Book Review: Of a Feather, by Scott Weidensaul

Reviewed by Stephen J. Bodio
January 15, 2008

Birding has certainly come of age, and with these two excellent histories it has become possible for those of us who are addicted to this sport (pastime? obsession?) to examine where we have been and where we are going.

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These books are complementary rather than competitive, and each adds its virtues to the other. Weidensaul, the more experienced and “scientific” birder, gives us history and structure. Rosen, a relative newcomer, also roots his book in history, but enthusiastically chases down digressions literary, philosophical, and geographical. Weidensaul provides just enough personal anecdote to leaven his history, Rosen enough history to anchor his diversions.

If you are going to read both—as I think any birder interested in birding’s roots and branches should—I recommend starting with Weidensaul. He erects a sturdy structure on which the information, anecdote, and ornament of both books can stand. After a quick field trip on the coast of Maine he wings past the Native Americans and starts with early colonists’ reports. He rediscovers one of the early observers, John Lawson, who described many species in his 1709 A New Voyage to Carolina. Later protobirders are better known and get more space—Mark Catesby, William Bartram, and, of course, John James Audubon. Of Bartram he perceptively writes: “For the first time, we encounter not an immigrant, but an American naturalist on his home turf, a man exulting in the wilderness he explores.” We sometimes forget its splendor today, even as we routinely lament its loss; as Weidensaul writes, speaking of Audubon: “Simply imagine the raw spectacle of a healthy, undiminished continent’s worth of songbirds overwashing the winter-gray land with movement and color, the incalculable hundreds of millions of warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, and more. Even today, after centuries of erosion, the great aerial ballet of spring migration is a staggering thing to see. In those days, it must truly have been breathtaking. The question isn’t why were these men ensnared by America’s birds: the question is why wasn’t everyone struck dumb by them?”

Alexander Wilson and his brilliant successor, Audubon, properly get a chapter to themselves. As Weidensaul remarks, Wilson may deserve credit as father of American ornithology, but Audubon’s “very name has become synonymous with birds.” As a painter he was touched by genius, unlike the wooden Wilson; as a self-promoter he had no equal, recreating himself in the capital-R Romantic image of the American frontiersman: “Whereas at Mill Grove he had tried to hide his humble origins and project an air of nobility, when he eventually traveled to England and Scotland in the 1820s to promote his Birds of America, he made sure to look every inch the ‘American Woodsman’ he proclaimed himself to be . . . it was a shrewd affectation that fit perfectly with the Romantic view of the wilderness then in vogue, and it would have worked equally well in our celebrity-conscious century.” But despite his sometimes-exaggerated compositions and his unreliable writings, it is hard not to see in Audubon the beginnings of the popular image of birds in our society. Weidensaul asks of Audubon and his contemporaries “What was it about America’s frontier that kept turning rudderless dreamers, ne’er-do-wells, and idlers into maniacally focused naturalists?” As the frontier moves west, his cast continues to be eccentric, from the Hungarian fantasist Xantus to the German-born and renamed Prussian Charles Bendire. Many were Indian- fighting military men or Army doctors, whose names (Bendire, Coues, Hammond) are now associated with their birds—“men on horseback with guns” in Weidensaul’s phrase. Another, also introduced in the chapter on Shotgun Ornithology, is a woman, Florence Merriam Bailey. She wrote both the magisterial and still-useful Birds of New Mexico and the first popular bird guide, Birds Through an Opera Glass.

At this point, as Weidensaul says, the narrative fragments. The frontier moved west and closed, while ornithology itself remained rooted (as it still was until well after World War II) in the East, in Boston and New York. Scientific collectors and hunters began their conflict with what Weidensaul aptly calls the “Angry Ladies.” As prominent an ornithologist as William Brewster bought 61 Ivory-billed Woodpecker skins, some from a collector who advertised in the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) scientific journal The Auk. When asked in 1902 to address an Audubon Society meeting, the incoming president of the AOU sniffed, “I do not protect birds. I kill them.”

The tide was turning, as suffragettes and feminists protested feathered hats and the naturalist Ludlow Griscom began to convince skeptics that he could reliably identify a bird at a distance. Silliness and virtue could characterize both “sides.” Some of the protectionists were sentimental about songbirds and perpetrated the “evil hawk” myth, while “the bloodless sport of field identification” wouldn’t have been possible without shotguns and collectors. But good binoculars and the pioneering artwork of a student of Griscom’s (Roger Tory Peterson) led to a new synthesis. Weidensaul is particularly good on the evolution of the field guide, from Peterson through Sibley and Kaufman, and clearly explains the virtues of each.

He ends with modern birding linking once more with science, giving as an example the banding studies he and fellow amateurs are doing with saw-whet owls. A sentence from this account could ably sum up his book: “[T]his trend has been given the catchy title ‘citizen science,’ but in fact, this remerging of science and hobby brings ornithology back to its amateur roots in a way that is of immense and immediate benefit to the birds—an integration . . . of the many threads that form the tapestry of American bird study: science, sport, and conservation.”

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