Special features

The company we’ve kept

For 25 years, an impressive cast of heroes and geniuses have been exploring and expanding the birder’s world
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 6/22/2012

BRD-B0812-500Twenty-five years? Could it be a quarter century since the first issue of Birder’s World was published?

The first issue appeared in January 1987. Even today it’s a pleasure to look at, a success worth marveling at. Published before the days of digital cameras, it delighted with gorgeous photography — the photo of the Evening Grosbeak on the cover is just a hint of the riches inside — and it did something that many magazines try to do but only the really good ones accomplish: It anticipated our questions.

For readers who marveled at the amazing, sometimes odd, and always fascinating things that birds do day in and day out, the first issue contained eye-opening articles about the unusual habits of the American Dipper, the alarm calls of the Black-capped Chickadee, and the clever ways that the Killdeer keeps its eggs cool. (The Killdeer article was the first of many excellent articles that educator, biologist, woodpecker expert, and original contributing editor Jerry Jackson would write through the years.)

For readers who wanted to share in the fun of attracting birds, the issue offered a step-by-step description of how to create a bird garden, written by conservationist and 1973 Aldo Leopold Memorial Medal winner Gustav A. Swanson.

Beautiful and useful
Birders who were curious about vagrant and out-of-season birds were presented with a detailed summary of rare-bird sightings. Chief among the inaugural issue’s highlights: a Northern (Eurasian) Hobby that was discovered on Monomoy Island, Massachusetts, in September 1986.

Birders eager to know about the best places to spot birds found an illustrated description of Washington’s Skagit River delta, the first of many beautiful, useful articles about birding hotspots to appear during the magazine’s quarter century.

And readers who hoped the new publication would keep them informed of the latest bird news were offered a treat: a five-page article on the Sandhill Crane, which decades earlier had all but disappeared from the Great Plains but in 1987 was a major conservation success story.

Subsequent articles about the captive breeding of the California Condor, the restoration of the Atlantic Puffin in Maine, the recoveries of the Peregrine Falcon and Kirtland’s Warbler, the creation of an eastern migratory flock of Whooping Cranes, and searches for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas and Florida have demonstrated the magazine’s commitment to keeping you abreast of the ever-changing world of birds.

“The logical progression of birding will ultimately lead one to ask questions about birds,” wrote Founding Editor Eldon Greij, wisely, in his first editorial. “Just being able to identify a bird will no longer be enough.”

Indeed, the birder’s world as Eldon envisioned it, and as reflected in that first issue, didn’t refer to a particular person or place but a concept, a state of mind, and it encompassed a wide array of topics — attracting, feeding, behavior, biology, news, migration, art, travel, books, photography. And with the launch of Kenn Kaufman’s column “Field Identification” in 1994, it also included bird identification. (Kenn became a contributing editor the following year. His column was renamed “ID Tips” in 2001.)

Just as important, the birder’s world embraced a universe of readers and writers that was as broad as its range of interests was wide. Many magazines tread a narrow path between two clans of binocular-toting enthusiasts: the so-called backyard birdwatchers and the traveling, list-keeping birders.

Eldon’s insight, one that guided his work on the inaugural and subsequent issues and provides a model for me today, was to realize that readers can’t be buttonholed so easily — the distinction between traveling lister and backyard birdwatcher isn’t always clear — and that, more important, birdwatching’s stool didn’t wobble on two legs; it rested squarely on three.

The third comprises the ornithologists and other researchers who work tirelessly, and too often in obscurity, to add to our knowledge about birds. The answers to the questions that they ask — what do we know about birds, how did we come to know it, and most important, what remains to be learned — are reported too little, and they’re always fascinating.

Leaders in the field
If a person can be known by the company he or she keeps, as the old saying goes, then the same can be said of a magazine: You can judge it by its writers. As a quick look at the accompanying list will show, for a quarter century this one has been keeping the company of the leading figures in the fields of ornithology and birdwatching. Jerry and Kenn are perfect examples, and it’s easy to think of more, because there are so many:

Consider Nebraska biologist Paul A. Johnsgard, the author of dozens of books about the magnificent birds found in the magnificent Great Plains. Over the years, he has contributed articles about pheasants, Burrowing Owls, Ruddy Ducks, and, as recently as April 2004, birding in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

Consider birdsong expert Donald E. Kroodsma, author of the bestselling books The Singing Life of Birds and Birdsong by the Seasons. A decade before he summarized his work in book form, he gave our readers previews of his insights with articles about identifying birds by ear and song learning and development.

Harold F. Mayfield, the only person to have served as president of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Wilson and Cooper ornithological societies, is another good example. His 1960 monograph on the Kirtland’s Warbler set the standard for life-history studies and earned him the AOU’s prestigious William Brewster Medal in 1961. Like Jerry, he was one of this magazine’s original contributing editors.

