Web-Footed Gentry

The Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds

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

The Herons of the World

by James Hancock and Hugh Elliott, paintings by Robert Gillmor and 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 and 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…

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