From the comments on last week’s Nature Notes:
“You don’t always get what you want with Mother Nature, but there is always something else to enjoy.”
- Michelle of Rambling Woods
I needed a book to read (are you also needy? as in, you feel better if you have a good book to read sitting on your coffee table), and I wanted something light. For some reason, I thought of a bird book as being less cumbersome than say, history or fiction. I pulled off two bird books quickly from the library shelves (I was with my daughter – not a lot of time to ruminate and ponder over various choices). One got quickly returned to the library after a brief skim. The other, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul drew me in, and I soon got lost in the tale of birders of North America.
In many ways the book is actually a history of bird books and guides. As someone who has done a watercolor of a cardinal, I appreciated the discussion of the virtues of an artistic rendering over a photograph (and vice versa). The author, an established birder himself, goes as far back as Native American mythology to describe what may have been America’s first ornithologists. He describes in detail early bird book authors from colonial times (and how some wrote books that plagiarized sections of other books).
I greatly enjoyed the chapter on how Roger Tory Peterson’s guide became the established bird guide and why. Here’s one quote from that chapter by ecologist Paul Ehrlich: “no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson.” Yet the author himself as a boy had not chosen to buy Peterson’s guide but a Golden Field Series book instead. This is a good example of how competition is good for producing an improved product. The Golden book covered all the birds of North America, and the birds were depicted in color.
Bird lists and competitions are described in the book – a few famous bird “chaser” tales are told. The author talks of traveling to the Aleutian Islands to see a whiskered auklet. Then there is Kenn Kaufmann’s story of traveling to New Jersey to see a European spotted redshank only to find it was actually a greater yellowlegs with oil on its feathers. Some famous bird watchers are women, such as Rosalie Edge who founded the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. A great place to go birding is New Jersey, according to Weidensaul, and in particular Cape May “may be the single best place in North America—perhaps in the world—for birding.”
One of the draws about this particular bird book is the author’s style of writing. I could so relate to his description of his many bird books and how they proliferate about his house like rabbits. He and his wife have discussed, with perfectly straight faces, the need to “buy a larger house simply to store all our books.”
Do you have a favorite bird book or guide? What would you look for in a good field guide? Have you read any books about birding that have been particularly useful or interesting?