My first field guide
How a pocket-size book published in 1949 managed to inspire generations of naturalists
Published: February 15, 2011
|It should surprise no one (least of all my insurance agent) that I own a pretty extensive birding library.|
Co-own, I should say. My wife Linda’s dowry included, among other things, The Birds of Canada, The Birds of Alberta, and her own copy of Leslie Brown and Dean Amadon’s Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World.
A quick perusal of our bookshelf will grant you spine-on looks at Munias and Mannikins, The Shorebirds of North America (leatherbound, signed), The Hen Harrier by Donald Watson, Familiar Hawaiian Birds by J. d’Arcy Northwood, William Leon Dawson’s four-volume series The Birds of California, three first-edition Petersons (none a first printing), and one innocuous but fascinating little accounting titled Forty Years Notes of a Field Ornithologist by John Krider (subtitle: Giving a Description of All Birds Killed and Prepared by Him).
Yep, a pretty eclectic array.
But arguably and almost certainly, the most important and catalytic book of all sits way up on the topmost shelf — strategically and thematically sandwiched between those seminal Peterson field guides and the dozen or so titles that bear my name. It is called, simply and poignantly, Birds. Subtitle: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds.
It was my first field guide to the birds, the book, I realize now, that made me the birder — make that birdwatcher — that I am today. If you too started birding in the 1950s, ’60s, or even ’70s, you may well be able to relate. A surprising number of birders can.
The road to insight, and to this column, began with a query from New Jersey Audubon’s sales manager, Denis Cleary. Via email, he asked all New Jersey Audubon teacher-naturalists to submit the top five or so books that brought them to intimacy with the natural world.
I think it shocked everyone that the hip-pocket-size paperback with American Robins on the cover made almost every list. Published in 1949 by Simon and Schuster, it was written and edited by a professor at the University of Illinois named Herbert S. Zim and the first director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ira Noel Gabrielson. The book was the down payment on the Golden Nature Guides, founded and edited for 25 years by Zim, a field-guide dynasty that spanned the natural spectrum and inspired generations of young naturalists, starting with my own.
I was born in 1951 and started birding in 1958. Birds, featuring “112 birds in full color,” fell into my hands and remained, for the next five years, my standard reference, the guide that guided my approach to bird study.
Only now, 52 years on, do I begin to appreciate the true genius of the guide. Designed for young readers, the front material is a simple blueprint to birdwatching and how it’s done. Whole books have been written on the subject. Zim covered it all — equipment needs, where to look, how to look, why to look, and how to use the book — in five terse but engaging pages.
In one page he covers bird topography. It was there that I learned the names that would fall off my tongue for the rest of my life: crown, rump, primaries, secondaries, coverts....
In three pages he runs through bird classification, summarizing, visually and in text, that all-so-important first step in the identification process: First find the church — that is, family. Find the pew and seat (genus and species) later.
And then, still in the book’s front material, the author went on to open a world of engagement and possibility to eager young minds. Sections on feeding birds, providing food and shelter, creating a local refuge, bird banding, bird photography, bird counts and censuses, and perhaps most important, a short summary titled “Life Histories.”
An enticing admission
It opens with an enticing admission: “So much is still unknown about the way birds live that any careful observer can gather new information of scientific value.” Imagine: You are a seven-year-old kid growing up in suburbia, and you are told that you can gather information of scientific value, that what you do is important. Wow!
Most of the pages are dedicated to the 112 species covered by the book. In the phylogenetic order recognized by the day, it began with “Loon” (with a depiction of Common Loon) and ended with Song, Swamp, and Fox Sparrows.
The plates are wonderful. They are the work of James Gordon Irving. (When Zim teamed up with Bertel Bruun and Chandler Robbins in 1966 to craft the other Golden Guide, Birds of North America — an adult guide for that first generation of young naturalists who were now grown up and ready and eager for more — the artist was Arthur Singer.)
I read, recently, that one of the selling merits of Richard Crossley’s anticipated field guide (The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds, Princeton, April 2011) is its employment of natural settings to serve as the backdrop for species depictions. (Other authors — from Peterson to Robbins to Kaufman to Sibley — chose wholly or mostly to isolate their figures.) Well, the little Golden Guide was setting- and habitat-supportive over 60 years ago, and it’s probably only fair to point out that the Chester A. Reed field guides did it before that.
