In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders and Their Guides
Thomas R. Dunlap
Oxford University Press, 2011
Every now and then there’s a book that, when I see it, I instantly think “I have GOT to read this NOW”. Not add it to a wish list, or my always-enormous to-read pile, but read it as soon as I possibly can. This was one of those books, and appropriately enough its subject matter is another sort of text I tend to dive into: field guides. More specifically, it covers birding guides, those books cataloging all the species of a given region, country, or even the entire planet. But they weren’t always so all-encompassing, nor did they start out as the carefully organized, colorfully illustrated resources we have today.
In the Field, Among the Feathered is a detailed exploration of both the history of birding and the guide books that tried to meet the needs of this ever-expanding pursuit. Many of us are familiar with the conservation activities of the Audubon Society and the popularity of backyard bird feeders, but birding was once a much more competitive activity–and still is to an extent today. Dunlap takes what could have been a fairly dry topic full of bird nerds and makes it into a century-long story complete with a wide cast of characters, cooperatives and rivalries that alone would have made a nice book.
But it is the history of birding guides that adds even more dimension to the tale. We no longer have direct access to the pioneers of Western birding. We do, however, have a library of texts chronicling both their adventures and their priorities, filtered into user manuals for seeking the wild avian. From the Victorian Birds Through an Opera Glass by Florence Bailey to the prestigious guides put out by Peterson today, these books show how birders went from casual sightseers in nature, to competitive naturalists, to dedicated citizen scientists.
This is a fantastic book for any nature lover, particularly those obsessed with the tiny dinosaurs that flit through our cities and fields. It’s also a fine history text, full of good information while keeping the reader engaged with a great narrative. Whether you’re a birder yourself, a lover of niche subjects, or simply looking for a book to curl up with for a few hours, I highly recommend this book to you.