Book Review: Of a Feather A Brief History of American Birding

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

Of a Feather A Brief History of American Birding

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?

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Of a Feather A Brief History of American Birding

  • What a nice review. I like your insight and commentary. I will definitely have to check this book out…I love birds.

    I have read The World Atlas of Birds, but that was years ago.

    I love browsing the pages of Audubon’s Birds of America: The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio. I don’t own it, and wish I did, but I do go to the library, often, and browse through it.

  • Oh for Nature Notes…goody… I too needed a light book to get me back to reading.. no drama or sadness.. not right now… I will have to get this book out of the library as you wrote a wonderful review and as long as it isn’t dry, I will like it.

    Oh I have so many guides since we moved here. My favorite in the type I sent you and the one I started with. The others are additions, but since then I have moved to plants, insects, amphibians & reptiles, gardening. I added 3 new small book cases, but they each have their own special niche as far as I am concerned…will be back for NN.. Michelle

  • That sounds like an interesting book. I have the Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds book which I refer to all the time. I also have A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard by John Hanson Mitchell which I like a lot and The Wind Birds by Peter Matthiessen which I like.

  • I’ll definitely look for this one! I borrowed a really nice guide from our library some time ago, but I’m not sure now what the name of it was. I’ll share if I find it again.

    I love the amazing variety and surprising behaviors of birds around the planet to be an endless source of wonder and delight.

    • I’ve only recently started paying attention to birds. Living in New Jersey helps – we get quite a variety, plus there are some enthusiastic birders in our area.

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