Connie Toops and Julie Craves belong on the list of leaders, too. Connie not only wrote our column “Gardening for Birds” but contributed dozens of excellent articles — about people (Tui De Roy, Robert Bateman, Allen Williams), places (the Everglades, the C&O Canal, Trinidad and Tobago), and birds (California Condor, bluebirds, Golden-winged Warbler) — and she was among the first, in October 2006, to alert birders to the uses and misuses of the newfangled music player known as the iPod.

Julie, supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has written brilliantly about an equally wide assortment of places and birds, and she has been answering readers’ questions in the column “Ask Birder’s World” (now called “Since You Asked”) since 1999.

Artist David Sibley, acclaimed author of the groundbreaking field guide The Sibley Guide to Birds and recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award in 2002, is on the list, too. His articles have appeared in Birder’s World and BirdWatching since 2006, and his popular column “ID Toolkit” has been in every issue since December 2007.

Allow me to mention two more: Robert W. Storer, professor of zoology at the University of Michigan, whose wonderful profiles of frogmouths, bowerbirds, seedsnipes, lyrebirds, and other avian exotica delighted Birder’s World readers for eight years, and John K. Terres, author of Songbirds in Your Garden and theAudubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Terres contributed articles about Northern Mockingbird, the language of crows, and Great Horned Owl, and he was at Eldon’s side at the birth of the magazine, one of the two original editorial advisors.

The other, of course, was Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide and a founder of the 20th-century environmental movement. In addition to serving as editorial advisor, he wrote about his evolution as a bird artist in an article we published in April 1989, and he hand-picked a portfolio of his favorite photos to run in our April 1994 issue. His shot of a stately pair of orange-billed Tufted Puffins graced the cover. His commendation of the magazine, quoted in an early direct-mail piece, is wholehearted and worth recalling: “I think all bird enthusiasts will find Birder’s World to be an essential part of their reading.”

He and the others who have written for Birder’s World and BirdWatching make an impressive cast of characters, and the important people whom the magazine has written about are just as impressive. They include ornithologist Alexander Skutch, artist Alexander Wilson, writer A. C. Bent, field researcher Ted Parker, conservationist George Archibald, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter, Maurice Broun, the founder of Hawk Mountain, and many others.

Standouts
An imagined dialog with Broun, recounted, memorably, in our October 1988 issue by World Series of Birding founder and contributing editor Pete Dunne, stands out among a quarter century of publishing highlights. Another standout is an essay about birdwatching and birders penned by Terry Rich in February 1993, when he was national manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Nongame Migratory Bird Habitat Conservation Strategy Plan. Today, he’s Partners in Flight national coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mixing easy humor with sharp observation and loads of field experience, Rich lays out a theory of maturing birders that aligns neatly with the “logical progression of birding” that Eldon referred to in his first editorial and that longtime birder Maeve Kim describes elsewhere in this issue. “I think birders progress through identifiable stages of increasing maturity — a maximum of seven — although some may be bypassed,” Rich writes. “Each successive stage is a progression in the inherent value of what we do.”

Every birder starts in the Discovery Stage, explains Rich, and then he or she passes through a Learning Stage, a Seeing Stage (the “honeymoon of birding”), a Life List Stage, a Trophy Stage (when the birder plans trips and takes advantages of opportunities to see rare or hard-to-find species), and the Technique Stage, the sixth stage, when the birder starts doing the same Christmas counts or Breeding Bird Survey routes every year.

Individuals move through the stages at different times and at different rates, Rich allows, and the stages don’t stand clearly by themselves; rather, they overlap, sometimes considerably. What’s more, not everyone reaches the seventh and final stage of birding, the Chilling Down Stage.

A birder in this ultimate stage can enjoy birds without having a spotting scope or field guide, Rich writes. He or she walks like an ordinary person, casually looking here and there without haste or concern. “A passerby would think nothing of this average human being. But inside, the Stage-Seven birder is a whirlwind of perception, thought, and understanding. In short, he is a finely tuned birding machine.”

Rich’s Stage-Seven birder possesses boundless curiosity. A robin flushing from a branch sets off an avalanche of musings and questions. About the bird’s call, and how it compares with that of a related species, the Varied Thrush. About the robin’s diet — earthworms or berries? About the robin’s handsome colors, and about how much the birder wishes that he or she had the talent to draw or paint a picture that could capture its beauty.

Like the talented, knowledgeable people who have filled the pages of this magazine for a quarter century, the Stage-Seven birder considers “a wealth of ideas,” Rich writes. No different than you and I, he or she had the good fortune to discover a single bird. Then, subject to its irresistible appeal, the birder realized that he or she and the bird were far from alone, that they were part of a vibrant, fascinating world, the birder’s world.

