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Early Birdwatchers and the Birth of Ornithology (Part 3)

By Jon Friedman


Early in his career, Darwin, like all naturalists before him, used a gun to collect bird specimens for intensive, detailed and up-close study of their physical make-up, field marks and anatomical structures. Later in his career, he found it more valuable to his understanding and study to keep the animals and birds he collected alive, close at hand, and available for longer inspection. In this manner, he was able to gather more information, over an extended period of time, allowing for a much greater understanding of their whole being. Early on, in 1845, Thoreau took a slightly different approach to studying birds. He did give up his gun at this time and moved to Walden Pond with the goal of more intense observing to learn more about the natural history of birds, i.e., how they make their way in the world, their daily habits, their relationships within families, and most of the things that birds have to deal with daily in order to successfully survive, breed and insure the population thrives. His friend and contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, gave him three acres beside the pond, and there Thoreau built a simple shack in which he would live and chronicle his observations and discoveries.

Thoreau’s writings, which are extensive, were driven by his aim to link the world of nature to ourselves, humans. While the earlier naturalists before Thoreau were motivated to collect dead specimens, systematize them, describe them accurately and in detail, and ultimately prepare them for display, either as skins for the museum drawer or as life-like taxidermied objects. His aim to understand and describe the natural history of birds represented a departure, a more humane approach, to gaining knowledge of the natural world around us. No one did this better than Thoreau. His best-known book, Walden, is considered a classic amongst early nature writing and continues to sell well to this day.

Though he died of tuberculosis at the age of 45, Thoreau left more than a million words unpublished in his diaries. His deep-seated urge to link humans to the world of nature may be his most important contribution. His writing style, while of the time, is nevertheless easy to read and understand, which helps explain the extended popularity of his best-known work. Of course, the subject of his writings was, and continues to be, of great appeal to those who want to expand their knowledge of the natural world and how we, as humans, relate to it and belong to it. A good example of his linking nature and man can be seen in his this partial description of a Great Blue Heron: “John Garfield brought me this morning (September 6, 1852) a young great heron. It measured four feet, nine inches, from bill to toe, and belongs to a different race from myself. (But) I am glad to recognize him for a native of America – why not an American citizen?”

“Is not the bird,” writes Thoreau’s student and successor, John Burroughs, from his own nature retreat in upstate New York’s woods, “the original type and teacher of the poet? The beautiful vagabonds, masters of all climes – how many human aspirations are realized in their free, holiday-lives?”


Thoreau, Burroughs and their contemporaries were amateur naturalists, not professional scientists. Yet, their departure from accepted techniques used in the field until their time influenced others at the time and thereafter. Dr. Elliott Coues, a true scientist, wrote in his famous 1874 treatise; Field Ornithology, A Manual for Procuring, Preparing and Preserving Birds, “The true ornithologist goes out to study birds alive, and destroys some of them simply because that is the only way of learning their structure and technical characters. The man who only gathers birds, as a miser, money to swell his cabinet, and that other man who gloats, as miser-like, over the dame hoard, both work on a plane far beneath that of the enlightened naturalist.”

New Technology Introduced

Coues went on to become renowned as the founder of the American Ornithological Union, which still serves today as one of the most important institutions for the study of birds. He was known for his passionate defense of studying birds while they were alive. Early in 19th century, the French invention of the camera helped those who wanted to study birds but felt it wrong to kill them. The camera allowed for detailed study and portrayal of birds without causing harm. Much later in the century, the appearance and popularity of field glasses emerged, later refined by the addition of prisms, which we now call binoculars, which greatly enhanced the images produced. Yet, the slaughter of birds increased for the next few decades. A few reasons influenced this urge to kill birds.

Guns Still Used

First among these reasons is the fact that Americans of that time still depended on hunting game birds for food, for personal survival and to supply a growing urban market. Some birds, long thought to be inexhaustible due to their large numbers, became extinct because of large-scale slaughter. Two of the most common game birds east of the Mississippi River, the Pinneated Grouse (also known as the Heath Hen) and the Passenger Pigeon, became extinct for exactly this reason. (See the Passenger Pigeon series of newsletter articles in our website archive for a more detailed explanation of this phenomena.)

Secondly, women’s fashion trends in large cities around the world developed to include bird feathers into almost all wearables, particularly millinary wear, or hats. (See the archived article “The Plume Trade” for a more detailed account of this sorry saga in history.) This trend of using bird feathers to “enhance” fashion continued for several decades. This fashion trend resulted in the deaths of millions upon millions of bird deaths. This posted description was published in a leading fashion/society magazine of the time, “Lady Gemini appeared in the reception room with a dress decorated with the throat patches of 3,000 Brazillian Hummingbirds!” It was later determined that the species was Gould’s Heavenly Sylph (Aglaiocercus coelestis), thought to have become extinct.

Thirdly, among amateur naturalists intent on making a name for themselves in the world of ornithology, they felt they were in competition with each other to amass larger and larger collections of bird skins. The American journalist, LeGrand Meyer, wrote in 1889, “…they must slaughter indiscriminately every species met. And every nest must be robbed, under the veil of science.” The ornithologist Spencer Baird who, in 1878, was appointed head of Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution, collected more than 3,500 bird skins before the age of 27.


