Birding as a social activity has a
number of institutions that both
define and bind it. These include
bird clubs, hotlines, birding listservs,
bird festivals, bird tours, birding
camps, birding magazines, and more.
Bird walks—a.k.a. “field trips”—are
one of bird watching’s most celebrated
yet taken-for-granted activities. Go to
any birding hotspot in peak season, and
you can barely swing a binocular without
smacking a field trip leader in the face. If
you’re fortunate enough to miss, your instrument
will almost certainly strike one
or more binocular-toting acolytes.
It’s easy to peg the leader. He or she is
the one at the head of the line shouting
out directions, gesturing, and recounting
textbook field marks. The leadees will be
the ones with binoculars fused to their
eyes and looks of intense concentration
mapped across their faces.
Some oohing and ahhing. Some “whereing”
and “well, I’m not seeing whatever
the heck he called this thing-ing.”
I’ll bet on any given Saturday morning
in May several thousand “regularly
scheduled” bird walks are in progress at
refuges, Audubon centers, national parks,
city parks, and sewage treatment facilities
across North America. I’ve been guilty of
leading a few thousand of them myself.
So here’s a question for you ornithohistorians.
How did this arcane activity
get started? What is the origin of the bird
Maybe, like me, you just assumed
that the bird field trip is as old as birding.
Maybe it is. But bird watching as a
social activity isn’t that old. The idea of
engaging birds just for the fun of it didn’t
really get legs until the invention
of optics, and it didn’t gain
traction until the publication of
Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide
Prior to this there were certainly
people who were interested in
birds. These were ornithologists.
But in the 19th century, the act
of going outdoors and searching
for birds was largely a solo activity
or, at most, an activity done
with two or three individuals of
equivalent skill and focus. A little
like hunting—in fact, a lot like
Equally skilled. Not leaders
and followers. Not the club “Field
Trip Chairman” at the head of the
line, pinning names to canopy-skipping
forms, and everyone else gaining from the
chair’s knowledge base.
If you look at the yellowed publications
of venerable old ornithological clubs you’ll
see 19th-century accounts of field excursions
but no mention of “next month’s trip
to Bombay Hook.” Move a few decades
ahead, to various bird club publications,
and you’ll find accounts of conservation
initiatives, impending legislation, meeting
minutes, and praise for evening speakers.
I find nothing akin to: “Meet field trip
leaders at 6:00 A.M. sharp in the parking lot
across from the refuge bathrooms. Bring
binoculars and field guides. Note: there
will be no other restroom opportunities
until we break at 10:00. Monitor your
So how and when did the idea of a
bunch of people getting together to go out
and watch birds start? I do find accounts
in bird club reports from just after World
War II about annual gatherings, and some
of them mention the concept of a morning
“walk.” And earlier, in 1937, Dorothea A.
Treat wrote an article for Bird-Lore titled,
“Building a Birding Interest.” The focus?
How a “nature leader” can ignite interest
And in the Thirty-fourth Annual Report
of the New Jersey Audubon Society, published
in 1947, I read: “Bird walks [italics
mine] were arranged under the chairmanship”
of one Edward B. Lang, who urged
that “at least one such walk should be included
in each year’s program.”
Seems the idea caught on. Cape May
alone now has about 500 scheduled bird
walks a year.
So, is there anybody out there who did a
bird walk with Dorothea Treat or Edward
Lang? Or does anyone recall a pre-Treat
figure at the head of the line pointing out
birds? We post-Treat ornitho-historians
would love to know.