HERB WILSON, Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel, 10/20/2007
Scott Weidensaul's new book, "Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding," is a delightful read, one I just finished.
I have reviewed other books by Weidensaul, one of our most-gifted nature writers, in this column before. His books include "Living on the Wind," a lyrical examination of bird migration, and "Return to Wild America," in which he retraced the trans-North America birding trip that Roger Tory Peterson and his British friend, James Fisher, had done 50 years before.
Weidensaul lives in the mountains of Pennsylvania but has a Maine connection. He is one of the instructors in the summer National Audubon Camp on Hog Island off our mid-coast.
In "Of a Feather," Weidensaul gives a whirlwind tour of the history of bird study in the United States and Canada. Birding is now a popular avocation in North America. Six million U.S. citizens can identify at least 20 species of birds. The sale of bird seeds, binoculars and associated materials along with money spent on traveling to see birds give birding a significant economic influence. That was not always the case of course. The first portion of the book is devoted to the period of discovery when, to European eyes, the birdlife of North America was new and undescribed. This period begins with John White, a member of the Roanoke Colony or Lost Colony in Manteo, N.C., from 1585-1587. White's charge was to paint every kind of living thing that was not known in England.
The two notable students of birds in the 18th century were John Lawson and Mark Catesby. Lawson was a surveyor and land speculator with a strong interest in natural history. He published a book in 1709, "A New Voyage to Carolina," detailing the 136 species of birds he saw on a two-month journey to the Carolinas. Catesby built on Lawson's work, sometimes plagiarizing his material, in his "The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands." This book was published in installments, with each installment containing 20 colored plates. It is considered the first ornithological text on American birds.
The age of ornithological discovery continues with two luminaries, Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Neither of these men had any formal biological station but were captivated by birds.
Wilson, a Scottish immigrant, arrived in the New World when was 28 years old. He saw a copy of Catesby's book in the library of the naturalist William Bartram and was inspired to build on Catesby's work. Wilson traveled widely in eastern North America and published the first comprehensive account of North American birds, "American Ornithology." This work, also published in installments, contained many accurate paintings of eastern birds, including 26 that were new to science. "American Ornithology" covered 268 species of the 350 species that we know occur in the region Wilson surveyed.
Audubon was clearly a more skilled artist than Wilson but seemingly a less reliable observer. Weidensaul does a fine job of pointing out the foibles and failings of Audubon as well as his lasting contributions to ornithology. Understanding the man was made more difficult by his granddaughter, who altered Audubon's diaries and letters after his death to mask his egotism. Nonetheless, few will argue that Audubon's paintings are masterful and a tremendous improvement on the paintings of North American birds done by his predecessors.
Wilson and Audubon met briefly in a store in Louisville that Audubon and a partner owned. Wilson showed Audubon some of his paintings and Audubon nearly subscribed until his partner pointed out that Audubon's own paintings were superior to Wilson's.
The age of discovery continued in the 19th century with westward exploration, beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Some of the greatest contributions were made by military officers, often medical doctors, who were stationed at forts in the west. A number of western birds have common names that commemorate such men as Bendire, Baird, Hammond and Xantus.
The end of the 19th century resulted in two distinct paths of bird study. The American Ornithologists Union was founded in 1883. This professional organization advocated the collection of bird specimens.
People with an avocation in birds cut a second path that resulted in conservation groups like the National Audubon Society and the rise in the use of binoculars rather than shotguns to identify birds. More recently, the American Birding Association continues the tradition of bird study by amateurs.
Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at email@example.com
Previous columns and other information on Maine birding can be found at his blog: www.mainebirds.blogspot.com
Story copied from http://morningsentinel.mainetoday.com/sports/stories/4376545.html
. Used by WCAS under Fair Use laws.
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