places in the United States in 1970 where binoculars and a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds made one inconspicuous.

In most places an interest in birds marked one flagrantly as odd. One common thread in these rather dissimilar books is their authors’ resigned expectation of gentle derision, at the very least, often instilled in childhood. Now, however, birding has become, Scott Weidensaul says, “almost cool.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 2001 that 46 million Americans were birders. That number needs a few grains of salt on its tail. Most of those people enjoyed birds around their homes, and 87 percent of them could identify only one to twenty of the nearly eight hundred species that regularly occur in North America.1 Nevertheless, serious bird-watching (or birding, to use today’s preferred term) has grown geometrically. In the Virginia town where I grew up, three of us looked for birds in the 1950s. Now thirty-five people there have formed an e-mail network where they regularly recount their birding adventures.

Tenfold growth in a half-century is probably a fair measure of the explosion of birding in the United States. The United States, moreover, is not unique. Birding is now expanding beyond its old base in northern Europe and the English-speaking world into Mediterranean and eastern Europe, and beyond. Japan and India (with its venerable Bombay Natural History Society, by no means limited to Englishmen) had gentleman ornithologists three generations ago. Today one encounters ordinary people out to see, photograph, or tape-record wild birds in much of Asia and Latin America. Even China suddenly has birders amid the bulldozers and concrete mixers.2

To serve all these enthusiasts an army of professional guides, book publishers, innkeepers, and manufacturers of specialized equipment has arisen. The US Fish and Wildlife Service found that birders in the United States spent about $32 billion a year on their hobby in 2001, $7 billion of it on travel and $24 billion on equipment. A ripple effect generates about $85 billion in economic impact, according to the same study.

The growth and democratization of birding might seem peculiar when many species of wild birds, and undisturbed spots in which to enjoy them, are declining in number.3 Rarity, however, is part of the appeal. Enjoyment of nature, from the time of Pliny to our own day, seems to have gone hand in hand with some estrangement from it. It requires an urban middle class with leisure and a thirst for restored contact with a distanced natural world.

People have noticed birds since at least the time of the Neolithic cave painters, but there is something historically unique about the troops of today’s “listers,” mostly American, intent on trying to run up a record-breaking list of the different birds they’ve seen—a day list, year list, state list, or life list. Each generation has enjoyed nature in its own way. Since these ways change over time, birding has a history. Scott Weidensaul’s Of a Feather is as intelligent and lively a guide to the United States segment of that history as we are likely to get.4 He is a birding insider and he knows all the good stories. There is Major Charles Bendire shinnying down a tree in Arizona one May day in 1872 with a zone-tailed hawk’s eggs in his mouth and riding off just seconds ahead of marauding Apaches. But Weidensaul goes skillfully beyond the good stories and outsized personalities to delineate the specific character of each stage in American ornithology.

Of a Feather starts quite appropriately with Native Americans. Even today those who visit remote Bering Sea islands discover that the Inuit have a name for every single bird species, including the obscure ones. The first European visitors to North America included some explorers of true scientific zeal such as John White, who described and illustrated the flora and fauna of the Roanoke Island colony, in what is today coastal North Carolina, in the late 1580s. The intelligentsia of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as Franklin and Jefferson, like their counterparts in Europe, considered a knowledge of natural history among the qualities of an educated gentleman. Many of the greatest naturalists came from Europe, from England in the case of Mark Catesby and Scotland in that of Alexander Wilson, or France in the case of Audubon and Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the emperor’s nephew. With the Bartrams, John (1699–1777, Linnaeus’s main American correspondent) and his son William (1739–1823), American-born naturalists began describing the continent’s amazing proliferation of wildlife.

