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Of a Feather: A Brief History of American…

Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding

by Scott Weidensaul

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1573123,788 (3.73)5
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.… (more)



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A loving picture of birding from its beginnings with a special focus on the joy of being with birds rather than the thrill of the competitive bird lister.

I started this as part of a January challenge but put it aside half way through. It called to me, however, and I finished it up this week. It is a loving portrait of American birding including the fathers AND mothers of birding. Weidensaul also explores the two different types coming down on the side of spending time with birds rather than aggressively pursuing the list. The blurb from The Washington Post calls it gossipy and scholarly and that's just about right as the author has hung out with the contemporary folks and likes telling tales about the characters from the past.

I think this brief history--there is just enough detail--will be interest to anyone who has paged through a field guide. And, if you a bird nerd, I can highly recommend Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. As a teenager, he embarked on his big year with little more than a backpack and a map. Kaufman almost won the annual competition but has since lost interest in the list. Weidensaul quotes him, "As for me, my own passion for list-chasing was dwindling fast, while my interests in the birds themselves was becoming ever stronger. So the contest was coming to matter least of all to the contestants." ( )
  witchyrichy | Mar 9, 2019 |
I liked this book but it didn't make me into a birder. I really enjoy Weidensaul's writing, and he communicates his passion very well. I adored his other books. This one, however, was too much for me- too much history, too many characters, too much minutiae. Not to fault the book- Weidensaul's an excellent writer, and this is no exception. The fault is entirely mine. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
Given the sustained and growing American interest in birding over the past few years, we were about due for an updated history of the field; Scott Weidensaul's Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding (Harcourt, 2007) fills this gap admirably.

Weidensaul provides a concise synopsis of the development of American ornithology, sketching out the biographies and artistic/observational styles of Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, Audubon and other early "birders." This may be familiar territory, but Weidensaul's treatment of later figures such as John Townsend, Charles Bendire, George Bird Grinnell will be fresh to some readers. Of a Feather succinctly covers the great debates over the formation of American ornithological institutions, the "feather wars" that prompted protective actions and the beginnings of conservation efforts.

The section of Weidensaul's book I enjoyed most were the chapters on the rise of field guides; he examines the genesis of the genre and then contrasts the early efforts with Roger Tory Peterson's revolutionary guide before examining how field guides have evolved in the decades since Peterson.

Also, the discussion of comparatively-recent trends toward competition and "list-mania" is both instructive and important - Weidensaul argues that many birders today are too obsessed with ticking off species names while neglecting the big picture of conservation and ecosystem preservation. He writes "Now bird study is poised to enter what could be a fresh and, I hope, golden age. My hope for the future is a fusion of the science of birds with the love of chasing them, the best of the ornithologist and the lister, with a vehement commitment to avian well-being binding these approaches together" (p. 313). Not a bad vision.

Well-written and nicely readable, this is a good introduction to the subject. Weidensaul's citations and bibliography provide many additional sources.

http://philobiblos.blogspot.com/2007/09/book-review-of-feather.html ( )
  JBD1 | Sep 29, 2007 |
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