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Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding

Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding

by Scott Weidensaul

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From the moment Europeans arrived in North America, they were awestruck by a continent awash with birds—great flocks of wild pigeons, prairies teeming with grouse, woodlands alive with brilliantly colored songbirds. Of a Feather traces the colorful origins of American birding: the frontier ornithologists who collected eggs between border skirmishes; the society


From the moment Europeans arrived in North America, they were awestruck by a continent awash with birds—great flocks of wild pigeons, prairies teeming with grouse, woodlands alive with brilliantly colored songbirds. Of a Feather traces the colorful origins of American birding: the frontier ornithologists who collected eggs between border skirmishes; the society matrons who organized the first effective conservation movement; and the luminaries with checkered pasts, such as Alexander Wilson (a convicted blackmailer) and the endlessly self-mythologizing John James Audubon. Scott Weidensaul also recounts the explosive growth of modern birding that began when an awkward schoolteacher named Roger Tory Peterson published A Field Guide to the Birds in 1934. Today birding counts iPod-wearing teens and obsessive "listers" among its tens of millions of participants, making what was once an eccentric hobby into something so completely mainstream it’s now (almost) cool. This compulsively readable popular history will surely find a roost on every birder’s shelf.

Editorial Reviews

John Wilson
Weidensaul, a federally licensed bird bander and the author of a number of previous books, writes with the ease of someone who is confident that the story he’s recounting will hold our attention.
—The New York Times
Gregory McNamee
At once gossipy and scholarly, Of a Feather recounts rivalries, controversies, bad behavior and other key episodes in the making of modern birding. Lively and illuminating…
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Weidensaul (Return to Wild America) traces bird watching in America from colonial times to the present, when powerful binoculars and other sophisticated technologies have revolutionized the sport. He entertainingly describes many early naturalists who shot and collected birds, including Mark Catesby, John and William Bartram, some military men and an intrepid woman named Martha Maxwell. By the late 19th century, when entire bird populations had been decimated for sport, food and the millinery trade, formidable society ladies began demanding avian protection, the Audubon Society was created and recreational birding, featuring binoculars instead of guns, was born, aided by the emergence of field guides like Roger Tory Peterson's. Today, says Weidensaul, there are millions of birders in the United States, and the sport has entered a new phase, emphasizing competitive birding, lists, rarity chasing and Big Year records. For Weidensaul, this is not a good thing. He finds that people who concentrate on competition and listing often forget the enjoyment of mere observation and the importance of conservation. A naturalist and federally licensed bird bander, he is passionate about birding. His vivid descriptions of his own experiences should send many a reader out of doors to look for "the small, contained miracle that is a bird." Photos. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
From Pulitzer Prize finalist Weidensaul (Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul, 2005, etc.), a popular history of one of the country's fastest-growing pastimes: birding. Over the past two centuries, it's grown from a hobby of the shy and eccentric to a craze among tens of millions of mainstream Americans. The narrative begins with the first Europeans encountering a vast new continent of natural wonders unknown in the Old World: flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons blotting out the sun; fields teeming with grouse and quail; songbirds of wondrous music and color never before seen. Weidensaul deftly notes the parallels between the evolution of the republic and the development of ornithology, a new science that benefited from enthusiastic amateurs spending thousands of man-hours providing observation data. The quirky cast of characters includes Alexander Wilson, a Scottish ne'er-do-well and convicted blackmailer who established one of the Ur-texts of ornithology; John James Audubon, whose army of lockstep preservationists prevailed over the near disaster wrought by "market shooting"; and the father of modern birding, a shy schoolteacher named Roger Tory Peterson. The author quotes extensively from early ornithologists, an indulgence more than justified not only by the rare picture they provide of a North America that no longer exists, but by the novelty and wonder of their prose. Present conditions stem fairly directly from past figures and events, we learn. For example, thanks to the efforts of a group of high-society Boston ladies, there is now a federal ban on shooting wild birds. Weidensaul traces the fascinating evolution of ornithology from acollection-oriented discipline based on shooting and stuffing birds to today's science, oriented toward the observation of living birds. Concomitantly, he depicts birding's progression from a clubby hobby to a mass recreation. Highly readable, ideal for bird lovers and history buffs alike. Agent: Peter Matson/Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.
From the Publisher