In the nineteenth century the opening of the far West offered new fauna and flora to collect, name, and describe. This work was done largely by army officers, sometimes cavalry officers like Bendire, but more often surveyors and medical men who brought back thousands of specimens of hundreds of new species to Spencer Fullerton Baird at the new Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Mass popular birding was launched just before the opening of the twentieth century with a very different impulse: stopping the mass slaughter of egrets, herons, and terns for feathers that would adorn womens’ hats. A group of Boston and New York society ladies, horrified that in order to get the most elaborate plumes the birds were killed while they were attending young, promoted the first Audubon Societies after 1886 and branded feathered hats as unfashionable.

Even so, well into the middle of the twentieth century, amateur ornithologists as well as professionals routinely shot birds to establish accurately which species lived where. The great innovation of the mid-twentieth century was reliable sight identification. This required two technical aids: high-quality optical equipment and a book that showed in simple terms how to tell even the most similar species apart from a distance.

Both appeared in the 1930s. The Karl Zeiss company in Germany developed prism binoculars that provided a depth and breadth of field, brightness, and clarity far superior to anything previously known. When the Nazis expelled Zeiss’s Jewish lens-grinders, the firm of Bausch and Lomb in Rochester, New York, recruited them and made even better binoculars. Today digital photography allows even a technophobe to record a rare find, diminishing the skepticism that always attended sight records.

The much-needed book appeared in 1934, the work of a twenty-six-year-old New York high school art teacher and obsessed birder named Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson devised an identification manual that avoided the mind-numbing detail of previous guides, which had served to identify dead birds in the hand. He had a knack for showing how a bird looks in life, both in his pared-down prose and in his lifelike but simplified paintings with little lines pointing to the distinguishing marks.

Here is how an earlier book my mother used, the best of its era, described the American robin:

Top and sides of the head black, a white spot above and below the eye; rest of the upper parts grayish slate-color; margins of wings slightly lighter; tail blackish, the outer feathers with white spots at their tips; throat white, streaked with black; rest of the underparts rufous (tipped with white in the fall), becoming white in the middle of the lower belly….5

Every word of this description is accurate, but the living bird cannot be imagined from it. Here is Peterson’s robin:

A very familiar bird, often seen on lawns, with an erect stance, giving short runs then pauses. Recognized by dark gray back and brick red breast. Dark stripes on white throat.6

The light dawns.

Since Peterson, anyone who wants to can reliably identify almost any wild bird without shooting it. He deserved every bit of the fame and fortune that A Field Guide to the Birds earned him.7 Later in life, when, as the ultimate star and guru of the birding world, he was importuned on all sides for speeches, forewords, support for conservation causes, illustrations for colleagues’ works, and new editions of his books, Peterson came to regard his Field Guides as something of an albatross. He never had time in his eighty-eight years to develop fully the careers he really wanted—to be the successor to Audubon as a bird painter and to write like Peter Matthiessen.8 Stardom also poisoned his private life, though he was unfailingly courteous and generous to ordinary birders.

It is not surprising that the two biographies of Peterson published since his death in 1996 should dwell upon the stresses of celebrity along with the achievements and the adulation. Elizabeth J. Rosenthal has provided the most detailed account of his three marriages, driven work habits, and strenuous activities as explorer, author, photographer, conservationist, and public figure. An astonishing 121 interviews inform her work, which meanders and turns back on itself like an extended conversation. Neither she nor Peterson’s other recent biographer, Douglas Carlson,9 looks beyond the man to try to explain the public that adopted him or the role the public shaped for him.

An entire generation of American birders grew up associating Peterson with moments of intense gratification when, book in hand, they puzzled out some unexpected species. Even when younger ornithologists found fault with Peterson’s simplifications and produced more sophisticated guides, Peterson remained the Founder and to encounter him in the flesh (and he was no recluse except from his own family) inspired awe. Although the current generation has its stars (including Scott Weidensaul and Kenn Kaufman among those reviewed here, along with the creator of the best new field guide, David Allen Sibley10), Peterson has had no successor.

