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Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding
368 pp., $25.00
The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
336 pp., $24.00
For the Birds
I rarely go on a trip without packing binoculars. The chance to visit a new locale means the opportunity to discover a bird I haven't seen before. My biggest travel dilemma often boils down to this: Which field guide do I take? With a shelf full of bird books, it's no easy decision.
I'm not alone. With an estimated 46 million birders in America today—and birding one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies—there should be a ready audience for Scott Weidensaul's Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding and Jonathan Rosen's The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature.
Although both are about birding, these are very different books. Weidensaul's mostly chronological history of birding is chock-full of bizarre characters and historical and personal anecdotes. He comes across as the likeable guy next door: telling stories of watching The Beverly Hillbillies as a child (and hating Miss Jane Hathaway for making birders look like nerds); spinning folksy tales of expeditions where liquor-preserved specimens were lost when the alcohol was siphoned off by thirsty men; and confessing to the shelf-staggering loads of field guides that threaten to take over his house. Although his writing here is not as lyrical as in his superlative Living on the Wind, his grasp of birding and joy in birds comes across on every page. Weidensaul's proverbial glass is full to brimming.
Rosen, on the other hand, is the brooding intellectual for whom birding is a path to self-understanding and a means of moving toward the mystery of something greater than himself. In birding, he writes, "you are eventually forced to recognize that the way to the universal is through the particular." Birds, for Rosen, areÂ symbols of loss and the hunt for something—he doesn't know exactly what, but he yearns for it, nevertheless. His glass is half empty, but he doesn't want it to stay that way.
The history of birding is a vast, sprawling subject, and it's not surprising that Weidensaul struggles ...