Bird Watching and Field Guides: A Brief History

Bird watching has been a hobby for a few centuries now, though mostly for those in possession of time and enough resources to enjoy hobbies in the first place. In the last century, however, the pastime has become a lusty, serious affair for millions of self-identified bird watchers from all over the world. For millions of bird watchers in the United States, fledgling and established, there are hundreds of bird species to view and appreciate their wild splendor with the right tools in hand.

To be an effective bird watcher in the field (whether meadow or concrete jungle), one needs keen awareness, lots of patience, and a toolkit of sorts: a pair of comfortable shoes, a solid pair of binoculars, and an informative, intuitive bird guide. Since that last part is tricky, here’s a brief history and list of American field guides.

Gyrfalcon from different angles.

An example of Audubon’s lifelike representation of birds in “The Birds of America.” [Image: www.wikipedia.org]

The Birds of America

It could be said that the first widely known North American bird guide was created by artist and naturalist, John James Audubon. His most famous work, The Birds of America, was released as a series of prints between 1827 and 1838. Made up of paintings and illustrations that shine with life and charge imaginations, Audubon relied heavily on wire- and thread-posed deceased specimens.

Birds Through an Opera-Glass

By the end of the 19th century, preservation of bird species had taken a more prominent role in what was becoming an enthusiastic birding community. Birds Through an Opera-Glass by Florence A. Merriam Bailey centered on bird identification from a distance rather than taking the birds from their environments. This reflected a trend toward nature observation, which was coming to the fore at the time. And while literally less hands-on, it helped bring in a generation of birders that were more concerned with environmental conservation than the exotic plumages they might collect from around the world.

A bird of paradise throws leaves at the camera

“Here, take these leaves instead!” [Image: www.giphy.com]

Peterson Field Guides

Roger Tory Peterson, a renowned ornithologist, set out to make a field guide accessible to amateurs and laymen rather than just scientists concerned with the study of birds and other animals. The first of these, Guide to the Birds, was printed in 1934, and its initial run of 2,000 copies sold out within one week. This field guide, along with the Peterson Identification System, refined and made Bailey’s ideas of using field marks to identify birds in the wild and from a distance even more practical. This, in turn, helped bolster the cause for greater conservation and environmental mindfulness. His guides, now more than three dozen in number, remain indelibly relevant and useful today.

The Sibley Guide to Birds

The Sibley Guide to Birds is widely considered the most comprehensive guide to North American bird identifying ever created. Published in 2000, the guide includes illustrations of 810 avian species. While the compendium is undoubtedly built upon the shoulders of its predecessors, it soars above them—if you’ll pardon the pun—not least of all because of its illustrations depicting each species in flight, a thorough representation that had not been included before.

Bird Watching an American robin on a leaf-strewn yard

The American robin is just about the most recognizable bird around, but can you tell a lady robin from a gentleman? With the right bird guide in hand, you’ll be able to discern that and more! [Image: www.birdingisfun.com]

The Future of Birding?

All About Birds is an online bird guide offered for free through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is one of the best resources a bird watcher can ask for, and reasonably represents a possible future for birding. While you can’t exactly carry it along with you in the field—yet—it succeeds in blending the sport of birding with technology in its own way. You can search this guide with the touch of a few keys by describing a bird’s size, shape, or color. This guide also puts you in touch with the aural end of birding as the description of each species is accompanied by its call or song.

Choosing the right bird guide is not unlike picking a car insurance provider or deciding how you want your coffee prepared from a local cafe’s immense menu—there are many options, each performing the task in a different way. There are guides that pose deeper taxonomic questions or ones with detailed illustrations. Some offer a wealth of information about nesting, feeding, or other behavioral attributes while others elaborate less, so as not to overload a beginner—it’s really your personal preference and what information interests you that matters.

Most importantly, no matter your level of expertise or lack thereof, you can get out and enjoy a good bird walk today, even if winter is on its way—just remember to dress warmly and stay sharp. And feel free to add your own bird guide notes or advice in the comments!

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