Everyone is a birdwatcher,” affirms Jonathan Rosen, “but there are…those who haven’t yet realized it.” What awakens that fascination in some people but not in others remains a mystery. The books under review evoke it without resolving it. Kaufman says he began at the age of six. Many begin around ten, especially boys, but now girls too since they can go out of doors more freely. Sometimes a neighbor or relative shows the way. Sometimes there is a triggering event. Peterson traced his obsession to the day when, aged twelve,

I spotted a bundle of brown feathers clinging to a tree. It was a flicker, tired from migration. The bird was sleeping with its bill tucked under the loose feathers of its back, but I thought it was dead. I poked it with my finger; instantly this inert thing jerked its head around, looked at me wildly, then took off in a flash of gold. It was like resurrection…. Ever since then, birds have seemed to me the most vivid expression of life.

Making others understand such moments is a challenge. Several of the authors reviewed here doubt that they can do it. Kenn Kaufman’s Flights Against the Sunset is constructed around his effort to explain to his terminally ill mother what it is that propels him around the world in search of birds. She wants to hear his birding stories because he is her son, but he doubts that he can communicate to her the emotional rush they set off in him.

Kaufman feels he owes his mother extra attention because of the anguish he caused her when he was sixteen. Tired of school and itching to travel, he set out on the road with the aim of identifying more different kinds of birds in the United States in one year than anyone before. His parents let him go, but his mother spent sleepless nights that he learned about only later. Kaufman hitchhiked 80,000 miles around the US and spotted a record 666 species of birds within one year. Later he wrote the justifiably popular Kingbird Highway 11 about the trip, a book that is more eloquent and thoughtful than the usual flippant publisher’s description (“Kerouac—or, better, Huck Finn—meets John James Audubon”) would suggest.

Together, Kaufman’s Flights Against the Sunset and its excellent predecessor Kingbird Highway give a good idea of what drives a serious birder. Birding stories are like fish stories except that, instead of size and the final fight, rarity and subtlety of identification frame the exploit. The chase is the thing. Birds don’t want to be watched, and getting a particularly furtive one into sight can take the better part of a morning. Some of Kaufman’s quests come up empty, but the pursuit is still exciting for him.

Next comes identification: attaching a name. The name serves not just to validate and conclude the search, but situates the bird in a narrative. When Kaufman locates a flock of Baird’s sandpipers (one of several species named for Spencer Fullerton Baird) high above the treeline in the Peruvian Andes, they remind him of other Baird’s sandpipers on the plains of his native Kansas, moving north in spring toward their breeding grounds in the Canadian high arctic. Kaufman (who knows every feather) perceives that one of these Andean voyagers is still in its first plumage:

This young bird could not have hatched any more than seven or eight weeks ago, probably less. And here it was a continent and a half away, feeding placidly at the edge of a high Andean marsh. Fifty days old, it had already flown six thousand miles from its birthplace.

The final quality that makes a birder is wonder at the natural world. A sense of wonder unites beginners and experts, and, in Kaufman’s case, mother and son. Though this wonder is surely a natural human feeling, it is usually overwhelmed by more urgent concerns. In wired America, young people hardly have a chance to discover it.

Adding to the “life list”—or the yard list, the year list, the state list—replaces wonder with competition (in the view of critics like Kaufman and Weidensaul). Yet “listing” has become what most birders do nowadays in the United States. The American Birding Association, founded in 1968 to encourage birding as a sport, abets the competition by publishing the annual rankings of several thousand listers who send in their scores (on the honor system). Kaufman prefers the way of California expert Rich Stallcup, who once delayed his group while he lingered over a redstart, a bird unusual but not really rare in California. “Come on, Rich,” his companions call. “You’ve seen a redstart.” “Yes,” replies Rich,” but not this one.” Even the purists, however, exult when they find a species they have never seen before.

There are many ways to enjoy birds that are more constructive than listing. A book that deserves revival in each generation is Joseph Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching.12 Hickey’s book is the anti-listers’ bible, with its dozens of ingenious research and study projects within easy reach of amateurs, its insistence on careful note-taking, and its hopeful assumption that birding is driven by a desire to learn. Nonlisters also have more time for conservation. In France, where birding is still young and listing unchic, dozens of volunteers turn out to patrol the last twenty-three breeding pairs of Bonelli’s eagle and to persuade farmers to mow around harrier nests.

