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The Catbird Seat: Whence Came Caps?

By Pete Dunne; Illustration by Jeff Sipple
Why do birders wear baseball caps?

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I received a call the other day from my friend (and ornitho-historian) Paul Baicich. Paul is to bird study what Talmud scholars are to Torah interpretation, and at the heart of almost every call from him is a question.

“When did baseball caps become the rage among bird watchers?” he asked.

Not being one of the beautiful birders, I’ve never paid much attention to birding fashion trends.

“Sorry, Paul. I couldn’t say. I’m a visor man myself.”

“Well isn’t a visor just a baseball cap with the top cut off?”

“It is not,” I bristled. “It’s a utilitarian masterpiece. An honored badge of the order of hawk watchers. Why are you so curious about baseball caps?”

“Well, Wayne Peterson and I were touring with some European birders, and it occurred to us that he and I were the only ones wearing baseball caps.”

“You don’t suppose it has something to do with baseball being an American institution?” I asked.

“Of course it has something to do with baseball and E Pluribus Unum!” Paul chastised. “But baseball caps have been around since Garfield.”

“The president or the cat?”

“President,” he said. “Modern birding goes back almost as far. To the late 1880s. I defy you to find a photo of Chester Reed or Frank M. Chapman wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.”

I had to admit it would be a challenge. Particularly since Chester Reed was almost certainly a Red Sox fan. But Paul’s question was nevertheless apt. For most of birding’s first century, birders went bareheaded or wore fedoras—big, wide-brimmed affairs that fell prey to every modest gust of wind. What winds of change could have prompted such a dramatic fashion shift? And when?

“How about the 1940s?” I suggested. “About the time birders started heading up to the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain. I’ll bet there’s a pyramid of wind-tossed fedoras lying below the North Lookout. A tight-fitting baseball cap would save many a trip down to the River of Rocks.”

“Thought of that,” said Paul. “I looked in Hawks Aloft and Birds over America. Fedoras were still the rage—except, of course, for Rosalie Edge’s upscale headpiece.”

“Something with a plume?” I suggested.

“I think Rosalie Edge was too smart to troll for goshawks,” he assured me.

“Right,” I agreed. “So what’s your guess about baseball caps and birding?”

“I seem to recall the trend started in the 1970s or perhaps early ’80s,” said Paul. “There’s a photo of Roger Peterson wearing what looks like a baseball cap on the 1983 California Big Day.”

I tried to picture Roger’s mane of white hair sticking out from under the brim of the baseball cap.

“And in Arthur Allen’s Stalking Birds with Color Camera there’s one photo of the 1950 National Audubon Society convention field trip to Long Island showing four baseball-type caps in the crowd.”

Four. A similar photo taken today would show 400. Heck, there isn’t a whistle-stop bird club, crossroads bird festival, or hole-in-the-wall nature center that doesn’t have an emblematic baseball cap for sale. They are badges of our prized affiliations, tokens of our travels.

“Attu?” I suggested.

“Gesundheit,” Paul replied.

“No, Attu Island,” I said. “Coast Guard LORAN Station. Baseball caps are standard garb among Coasties. I’ll bet every birder who went to Attu purchased a cap from LORAN Station Attu. And didn’t birders start going to Attu in the late ’70s or ’80s? That fits your timetable.”

“You’re suggesting that the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for birders wearing baseball caps?”

“It’s just a theory, but it explains why European birders don’t wear baseball caps.”

“Why’s that?”

“Old World birders aren’t interested in going to Attu to see Old World birds,” I said, “and it’s a long way to go just to buy a hat. Now I’ve got a question for you. What about birder vests? When did jackets without sleeves become birding apparel?”

We never did come up with a really good answer about baseball caps and birders. We’re still working on the birding vest question, too.

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