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Of a Feather : A Brief History of American Birding
From the moment Europeans arrived in North America, they were awestruck by a continent awash with birds--great flocks of wild pigeons, prairies teeming with grouse, woodlands alive with brilliantly colored songbirds. Of a Feather traces the colorful origins of American birding: the frontier ornithologists who collected eggs between border skirmishes; the society matrons who organized the first effective conservation movement; and the luminaries with checkered pasts, such as Alexander Wilson (a convicted blackmailer) and the endlessly self-mythologizing John James Audubon. Scott Weidensaul also recounts the explosive growth of modern birding that began when an awkward schoolteacher named Roger Tory Peterson published A Field Guide to the Birds in 1934. Today birding counts iPod-wearing teens and obsessive "listers" among its tens of millions of participants, making what was once an eccentric hobby into something so completely mainstream it's now (almost) cool. This compulsively readable popular history will surely find a roost on every birder's shelf.
Weidensaul (Return to Wild America) traces bird watching in America from colonial times to the present, when powerful binoculars and other sophisticated technologies have revolutionized the sport. He entertainingly describes many early naturalists who shot and collected birds, including Mark Catesby, John and William Bartram, some military men and an intrepid woman named Martha Maxwell. By the late 19th century, when entire bird populations had been decimated for sport, food and the millinery trade, formidable society ladies began demanding avian protection, the Audubon Society was created and recreational birding, featuring binoculars instead of guns, was born, aided by the emergence of field guides like Roger Tory Peterson's. Today, says Weidensaul, there are millions of birders in the United States, and the sport has entered a new phase, emphasizing competitive birding, lists, rarity chasing and Big Year records. For Weidensaul, this is not a good thing. He finds that people who concentrate on competition and listing often forget the enjoyment of mere observation and the importance of conservation. A naturalist and federally licensed bird bander, he is passionate about birding. His vivid descriptions of his own experiences should send many a reader out of doors to look for the small, contained miracle that is a bird. Photos. (Sept.)
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 14, 2008
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