Jonathan Rosen’s voice is the most original in this group. Birders might approach with some apprehension a work that draws its title from D.H. Lawrence and spends time with Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Elizabeth Bishop. Rosen’s The Life of the Skies is indeed unusual in its focus on the watcher as well as the watched. For him, observing nature (and birds are what is left of nature to city-dwellers) corresponds to profound human impulses to restore a sense of kinship with wild creatures, to inspire awe of life and fear of humans’ destructive impulses, and to rekindle a religious appreciation of creation. These ruminations are saved from oversolemnity by Rosen’s precise erudition, his sense of humor, and a doubt that we can ever “make the impulses behind birdwatching ‘explicit.’ It is an activity that lives in the doing.” In that spirit, Rosen begins and ends with rousing chase stories of his own, two mishap-plagued searches for the nearly mythical ivory-billed woodpecker, which has long been considered extinct, though occasional unconfirmed sightings in the southern US have inspired birders to keep looking.

Who are the birders? Fifty years ago, they consisted of a few eccentric elderly men (and a handful of redoubtable women) plus some enthusiastic teenaged boys. Most of them had started young and never quite emerged from the snake-collecting phase. In 2001, 54 percent of American birders, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service survey, were women, most of whom started birding as empty-nesters. One hopes that the next transformation will bring in young adults,13 but nothing is less certain in this electronic era, and birding has probably reached a plateau in the United States.

Any sort of person can succumb to birding. But there are patterns. Today’s birders are mostly middle-class, urban, educated, and middle-aged. City-dwellers who don’t have to battle nature can take unalloyed delight in it. Not many farmers are birders, therefore, though I have known two, both single and shy, men of few words but visibly delighted with nature. At the other extreme, such achievers as the head of a major Wall Street investment bank and a Nobel Prize–winning physicist are committed birders. Three of the world’s most competent professional bird guides began as policemen. It is hard to find a common denominator among all these people except unquenchable curiosity about the natural world and delighted wonder at it.

Rosen muses that he has become enamored of nature “at the end of nature.” It may seem masochistic to devote one’s life to the pursuit of a vanishing asset. In the supposedly enlightened United States five species of birds have been extirpated since 1844 (compared with no extinctions during the same period in more densely populated Europe), while in the developing world there is a daily alarm about disappearing species. Bruce Barcott’s The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw is an eco-thriller, an engagingly told tale of the struggle to prevent the construction of a dam. At stake is a unique valley in Belize where poor soil and a lack of exploitable resources have left untouched a pocket of habitat where some of Central America’s rarest animals such as jaguars and improbably spectacular scarlet macaws survive.

On one side is Sharon Matola, a sort of Calamity Jane of wildlife protection who runs a private zoo in Belize, along with some NGOs and nature-preservation militants. On the other side are a Canadian power company and its “experts” such as geologists who insist that the dam site has a granite base that other geologists cannot find. Good confronts evil in this book (though the good certainly have their foibles). Developers will find it partisan, but Barcott appears to have documented his case with care.

In the end, the dam is built. An effort to provide alternative nesting holes for the macaws strikes a faintly optimistic closing note. Recovery efforts, however, even when they succeed, produce wildlife populations that depend on continued human involvement for survival. That, and not untouched nature, is probably what we will have to settle for.

The end of nature does not mean the end of birds. Some hardy species proliferate around human beings. One of Kaufman’s most original birding stories tells about “parking lot birds,” the gulls that doze on the empty asphalt, the grackles that beg for junk food, and the cactus wrens that pick crushed insects from automobile grills. The problem is that adaptable species may become commonplace, or even a nuisance. But even a flight of starlings can arouse wonder as the cloud of birds twists and swoops as if by signal, without any evident sign of which bird leads, or even whether there is a signal. Their flock dynamic remains a mystery.