Evocative settings: perched Barn Owls set against a pastoral backdrop of barns and farmland, Common Loon swimming on a northern lake, Killdeer with four cryptic eggs nestled upon a gravel and grass-edged substrate, Common Tern poised on an ocean beach, House Sparrow with a beak full of grass for a nest poised on the roof of, of course, a house.
Not just illustrations; works of art. And not just art, but educational tools, visual links between the birds and their habitat.
The text? Simple. Terse. Elemental genius. It shied away from directing readers to details. It directed them, instead, toward easily seen characteristics, like the black mask of a male “Yellow-throat.” Often, species accounts began with some idiosyncratic behavioral trait, like the nuthatch’s habit of climbing down trees headfirst. At other times, vocalization constitutes the signature clue. For Black-capped Chickadee, the text reads, “Its call is its name.”
Simple. Elemental. Apt. Written for young minds that had yet to be indoctrinated into the binding discipline called “field identification.”
Did the guide have flaws? Most certainly. First and foremost, it was abridged. Many of the birds I saw as a child were not depicted, although most were mentioned in the text. The book also, and clearly, had a pronounced eastern bias. Lots of suburban kids growing up in places like California were going to look at Acorn Woodpeckers, dark morph Red-tailed Hawks, or other common birds and find their discoveries unsanctified by an illustration.
A pair of reasons
But flaws notwithstanding, there were two final and determining things about this book that made it the catalytic achievement it was:
First, it fit in a back pocket, a kid-size back pocket, and being paper-bound, contoured itself comfortably for a whole, glorious, kid-size day in the field.
Second, and arguably most important, the book was cheap and widely available — sold in your average discount department stores. I don’t know who the marketing genius at Simon and Schuster was who swung this deal, but in doing so, he or she changed the universe.
Mine at the very least.
So here I am, typing, more than 50 years later, writing about a rump-contoured, pocket-size book that sits next to a computer, a device that wasn’t even dreamed of when I purchased the guide. Of course, I went on to buy (or was given) the other Golden Guides when they were published. Insects, mammals, freshwater fishes, reptiles, amphibians — what knowledge I have of these animal groups is greatly anchored there.
Best of all, most of those Golden Guides remain in print today — “revised and updated” and now published by St. Martin’s Press. In the pages of the new edition on birds, showing a male cardinal on the cover, not robins, you’ll see not only Cattle Egret, which wasn’t even found in North America when the first edition was published, but also that the range map for House Finch now includes areas east of the Mississippi.
The book retains many of the shortfalls of the original guide, but the text exhorts young and incipient naturalists to go out and engage the world around them with open minds, to look at birds with more ambition than simply pinning names to them. Names: an important first step in the familiarization process but certainly not the last.
Books in Pete’s Library
The Bird Book, by Chester A. Reed. Doubleday, 1914.
Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds, by Ira Noel Gabrielson and Herbert S. Zim. Simon and Schuster, 1949.
The Birds of Alberta, by Alberta Hawse. Multnomah Books, 1995.
The Birds of California, by William Leon Dawson. South Moulton Company, 1923.
Birds of Canada, by W. Earl Godfrey. Ottawa, 1966.
Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification, by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim. Golden Press, 1966.
Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons of the World, by Leslie Brown and Dean Amadon. The Wellfleet Press, 1989.
Familiar Hawaiian Birds, by J. d’Arcy Northwood. Thomas Nickerson, 1940.
A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
Forty Years Notes of a Field Ornithologist: Giving a Description of All Birds Killed and Prepared by Him, by John Krider. Press of Joseph H. Weston, 1879.
The Hen Harrier, by Donald Watson. T. & A.D. Poyser Ltd., 1977.
Munias and Mannikins, by Robin L. Restall. Pica Press, 2000.
The Shorebirds of North America. Edited by Gardner D. Stout, text by Peter Matthiessen, paintings by Robert Verity Clem, species accounts by Ralph S. Palmer. Viking Press, 1967.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.