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Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding
Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding
Scott Weidensaul
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2024
358 pp., 25.00

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The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
336 pp., 24.00

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Cindy Crosby

For the Birds

What are we looking for?

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, are  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 to get it going for the first fifty pages or so. Then he hits his stride, and the rewards for the reader are rich. He begins with the Native Americans and white Roanoke settler Governor John White. Rosen starts with the rapscallion genius John James Audubon and a macabre tale about the death of Audubon's favorite parrot at the hands of a pet monkey (Rosen uses this story to frame much of his narrative). Both authors are fascinated by Audubon—"what a damnably awkward challenge Audubon still poses, almost two centuries after his pinnacle," writes Weidensaul—and like countless others, they can't help but be drawn in by his charismatic persona.

Weidensaul's apt to go off on tangents, such as folk names for birds or tracking a vulture or scenes from his own birding life, but the reader will probably enjoy going along for the ride, choppy as it sometimes gets. He admirably covers a lot of ground: the evolution of field guides, the rise of recreational birding, bird conservation, and the bitter divide between amateurs and professionals.

These birders are a motley crew, and their stories make lively reading. Weidensaul includes such ornithological pioneers as Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, and Elliott Coues, as well as contemporary birders Roger Tory Peterson and Kenn Kaufman. For amateur birders like myself, learning about these men (and the few women) who jumpstarted ornithology lends understanding to some common bird names in my field guides (think "Bell's vireo") as well as their Latin monikers (Pica nuttalli, named in honor of naturalist Thomas Nuttall). Weidensaul explains that Eastern birds are often named for a location ("Cape May warbler") and Western birds for a person. I also learned that birders consider it bad manners if you discover a new rarity and name it for yourself. You are supposed to wait until an ornithological friend discovers a bird and names it for you.

In an era when birdfeeders are as common in backyards as barbeque grills, it's difficult to remember that in the 19th century, the idea of looking at birds for the sake of observation was revolutionary. As Weidensaul writes, "To the general public, birds were usually seen through a strictly utilitarian lens—either as valuable for sport, food, or pest control, or viewed as vermin to be stamped out when their behavior conflicted with human interests." Indeed, birds such as robins and red-winged blackbirds showed up regularly on hotel dinner menus. Birds were important for their economic influence (eating weed seeds), stuffed for private natural history collections in homes, and prized for their feathers as millenary decoration. The modern Audubon societies, shaped by late 19th-century women's club movements, would change all of this. By the turn of the century, as birds became moral symbols rather than just scientific specimens, birding was shifting decisively from shotgun to field-glass ornithology.

Weidensaul also connects the rise of popular birding to the growth of the automotive culture and the evolution of the field guide. Although field guides had been around for a long time, Roger Tory Peterson's landmark work of 1934 was distinctively accessible to the non-scientist, as well as being portable and affordable. Peterson, whose name became a brand, opened many eyes to the natural world for the first time, Weidensaul argues: "Field guides make the natural world knowable." Indeed, this evolution in field guides, he says, helped to provide the impetus for the modern environmental movement.

It is here that the contrast in tone between the two books is most salient, even as their fundamental concerns intertwine. For Rosen, birding is a way to find his place in a diminished landscape—birds represent the "shards of a broken world." Of the two authors, Rosen thinks more deeply about the paradoxical relationship between man and birds: "We need to subdue the natural world in order to thrive in its midst, but subduing it too fully will ultimately destroy us."

Birds such as the elusive (and possibly extinct) ivory-billed woodpecker, Rosen writes, can help us see who we really are: "wild children of American fantasy … but equally biblical, stewards of the earth." Rosen, who is Jewish, says this stewardship comes about because of a divine spark in us which calls us to become caretakers of the earth: "I'm not saying you can't be a conservationist without this feeling—it's just harder for me to understand what we owe the ivory-billed woodpecker without it." He points to the Kabbalistic tradition in which each person has a sacred task to repair the earth. "Perhaps birdwatching is a living metaphor for this mystical process."

Rosen's bent for the symbolic, while intriguing, can become overwrought, as when he writes about the much-vilified introduction of the house sparrow around 1850, and the reaction of ornithologists: "I sometimes think that in some unconscious way they were acknowledging, through their hatred of this bird, a certain dark awareness of what European settlers had done to the native human population of America." Sometimes, a house sparrow is just a house sparrow.

Both Weidensaul and Rosen are laudably passionate about conservation, although of the two, Rosen is more conflicted and predictably melancholy: "Never have I better understood the meaning of Hegel's observation ["the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk"], which essentially means that insight arrives when the end is near, or that cultures peak when they are about to die, than when I started birding." Later, he writes poignantly, "If we don't shore up the earth, the skies will be empty." Birding has changed him for the better: "Dawn and dusk matter differently to me now, and the seasons, tied to the arrival of birds and the departure of birds, bind me to the earth in subtle and important ways." Beautifully said.

And Weidensaul would heartily agree. He decries changes in birding that have made it more superficial, "another outlet for frenzied hyperactivity." This sort of birding—where compulsive life-listers are apathetic to the birds and their habitats, driven only by the desire to rack up more bird sightings than the other guy—prompts him to call for "a path in which the thrill of the sport is tempered by a celebration of the creature that makes it all possible—the small, contained miracle that is a bird."

Weidensaul is right. Next time you see an iridescent hummingbird probing a flower for nectar, a scarlet cardinal cracking sunflower seeds at the backyard feeder, or a heron wading along the shoreline, take time to look. Not only the skies, but also our lives, would be emptier for their absence.

Cindy Crosby is the author of three books, including By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer (Paraclete), and editor/compiler of The Ancient Christian Devotional (InterVarsity Press).

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