It is still true, as in Joseph Hickey’s day, that much remains unknown about even common birds—how migratory birds navigate precisely enough to locate the identical spot each summer and winter; why song is developed so extravagantly in some species. Kaufman wonders about the mockingbird that sings all night and probably feels the same “tingly fuzziness” as he does after working all night to meet a publisher’s deadline. If our curiosity is awakened and we develop the skill to name the birds and the knowledge to connect them with their life history, even the common ones can give intense pleasure.

Letters

A Field Guide to the Birder December 4, 2008

  1. 1

    US Fish and Wildlife Service, Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis (Washington, D.C., 2003).

  2. 2

    Jonathan Franzen, “Letter from the Yangtze Delta: The Way of the Puffin,” The New Yorker, April 21, 2008.

  3. 3

    Decline is hotly contested by some skeptics, who point to the annual Christmas Bird Counts undertaken in nearly two thousand American communities. These counts grow because more people participate (about 56,000 in the United States and Canada in 2007), because some common species are doing very well, and because birds concentrate in winter around feeders. Decline, sometimes dramatic, is solidly documented for many species (217 species native to the continental United States and Hawaii are on the latest Watch List established in 2007 by the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy). Evidence comes from radar studies of nocturnal bird migration across the Gulf of Mexico and from repeated counts of the same sites over several decades. Decline has different probable causes for each specific case: arctic ice cap shrinkage (ivory gull); deforestation of wintering areas in Peru (cerulean warbler); acid rain and forest fragmentation in breeding areas (wood thrush); overharvest of an essential food item, horseshoe crabs (red knot); and so on.

  4. 4

    Mark V. Barrow, Jr.’s A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology Since Audubon (Princeton University Press, 1998) is more focused on the emergence of professional ornithology, and it is mainly concerned with the period before 1940. Scott Weidensaul is also the author of Living on the Wind (North Point Press, 1999), a vivid account of bird migration, and three other widely admired books on natural history.

  5. 5

    Frank M. Chapman, Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (D. Appleton and Company, 1895). Chapman was actually trying to make field identification possible. A bridge figure between the collectors and the field birders, he not only headed the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History but also founded and edited Bird-Lore, predecessor of Audubon.

  6. 6

    Roger Tory Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of North America (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), p. 316. This new posthumous edition, the first to cover all of North America in one volume, follows five editions of the eastern guide and three of the western guide.

  7. 7

    Covering only the birds east of the Mississippi, this book sold about four million copies. Peterson also wrote other field guides (birds of the western states, Europe, and Mexico, wildflowers), illustrated dozens of works, wrote a half-dozen books about birding, and oversaw the creation of a whole series of field guides to other life-forms. See John Terborgh’s review of Peterson’s All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures, in The New York Review, April 26, 2007.

  8. 8

    Douglas Carlson, Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography (University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 120. Peterson asked his editor, Paul Brooks, how to write like Peter Matthiessen. “If you don’t know,” replied Brooks, “it would take too long to tell you.”

  9. 9

    Carlson writes more artfully than Rosenthal, but, with less access to personal papers and barely a quarter as many interviews, he concentrates on the public man and his work.

  10. 10

    The Sibley Guide to Birds (Knopf, 2000).

  11. 11

    Houghton-Mifflin, 1997. “Road” books about birding constitute a genre. Peterson took his British sidekick James Fisher on a marathon tour of the United States in 1953 and showed him 572 species in 100 days and 30,000 miles, the pre-Kaufman record. Together they recounted the adventure in Wild America (Houghton-Mifflin, 1955, reprint 1997). Fifty years later Scott Weidensaul retraced their journey in Return to Wild America (North Point Press, 2005), finding some of their stopping places still rich with wildlife and others degraded.

  12. 12

    Oxford University Press, 1943; reprint 1975.

  13. 13

    Only 9 percent of the eighteen-to-twenty-four age group were birders; See Birding in the United States, p. 6.

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