Saturday, September 29, 2007

Book Review: "Of a Feather"

Given the sustained and growing American interest in birding over the past few years, we were about due for an updated history of the field; Scott Weidensaul's Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding (Harcourt, 2007) fills this gap admirably.

Weidensaul provides a concise synopsis of the development of American ornithology, sketching out the biographies and artistic/observational styles of Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, Audubon and other early "birders." This may be familiar territory, but Weidensaul's treatment of later figures such as John Townsend, Charles Bendire, George Bird Grinnell will be fresh to some readers. Of a Feather succinctly covers the great debates over the formation of American ornithological institutions, the "feather wars" that prompted protective actions and the beginnings of conservation efforts.

The section of Weidensaul's book I enjoyed most were the chapters on the rise of field guides; he examines the genesis of the genre and then contrasts the early efforts with Roger Tory Peterson's revolutionary guide before examining how field guides have evolved in the decades since Peterson.

Also, the discussion of comparatively-recent trends toward competition and "list-mania" is both instructive and important - Weidensaul argues that many birders today are too obsessed with ticking off species names while neglecting the big picture of conservation and ecosystem preservation. He writes "Now bird study is poised to enter what could be a fresh and, I hope, golden age. My hope for the future is a fusion of the science of birds with the love of chasing them, the best of the ornithologist and the lister, with a vehement commitment to avian well-being binding these approaches together" (p. 313). Not a bad vision.

Well-written and nicely readable, this is a good introduction to the subject. Weidensaul's citations and bibliography provide many additional sources.