Birdwatching history: the first U.S. birding field guide

I love old bird books. I especially love books from the early 20th century, when Americans categorized birds as good or bad based on whether or not you could eat them or whether they were a predator that would eat what you eat. My husband loves to haunt old bookstores and find old obscure titles for me. One of his best finds was the first field guide in North America written by Florence A. Merriam called Birds Through an Opera Glass.

When Merriam’s book appeared there were no books that identified birds in the yard. Let’s be frank, there were no easy ways to identify birds in North America in the late 1800s outside of shooting them. The idea that someone suggested using opera glasses to look at wildlife (and not their neighbors) was quite revolutionary. The book primarily relies on written descriptions of 70 birds found commonly in the eastern United States.

For example, Merriam writes about the nuthatch – “’Devil-down-head’” it is called from its habit of walking down the trees, since instead of walking straight down backwards, as the woodpeckers do, it prefers to obey the old adage and “follow his nose.” A lady forgetting its name once aptly described it to me as “that little upside-down bird,” for he will run along the underside of a branch with as much coolness as a fly would across the ceiling.”

That actually is a very apt description of a nuthatch.

Merriam also goes the extra mile to explain how to observe birds, including how to walk in the woods and make sure to place the sun behind you to get a better look at colors. Merriam even goes so far as to encourage you to back up your identification with solid facts and not rely on “because I said so.” I especially love, “Beware of the besetting sin of observers. Never jump at conclusions. Prove all your conjectures.”

Merriam also was notable because she was an ornithologist and began a series of articles criticizing the fashion of women wearing hats, muffs, and dresses that included bird parts. These weren’t just turkey feathers used for trim. These were cedar waxwing bodies incorporated into hats, or even herring gulls used for muffs. Great egrets especially were targeted for the plumes they develop only during breeding season.

But the piece that tips my copy over the edge into one of the best presents my husband ever gave me is the inscription. This particular volume had a bookplate from the Library of Lawrence William Nuttall including an inscription that reads, “To Kit from Lawrie 1889.” Turns out that Lawrence was quite the botanist and found many new species of plants and fungus in West Virginia. His family is more known for  mining, but also gave tracts of land to create the New River Gorge National River to the National Park Service. Lawrence was married to Katherine, aka Kit, and this is to whom my copy is inscribed.

I love this little peek into a marriage. I love that we can still find value and connections in bird books found forgotten on shelves in used bookstores.

Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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