To Count or Conserve?

Of a Feather no ordinary history book

I keep a birding life list, a spreadsheet on my computer that I update every time a new species crosses my path. With fewer than 100 birds, my list is relatively short considering that I’ve been bird-watching for four years.

But writer and field researcher Scott Weidensaul, author of the new book Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, says that doesn’t make me any less of a birder than the naturalist who has been active for decades. The length of my life list - or anyone’s for that matter - makes no difference to Weidensaul. (In fact, the forty-nine-year-old has watched birds his whole life, yet he doesn’t know how many are on his.) To him, birding is about understanding these creatures and protecting their habitats, Weidensaul said in a recent interview:

There’s this notion that birding means being able to identify every single bird you see, regardless of how obscure its plumage or how far away it might be. But it’s not essential. I’m happy looking at a house sparrow. Even a house sparrow is an extraordinarily complex organism. Even if you don’t know what a bird is you’re watching, you can learn something from it.

Though Of a Feather is first and foremost a history book, its author’s passion for the subject is unmistakable. His colloquial language and witty tone engage and charm through all 314 pages. Personal stories from Weidensaul - his work banding and counting saw-whet owls, for example - give the history a present-day context to which readers can relate. The book provides a clear picture of the evolution of birding in North America, an impressive feat considering the volume of information and characters who influenced the field. It’s unlike any history book I’ve read.

Weidensaul understands his reader. “I recognize that not everyone who picks up this book is going to be as over the top about bird study as I am,” he told me. “I wanted to make it accessible to non-birders.” Though I consider myself a birder, I’m still an amateur and I appreciate the sentiment. I think Weidensaul succeeded at his task.

After reading Of a Feather, I felt like I’d taken a fast-moving, comprehensive tour of birding in North America, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. Weidensaul’s clear descriptions make it easy to picture a timeline of events starting with birds in the daily lives and myths of Native Americans, moving on to the “shotgun ornithologists,” as he called them, who killed birds to preserve and study them, and ending with the birders of today who struggle to find a balance between bird watching and conservation.

The path Weidensaul takes is logical and linear. He spends the first seventy-five pages or so describing the likes of such important birding figures as Mark Catesby, an Englishman who created one of the first books about American birds; William Bartram, a scientist, writer, and artist who traveled the southeastern United States studying plants and wildlife; Alexander Wilson, considered one of the fathers of North American birding; and John James Audubon, one of the best-known figures in birding.

Weidensaul makes all of these characters endearing, not because he praises their good nature and leaves out the bad stuff, but because he’s honest about their flaws, too. Take his description of Wilson. The Scotsman did jail time for supposedly using a poem he wrote to blackmail an unscrupulous mill owner. The experience left Wilson broke and uninspired. Weidensaul includes it all. Just a few pages later, he describes how taken Wilson was with birds when he arrives in America, and how influential he was on North American birding.

In the middle section of the book, Weidensaul describes the push westward in the United States and the role that officers in the Army Corps and explorers like Lewis and Clark - who had limited training as scientists - played in discovering new species.

But I relate to the last third of the book the most. Weidensaul spends a good chunk of time discussing the evolution of the guidebook, from the first unusable tome to the guides of today, and brings in modern birders who I’ve actually heard of and read about, such as Kenn Kaufman, Roger Tory Peterson, and David Allen Sibley. He details the exponential increase in interest surrounding the activity, the creation of organizations and publications focused on the topic (think today’s Audubon Society), and what he calls the twin polarities of modern birding.

“At one extreme you have birds as a source of inspiration and awe, as objects of curiosity, whether intensely scientific or at the layman’s more general level,” he writes. “At the other extreme, you have birds as tick marks on a list, as inventory, treasures in a scavenger hunt that may encompass one’s backyard or the planet, a single day or a lifetime.”

Weidensaul’s struggle to reconcile the two types of birders today and his passion about conservation come across clearly in Of a Feather. I don’t fault him for believing in the cause; without people with his zeal, bird species would die off, creating a negative succession of events, disrupting the food chain and an activity in which somewhere between six million and forty-six million people participate. (An exact number is hard to get because of discrepancies in defining the term “birder.”) But I’m not sure this sentiment belongs in a book about birding history.

At times, I felt like I was being chastised for not doing enough to save the birds. Much of the last chapter (aptly titled “Beyond the List”) focuses on birding not as a recreational activity, but as a means to preserve bird life and habitats. Weidensaul does, however, acknowledge that he’s referring to people on the extreme ends of the spectrum, like a man on a tour he once led. The man was so focused on writing down the names of the birds the group saw that he barely bothered to look at them himself. His sole goal was to bulk up his life list.

“I have no problem with keeping lists. I have a life list. I have a list of species of birds we’ve seen on our property. Lists are great tools. What worries me is that over the last 30 or 40 years, a lot of the focus on birding in general has become list-focused and list-driven,” Weidensaul told me. “I worry that that’s become the end all, be all of birding.”

Perhaps Weidensaul’s right and I haven’t thought enough about conservation and preservation. After all, a recent report from the Audubon Society showed a decline in the populations of some of the most common North American birds. But I guess I just didn’t expect such a bent toward naturalism in a book about history.

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Michele Wilson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.