history

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

  The Age of Enlightenment in Europe brought us, among other things, Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution, the Dutch Golden Age, Voltaire, both the American and the French revolutions,  Diderot’s massive compilation of all things known and unknown: the Encyclopedia, and this guy, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, author of a 36-volume massive work of Natural History, called Histoire…

Roger Tory Peterson

When you or I think of field guides, we most likely think of Peterson Field Guides. Roger Tory Peterson, the author of the series, became a birder as a child, and after years of watching and studying birds, he set out to create his own practical guide to bird identification that could be used in the field. His book Guide…

Chester Reed

Frank Chapman’s illustrator was also responsible for his own series of pocket sized guides for beginning birders. Two oddly shaped little books appeared in 1905 and 1906,  published by Doubleday. They were long and narrow, about the size of a checkbook, each simply titled Bird Guide; one covered waterbirds, game birds, and raptors, and the other covered songbirds of North American from…

Color Key to North American Birds

Another step towards the modern field guide happened in 1903, when ornithologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Frank Chapman worked with illustrator Chester Reed to produce a book whose sole aim was “the identification of the bird in the bush”. Their Color Key to North American Birds (available here through Project Gutenberg) was the first to rely on…

Florence Merriam

Birding in Audubon’s time was about crazed amateurs tramping through an endless American wilderness, determined to draw every bird there was, or at least all the ones they could find. After Audubon his fans began to develop a professional class of bird enthusiasts, and the story behind birding shifted. Ornithology became a discipline, and men like  Spencer Fullerton Baird and Elliott Coues began developing departments…

Hats and Feathers

Collectors in the nineteenth century weren’t just interested in raiding nests for eggs, or collecting birds to be kept on mantelpieces. There was also the exploding market for hats with birds on them: Hats adorned with real feathers, wings, and stuffed whole wild birds were the height of fashion in the late-19th century. Woodpeckers, blue jays, waxwings and quails: all…

Shotgun Ornithology

After Audubon, ornithology began to take shape as a field of study. As an example, one of his protegees, Spencer Fullerton Baird, helped to create and direct the National Museum of Natural History for the Smithsonian. Baird cultivated a far-flung network of collectors and ornithologists who sent him specimens of birds. Many of them were US Army officers patrolling the…