Tom Dunlap on Early Bird Guides

THESE PAGES, FROM early field guides to the birds, suggest something about the tangled ways science, technology, and the market shaped nature knowledge in America’s industrial, urban society. When these authors began helping people identify birds without shooting them, no one knew just what information birdwatchers needed or how to present it, were not even sure all species could be identified without shooting them, and saw birdwatching as an introduction to science, a way to nature’s wonders, or a genteel recreation. Their books treated a hundred or so familiar species, the birds of a small region, those in the east or west half of the country, or everything in North America north of Mexico. They mixed science and sentiment, described birds in technical detail and telegraphic phrases or Romantic prose in full sentences—sometimes did both on the same page—printed different kinds of pictures by various processes in color or black and white, used the artistic conventions of natural history illustration or fine art, and linked pictures to text (or failed to) in ways shaped by the author’s experience or demanded by the printer’s bill. In 1934 Roger Tory Peterson’s work swept the competition, but the people who snapped up his Field Guide to the Birds and made it an instant success had learned their birds with the aid of these guides and others like them.[1]

Florence Merriam’s Birds through an Opera-Glass (1889) used narrative prose, the familiar frame of home life, and the decorative illustrations of popular natural history to introduce a largely female audience to birds around the home. “Mr. Robin,” as she had named him on the previous page, was a “domestic bird” whose every action “bespeaks the self-respecting American citizen.” She put birds and birdwatching into women’s sphere but, by calling for observation and careful records, offered women a way into the public, masculine sphere of science—a path she and her mentor Mabel Osgood Wright (see below) followed to became the first female members of the American Ornithological Union. The picture is a wood engraving, produced by tracing a picture onto the end grain of a block of dense wood (using the plank side produced a woodcut), carving away the surface to produce a raised image, and putting the block in the press form. Wood engravings were easy to make, inexpensive (because text and illustration could be printed together) and showed details well, which made the process a favorite of popular natural history books from the early nineteenth century and of newspapers from the Civil War to the 1880s, when photo reproduction processes became available. This vignette only broke up a block of text, but wood engravings could be used for identification (see the example from Hoffman—page 117).

Mabel Osgood Wright wrote ornithological papers and consulted with an ornithologist, Frank Chapman, on this book, but Birdcraft (1895) followed Merriam’s domestic approach. Instead of wood engravings, though, she used photo reproductions, in color, of paintings by Audubon and other bird artists. This required photographing the originals through colored screens to make a set of pictures, each composed of tiny dots of a single color, which were made into printing plates that, printed on a single sheet, reproduced the effect of the original, for the eye blended the dots into a picture. The process, though, required different paper, inks, and pressure than printing text letters, a separate press run for each color, and skilled labor to keep the plates exactly aligned—which was probably why Wright crammed 166 species onto fifteen double-page spreads. She managed by using a convention common to nineteenth century natural history illustrations—and now so familiar we do not think about it—in which blank space indicated a change of subject. That told readers to see the page not as an (impossible) scene from nature but a set of pictures. These were surely more helpful than wood engravings but not ideal, for fine art had one purpose and field identification another. Audubon’s flicker (number 8) showed its spectacular colors in a dramatic pose but concealed what modern guides point to as its best diagnostic feature, the brown back.

In 1899 Florence Merriam married Vernon Bailey, a naturalist with the USDA’s Bureau of Biological Survey (headed by her brother, C. Hart Merriam), which may explain why her Handbook of Birds of the Western United States (1902) combined popular natural history’s narratives and ornithology’s telegraphic phrases. Entries began with the bird’s number on the American Ornithological Union’s taxonomic list and its scientific name, continued in small type with terse descriptions of the bird-in-hand, its nesting habits, and its range, then shifted to larger letters and sentences for personal recollections, anecdotes, or life-history. Her husband Vernon, interestingly enough, and not Florence wrote this idyllic description of the quail’s family life. “Fig. 191” (see page 114) used black-and-white photo reproduction to show a bobwhite quail skin prepared for a museum drawer. The limits of museum specimens for field identification seem to have been clear; no other guide used them, though some authors, faced with the problems of photographing live birds with the cameras of the day, used pictures of stuffed ones.

