Posted by: atowhee | August 17, 2013


Click here for an interesting essay by a writer who sees birds and human awareness of birds as a key to making us humans aware of our place in nature, not just in conflict with it.

Two comments on the essay:
If you’re secure (not worried about being eaten by a grizzly or lion), well fed and educated, it’s a lot easier to be careful or caring about the environment in which we live. Starving people don’t care about pollution or their fellow creatures. Neither do profit-making corporations. And I don’t need to explain eat-or-be-eaten.

Secondly, while it’s hard to overstate the importance of Roger Tory Peterson, he did not actually produce the first pictorial, pocket-sized field guides. Those were done by Chester Reed before World War I. Peterson himself owned at least one Reed field guide. Reed’s were the first nature guides in the world to have a color drawing of each species. That was his great innovation, and his guides had limited text, pocket-sized, taking advantage of the first inexpensive color-printing. REED FIELD GUIDE Reed, like Peterson later, went on to do guides for wildflowers, mammals, insects and other things as well. Had he lived longer Reed might have made Peterson unnecessary.* He both wrote and illustrated his guides, measuring 3.5″ X 5.5″.
Reed was only 36 in 1912 when he died of pneumonia. He began publishing his string of guides in 1905 after publishing the first-ever bird magazine aimed at the general public. Other volumes of the Reed field guide series were posthumous. Reed’s field guides (kept in print as late as 1951) were the first truly popular-priced with color illustrations. As recently as 1902 Florence Merriam Bailey had published the first-ever field guide to all Western U.S. birds (an innovation). Bailey’s book included actual measurements of the species (another innovation) but had only line drawings, many of bird skins.

Eighty years before Reed, in Audubon’s time, any color drawings were painted by hand and thus very expensive, never mass produced.
If you want to read about Reed, click on this link.

* It is absolutely true that Peterson and his mentor, Ludlow Griscom, were among the pioneers in field identification of birds. It really was Griscom who helped the artist, Peterson, become the consummate birder, able to hear or see a living bird and ID it without needing a shotgun. That was Peterson’s greatest single innovation. Illustrating what a birder needs to note to differentiate living species in field conditions. That alone made shot-gunning birds less “necessary” for science and less acceptable in political and popular cultures.


  1. Thank you for sharing the article and for sharing Chester Reed’s field guides. This quote from the article resonated most with me:
    “What is it about birds that captures so many of us? That moment of flight, maybe: a moment that combines the artistic and the athletic, as well as surprise. The discovery of worlds beyond the troubling human world. And the sheer vicarious pleasure of briefly getting outside of oneself.”

  2. Good essay Harry. Thanks for sharing. Important to remember, as the author points out, that working to keep nature healthy starts with experiencing joy in nature.

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