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Catbird Seat: Whence Came Bird Walks

By Pete Dunne; Illustration by Jeff Sipple
How did guided bird walks get started?

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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 walk?

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 in 1934.

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 hunting.

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 coffee intake.”

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 in followers.

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.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library

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