"At once gossipy and scholarly, Of a  Feather recounts rivalries, controversies, bad behavior and other key episodes in the making of modern birding. Lively and illuminating, it has surprises, too."—The Washington Post Book World

"Weidensaul is a charming guide . . . You don't have to be a birder to enjoy this look at one of today's fastest-growing (and increasingly competitive) hobbies."—The Arizona Republic

Library Journal
A compelling story from Colonial times to the present by one of today's best natural history writers, describing not just birders but also scientists and conservationists. (LJ 8/07)

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Read an Excerpt

“Birds . . . more beautiful than in Europe”
It was a cool, lightly foggy day along the midcoast of Maine, the cries of herring gulls mixing with the throb of lobster boat engines out in Muscongus Bay. A dozen and a half birders were strung out along a beaver pond, spotting scopes perched atop tripods, their binoculars focused on a tangle of blueberry bushes and scraggly, head-high tamaracks that poked up from the boggy mat of sphagnum moss spangled with tiny pink orchids.
           Bonnie Bochan, an ornithologist who splits her time between Maine and the Ecuadorian rain forest, stared intently at the thicket, from which a thin, slow trill emerged. “That’s a swamp sparrow,” Bonnie said quietly. “It sounds a lot like the pine warblers and juncos we’ve been hearing, but its trill isn’t as musical as the junco’s, and it’s not as fast as the pine warbler’s—you can almost count each syllable.” As though on cue, the sparrow itself hopped into view, tipped back its head and sang—a dusky bird with bright rufous wings and a dark brown cap, the feathers of its white throat quivering in song.
           A little sigh rippled through the group; for most of them, this was a new species, a life bird, and some had come from as far away as California to see it. A few were experienced birders, most of the others complete novices, but all were dressed, as birders are wont to do, with more of an eye toward practicality than fashion—nylon pants tucked into socks, wide-brimmed Gortex hats snugged under chins, outsized vests with pockets big enough for field guides, bug repellent, and water bottles. They wore mismatched rain pants and coats of differing vintage and color, but always muted—nothing so bright that it would scare the birds.
           I glanced down at myself: shabby green rain pants, a dark blue raincoat that had seen better days, a scruffy ball cap, and worn boots. Except for the expensive binoculars around my neck, I looked a bit like a hobo. I fit in perfectly.
            Every summer, I help teach a course in field ornithology on this surpassingly lovely part of the Maine coast, at an Audubon camp on Hog Island, a 330-acre sanctuary near the town of Damariscotta. For more than seventy years, birders have been coming to this spruce-clad island, including some of the greatest names in birding and bird science. When the island was donated to the National Audubon Society in 1936, NAS director John Baker dispatched a young grad student named Olin Sewall Pettingill Jr. to inspect the place, with an eye toward turning it into an educational camp for adults. Pettingill—who later became the director of the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology—gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, so Baker turned to the question of staffing. He had just the fellow to teach about birds—a chap named Roger Tory Peterson, who had published a revolutionary field guide two years earlier, and had just been placed in charge of Audubon’s education program. Peterson—in his twenties, single and good-looking—competed for birds (and for the attention of the young women campers) with Allan Cruickshank, another Audubon staffer who would go on to fame as a writer and bird photographer.
           The list goes on and on, from John James Audubon, who passed through the area in 1832–33, to Rachel Carson, who lived just down the coast and wrote about the old ship’s chandlery on Hog Island. Kenn Kaufman, who has lifted Peterson’s mantle as one of the great popularizers of birding, is an instructor. Audubon scientist Steve Kress worked in the camp kitchen one summer as a college kid, in his spare time reading accounts of the old seabird colonies in the Gulf of Maine and wondering if the birds could somehow be brought back to places like lonely Eastern Egg Rock, nine miles offshore. Today, he is a pioneer in seabird restoration, and thanks to him, puffins again nest on Eastern Egg and many other Maine islands.
           Kids keep coming to Hog Island, and dreaming. Along with the thirty-five adults, we had more than a dozen eager teen birders in camp that week, including Eve, whose bleached, bobbed hair had been dyed pink and orange, and Raymond, intense, focused, and mature beyond his seventeen years. Two years earlier, I’d taught Raymond’s best friend Ryan, and I was shocked when, the following summer, Ryan had been killed in a car crash while the two boys were on a birding trip. The wreck had almost killed Raymond, too, but he’d survived, and was following through on plans he and Ryan had made, continuing with a sophisticated research project they’d begun together to study the rosy-finches of the New Mexico mountains.