Greatly alarmed by this trend, and the disappearance of untold millions of birds and the extinction of more than a handful of species, an amateur naturalist named Frank M. Chapman, came into prominence by raising this issue with the public. With only a high school education, but a burning desire to understand birds, he became, at the age of 44, the Curator of Ornithology at New York’s prestigious American Museum of Natural History. He held this post from 1908 until his retirement in 1942. His greatest contribution to the field was his dedication to saving birds. He was responsible for organizing the Audubon Society to fight this seemingly impossible-to-stop trend of feather hunting for fashion purposes.

During a well-documented stroll on the streets of NYC, Chapman counted 700 hats (mostly women’s), 542 of which were decorated with bird feathers and even entire avian corpses. He was able to recognize 40 species of birds used in those hats! They included; Wilson’s Warblers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Saw-whet Owls, Ruffed Grouses, various kingfishers and Northern Shrikes. Chapman was a banker at the time, but quit his job and devoted himself to saving birds and getting laws passed for the protection of wild birds, the first such laws in the country.

Audubon Societies Emerge

In 1899, he founded the magazine Bird-Lore, whose motto read, “A Bird in in the Bush is Worth Two in the Hand.” State Audubon groups (they grouped together six years later into a national organization) adapted his publication as their official magazine. The magazine changed its name to Audubon in 1941, and its circulation exploded from about 5,000 to over 350,000 quite quickly. Today, there are many millions of members and subscribers to Audubon. Chapman grew the museum’s collection of bird specimens to over 800,000 from around the world, many stuffed with cotton to hold natural postures.


Teddy Roosevelt was a close friend of Chapman’s and influenced by Chapman to stop hunting birds. In part, due to Chapman’s influence, Roosevelt, while president, increased the area of national forests from 43 to 194 million acres and established 53 national bird reserves, much to the consternation of the timber industry.

Popularity of Field Guides

During Chapman’s time, the American Audubon Societies pushed the passage of the Lacy Act in 1900, the first comprehensive federal law to save native birds. In 1906, the first pocket-sized field guide, Chester Reed’s Bird Guide to Land Birds East of the Rockies, was published and is credited with the public’s surge of interest in observing and identifying birds. Chapman’s friend, the artist Louis Fuertes, painted 106 plates for the now classic 832 page, Birds of America, not the similarly titled Audubon book.


All this history of ornithology led Roger Tory Peterson ultimately to become America’s greatest birdwatcher. Throughout his early education, he was continually admonished by his teachers for drawing images of birds on nearly all his work assignments. He claimed to have been the most-spanked fifth-grader in his school’s history for this reason. However, by the time he was 17 years old, he was a recognized bird artist who had two watercolors – a kingbird and a hummingbird - hung in the American Ornithological Union’s national exhibition in 1925. Until that time, he was self-taught; spending most of his childhood drawing images of insects, flowers, but especially birds. He eventually began formal art training at New York’s Art Students League, taught natural history at the private Rivers School, and became known for his roommate, a Burrowing Owl!

Peterson’s First Field Guide

He began working in secrecy on his pocket-sized Field Guide to the Birds, the book whose first edition, in 1934, sold out almost as fast as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – 2,000 copies sold in five days! His revised and expanded version, through 1977, sold over 2,000,000 copies, more than 100,000 copies a year. This book was recognized as a breakthrough with the public and became so popular due, in part, to the magnificent paintings, the accurate texts, and the novel way he illustrated the field marks of birds by using arrows to distinguish various parts of the birds that are used to show their differences.


Peterson’s Enormous Influence

Peterson’s influence cannot be understated in the world of birding. He inspired the first use of bird leg-bands, which enabled birders to follow the fate of individual birds from birth to death. As a result, the knowledge of the natural history of each species was greatly enhanced and expanded. Cornell University opened its Laboratory of Ornithology and excelled in recording the songs and calls of all native North American birds. Arthur Bent quit his career as a textile manufacturer and focused his life on producing his classic 23 volumes of bird life histories. In short, Peterson became the most influential birder in history. His field guide series expanded over the years to include most of the insects, plants, trees, mammals, and fish – and continue to be best sellers to this day. Today, his name is recognized around the world. He has authored and illustrated over 20 field guides, mastered still photography with his portraits of birds, has four movies to his credit, published more than 10 other non-field guide books, has earned eight honorary degrees, etc. His list of accomplishments goes on and on.

Part Three - Conclusion

The history of birdwatching is not so much about numbers, or records, or other such achievements – it is rather about man’s fascination with, interaction with, and impact on the natural world he finds himself to be part of. The history is filled with dark chapters, killing, extinctions, greed, and much of the drives that have led man to where he is today. In our rather complicated lives, it is a joy to realize our newfound respect for wild life and how dreary our lives would be if there were no birds to understand and enjoy – their lives, their colorful appearances, their family lives, their songs and calls. It is comforting to know that wild birds are always our closest neighbors in the civilized world we live in.


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