Chester Reed’s little guides (this example—shown on page 114—comes from Bird Guide, Part 2: Land Birds East of the Rockies), used science to arrange the birds and, like modern guides, put pictures next to descriptions, but in the text mixed aesthetics, field identification, and conservation—the little meditation on nature’s beauties with the White-Throated Sparrow, information on identification on the Tree Sparrow’s page (not shown), and under the Snowy Egret (not shown) a lament about human greed and destruction. Reed’s oil paintings, photo-reproduced in miniature, followed fine-art conventions in framing a scene, but, probably because they were so small, showed plumage patterns rather than separate feathers. About as big as a thick checkbook, the guides easily fit a pocket, and the first cloth-covered edition cost fifty cents (two volumes covered eastern birds, one did the west), while the leather-covered volume, recommended for the study, went for seventy-five cents. Readers still had to flip pages to find species that looked like the one in front of them, but Reed’s were the most popular guides until Roger Tory Peterson’s book appeared in 1934, and they continued in print into the 1950s.

Color Key to North American Birds (1903), one of a number of books Frank Chapman wrote for birdwatchers, looked like recent guides in replacing narrative with phrases giving distinctive physical features and putting pictures with text, but most clearly in recognizing that birdwatchers needed a particular kind of illustration. These colored pen-and-ink drawings (by Chester Reed), were, Chapman said, “designed to aid the student in identifying birds in their haunts by giving, in color, those markings which most quickly catch the eye. They do not pretend to be perfect reproductions of every shade and tint … but aim to present a bird’s characteristic colors as they appear when seen at a distance” (p. iv). In other ways the book was very much of its time. It followed then-current ornithological fashion in including subspecies—here the Intermediate Sparrow and the Nuttall Sparrow (see page 116)—and used a color key to organize perching birds (note the running head), which the other guides cited here put in the appendix or introduction. Keys, which led readers to a correct identification by posing questions about the specimen’s characteristics that progressively eliminated possibilities, are still common in field guides to plants and trees, but dropped out of bird guides because birds rarely sat around to be examined and because even novice birdwatchers quickly learned enough about birds’ forms to recognize an owl, tern, or warbler by shape and zero in on a few birds, doing most of the key’s work automatically. A vestige lingers in the modern guide’s practice of grouping sparrows with streaked breasts or large white wading birds on the same plate for easy comparison.

Ralph Hoffman’s Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York had an ordinary form but an extraordinary concentration on field identification. Without a wasted word, and with italics for key diagnostic features, each entry described the bird’s plumage and gave basic information on nest and eggs, and when it switched to large type omitted stories in favor of information in a standard form. It told when and where in the region the bird could be found and what habitat it preferred, then gave characteristics that helped identify it (in the example here—page 117—the male’s persistent singing and its notes), and ended with key features visible at a distance. Even the woodcut had a clear purpose: showing the Carolina Wren’s distinctive head pattern.

THE EARLY GUIDES varied in form and content but all presented a particular kind of information about birds in a particular way, necessarily at the expense of other kinds of knowledge. In place of the unorganized and casual knowledge about plumage, songs, behavior, and flight characteristics that people acquired in the course of living, the guides gave a systematic understanding of local birds in the context of science’s knowledge of the world’s life, one that relied overwhelmingly on plumage patterns—because that was what print and pictures could most easily convey. Peterson reinforced that, for, as he pointed out in his first guide, “In many instances the pictures tell the story without help from the letterpress” (p. xvii). He made birdwatching easy enough that millions became interested, but he also reinforced the bias toward what you could see and served best those interested less in science or the land than those interested in that “most engaging game” of identifying as many species as possible (p. xviii). We might, as historians and as citizens, consider what we have gained, and lost, in going to nature with a book—and with this particular kind of book—for field guides are the primary means of informal nature education in the United States and a powerful influence on how we go to nature and what we learn there.

Tom Dunlap, who teaches at Texas A&M;, is the author of numerous books and articles in the field of environmental history, most recently Faith in Nature, published in 2004 by the University of Washington Press in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental History Series. He is currently working on a history of field guides to birds and the development of birdwatching (now birding) in the United States.


1. Roger Tory Peterson, Field Guide to the Birds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934). The guides cited here are: Florence A. Merriam, Birds through an Opera-Glass (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889; reprint Cleveland: Chautauqua, 1899): Mabel Osgood Wright, Birdcraft (New York: Macmillan, 1895); Florence Merriam Bailey, Handbook of Birds of the Western United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902); Chester A. Reed, Bird Guide: Part Two, Land Birds East of the Rockies from Parrots to Bluebirds (Worcester, Mass.: Chas. K Reed, 1906, 1909; reprint New York: Doubleday, Page, 1912). Frank Chapman, Color Key to North American Birds (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1903), and Ralph Hoffman, A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904).

By: Tom Dunlap