           Birding and ornithology; sport and science; amateur and professional. The gulf between the two seems pretty wide today, but in fact it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. For most of the history of bird study, there was no such division; the ornithologists were all gifted amateurs, and the science of studying birds was enmeshed with the joy of watching them. Even today, as Raymond’s project shows, the threads that link hobby and profession are thick and entangling. “Citizen-science” is the buzzword for public participation in all manner of censuses, surveys, and field research projects, but it goes deeper than that. One friend of mine, the man who knows more about ruby-throated hummingbirds than almost anyone in the world, is a retired electrician, and he’s hardly alone. Every fall, I oversee an owl migration study, one combining banding, genetics, and radiotelemetry. Among the nearly one hundred people helping out are, not surprisingly, several wildlife biologists donating their time—but my crew also includes a plumber, a math teacher, a retired soft-drink executive, and a former music teacher who repairs pianos.
           And it’s hard to find an academically trained ornithologist with a string of initials after his or her name who isn’t also an avid birder. I don’t know many structural engineers who devote their free time to visiting highway overpasses for fun, but there is something about birds that makes even those whose nine-to-five jobs are ornithological pick up their binoculars as soon as the workday is finished. That’s because in almost every case, the job followed the passion, not the other way around. Call it all “bird study,” and forget the distinctions.
           The number of people with that passion keeps growing, too. Just as the birders keep swarming to Hog Island each year, so do they jam the trails at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in south Texas looking for chachalacas and whistling-ducks, or the scrubby thickets of Cape May, New Jersey, when the warblers are dropping from the sky and the merlins and peregrines are hurtling past the dunes. They come to Point Reyes on the northern California coast, to Point Pelee in Lake Erie, and Whitefish Point in Michigan; they know that the rocky man-made islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel attract the damndest rarities, like western rock wrens and Asian black-tailed gulls, and they made an obscure roadside rest stop near Patagonia, Arizona, so celebrated for the exotic Mexican birds that turn up there that the phrase “Patagonia picnic-table effect” entered the lexicon.
           Birders stalk Central Park in Manhattan, the Mount Auburn cemetery near Boston, and Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC; they haunt the man-made Bellona Marsh in Los Angeles, Agua Caliente Park in Tucson, and Sauvie Island near Portland. They have made famous, at least within their circles, places that would make the general public blanch: the landfill at Brownsville, Texas, where you can usually find Chihuahuan ravens and an occasional Tamaulipan crow (and proximity to which is an actual selling point for nearby RV parks that cater to birders); or sewage treatment lagoons like Mitchell Lake in San Antonio, which is so birdy it has its own Audubon center. Among the hundreds of sites along the Nebraska Birding Trail are stops at sewage lagoons in Oshkosh and North Platte, but sadly, not everyone sees the attraction; the committee creating a Washington State birding trail specifically nixed including such lagoons on its list of hot spots, saying, “There may be birds, but sewage lagoons are not tourist attractions.” Which tells me the people creating the Washington birding trail weren’t really birders. Did they miss the article in Birding magazine a few years back, “North America’s Topflight Sewage Ponds”? There’s nothing like a good whiff of primary effluent to clear the sinuses on a cold morning.
           How many of us are there? The latest surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest there are 46 million birders in the United States, while another study, also sponsored by the feds but looking at all outdoor recreation, put the figure at 67.8 million—either of which would be impressive, if it were accurate. The USFWS, for instance, counts as a birder anyone who makes an effort to watch or attract birds, which means anyone who hangs a sunflower feeder or plants ornamental sage in the hope of luring hummingbirds is a “birder,” whether or not they ever crack open a field guide or join a Christmas Bird Count. (Of those 46 million, the USFWS admitted only 6 million could identify more than twenty species of birds.) But these and other studies agree that birding is one of (if not the) fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in the country. In the 1980s and 1990s, the last period for which numbers are available, it grew at more than 155 percent, more than twice the rate for the next-closest sport, hiking.

Copyright © 2007 by Scott Weidensaul
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul, who grew up in the heart of the old Eastern frontier, has written more than two dozen books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds.

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