The Tech That Transformed Birdwatching Into a Bloodless Sport

In Slate, the bird-watcher-watcher Nathan Heller presents an often macabre view of a growing hobby:

Rising at vampiric hours, these people leave polite society behind to spend long stretches staring not at dazzling vistas or strange beasts but at birds -- and often unexotic ones at that. They pack enough high-end equipment and field expertise to undertake a hunt but never touch their prey; the consummating act of birding is, at most, a picture snapped for private use and from a distance, in the manner of a pervert with a beach pass.

Heller doesn't seem to know his vampires, who of course rise at dusk and are safely back in their coffins by the time amateur naturalists arrive in the field. Or, he might have been referring to owl watchers, who (according to a leading authority on the subject) are sometimes misunderstood by the police. In particular I must take issue with his interpretation that

[b]irding is a steam valve for anxiety about nuclear-age strength and habits. Its prominence today can be seen as a measure of quiet alarm.

I was an acquisition editor of bird field guides (among other subjects) for years and never detected any anxiety about nuclear destruction even during the Cold War tensions of the Reagan era. Of course, like most people who aren't amateur naturalists, most birders are concerned about threats to biodiversity from climate change, pollution, and other technological encroachments. I'm sure they're much more likely than non-enthusiasts to support environmental organizations. But is that news?

Heller missed a far more interesting technological story. He notes correctly that birdwatching as a hobby began with "industrial modernity" in the later 19th century. But he has it all wrong about birding and violence. Modern popular naturalism was actually a small victory for disarmament and coexistence that began decades before Roger Tory Peterson's landmark Birds of America in 1934. Bird enthusiasts, amateur as well as scientific, preferred literally shooting their subjects well into the 1890s. The Christmas Day custom of competitively gunning down as many different kinds of birds as possible -- the kind of Victorian institution you don't often encounter in nostalgic popular history -- was transformed in 1900 into a bloodless listing by the initiative of the Audubon Society's Frank Chapman.

Meanwhile, two innovations helped catalyze the new conservation ethic. Improvements in optical glass, prisms, and coated lenses had produced new generations of lighter, high-quality binoculars at the German firm Zeiss beginning in the late 1880s and 1890s. Florence Merriam's Birds through an Opera Glass (1889) was the first modern field guide. (Before Zeiss instruments, Merriam confessed in this book that the smallest birds still could not be identified without shooting them!) Birding enthusiasm didn't start with Peterson. By 1904 one naturalist could write to a friend that "[t}hese are great migration times ... the parks are full of birds ... and people shooting them with opera glasses." (See this excellent history of field guides.) While color field photography had to wait for the 1930s, some pre-Peterson field guides also took advantage of photographs of museum specimens and of methods of halftone reproduction that were coming into wide use in the mid-1890s.

It was Roger Tory Peterson's mentor, the brilliant Ludlow Griscom*, who developed -- in the Bronx! -- the techniques of rapid field identification essentially still in use today, convincing the trigger-happy birders of the older generation. As Peterson wrote in a memorial:

Griscom, we must acknowledge, as the high priest of this new cult of split-second field identification. My own field guides, though a visual invention, were profoundly influenced by his teaching.

It's true that mass birding may disturb habitats, but income from nature tourism can also help protect them from development. And where Heller diagnoses repressed anxiety -- "underlying terror" -- I see encouraging signs of our ability to sublimate violence.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- This post originally stated Lowell Griscom developed the techniques of rapid field identification. We regret the error.

Thanks to for the link.