“As the robin cruises through the cool evening air, the Stage-Seven birder flies with it,” Rich writes. “He wonders what it feels like.”

It feels good.

The cover of the first issue featured a male Evening Grosbeak. John Shaw took the photograph.

The cover of the first issue featured a male Evening Grosbeak. John Shaw took the photograph.

A WHO’S WHO OF ­ORNITHOLOGY AND ­BIRDWATCHING

The leading figures in the fields of ornithology and birdwatching have written for Birder’s Worldand BirdWatching over the past 25 years. Here are a few of the notables.

Keith L. Bildstein, director of conservation science at the Sarkis Acopian Center at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society. Editor of Birder’s World from February 1999 until December 2000.

Jack Connor, author of the booksSeason at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May and The Complete Birder: A Guide to Better Birding.

Julie Craves, supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Feature writer since June 1994 and columnist since October 1999.

Richard Crossley, coauthor of The Shore­bird Guide and author of The Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. 

John V. Dennis, photographer, in 1948, of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Cuba and author of A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding.

Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, vice president of NJAS Natural History Information, founder of the World Series of Birding, and author. Feature writer since June 1987 and columnist since October 1999.

Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies and president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, co-author, with David S. Dobkin and Darryl Wheye, of The Birdwatcher’s Handbook.

Laura Erickson, author of Twelve Owls, The Bird Watching Answer Book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, and other books about birds. Feature writer since December 2003 and columnist since February 2012.

George H. Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy.

Tim W. Gallagher, editor of Living Bird.

Eldon D. Greij, founding editor, feature writer, and columnist since February 1995.

George H. Harrison, columnist from June 2000 to August 2005.

Hal H. Harrison, author of A Field Guide to (Eastern) Birds’ Nests and A Field Guide to Western Birds’ Nests.

Carrol L. Henderson, nongame wildlife supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and author of the Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica.

Geoffrey E. Hill, ornithologist at Auburn University, author of National Geographic Bird Coloration, and leader of the team that searched for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida.

James R. Hill III, founder of the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

Jerome A. Jackson, professor of ecological sciences, former Whitaker Eminent Scholar in Science at Florida Gulf Coast University, and author of In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Original contributing editor.

Paul A. Johnsgard, Foundation Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Tony Juniper, coauthor of Parrots: A Guide to Parrots of the World and vice chair of Friends of the Earth International.

Kenn Kaufman, author of Kingbird Highway, Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, and other books. Feature writer since April 1988, “Rare Bird Report” compiler from February 1995 to December 1998, and columnist since December 1994.

Paul Kerlinger, former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory. Feature writer since April 1994 and columnist from June 1999 to December 2011.

Gary L. Krapu, research wildlife biologist with the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.

John Kricher, author of the book A Neotropical Companion and professor of biology at Wheaton College.

Donald E. Kroodsma, author of The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong and Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds.

Geoffrey S. LeBaron, director of the ­National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.

Paul Lehman, editor of Birding from 1989 to 1997. Columnist from April 1998 to ­February 1999.

Harold F. Mayfield, president of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Wilson and Cooper ornithological societies. Original contributing editor and feature writer since June 1988.

Arthur Morris, photographer.

Ogden Nash, poet. His light verse “Up from the Egg” appeared in October 1990.

Nancy Newfield, author or coauthor of four books on hummingbirds, includingHumming­bird Gardens.

Kenneth C. Parkes, curator for the Section of Birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Roger Tory Peterson, artist and inventor of the modern field guide. Editorial advisor and feature writer.

Van Remsen, curator of birds at the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University and the chair of the South American Classification Committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

Terry Rich, Partners in Flight National Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ron Rohrbaugh, leader of Cornell’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Project.

Will Russell, founder and managing director of WINGS Birding Tours.

Bob and Martha Sargent, founders and directors of the nonprofit Hummer/Bird Study Group.

David Sibley, author of The Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley’s Birding Basics, Sibley guides to birds of eastern and western North America, and other books. Feature writer since August 2006 and columnist since December 2007.

Peter Stettenheim, founding editor of the series of accounts that became The Birds of North America.

Don and Lillian Stokes, authors of The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America and many other books on nature and birdwatching subjects.

Robert W. Storer, professor emeritus of ­zoology at the University of Michigan. Feature writer in August 1989 and columnist from February 1987 until December 1994.

Elliott Swarthout, supervisor of Cornell’s Ivory-bill search team at Cache River NWR.

John K. Terres, author of Songbirds in Your Garden and the Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Editorial advisor and feature writer since August 1987.

Connie Toops, columnist from June 2000 to April 2005 and feature writer since April 1988.

Tom Vezo, photographer.

Darryl Wheye, co-author, with David S. ­Dobkin and Paul R. Ehrlich, of The Birdwatcher’s Handbook.

Chuck Hagner is the Editor of BirdWatching.