Of a Feather

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Scott Weidensaul seems to have two purposes in writing this book. The first, insinuated by the title Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, is to outline the history of the burgeoning hobby of bird watching (birding). The second is to encourage bird watchers (birders) to go beyond their proclivity to count as many bird species as possible on each outing. He believes they should pay more attention to the natural history, behavior, and ecology of birds.

Expanding on the second purpose, Weidensaul explores the tensions that have existed between bird watchers and scientific students of birds (ornithologists). In the first chapter, he contrasts the two camps and suggests that no such tension was present in the early history of North American bird study, because each early student of North American birds was both birder and ornithologist. He describes the lives and work of Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, John James Audubon, and others as examples. At several points later in the book, he explores the development of different tensions between the two groups. Later still, he points out several ornithological endeavors that depend on nonscientists for much of their data and encourages birders to be involved in collecting those data, in a sense reuniting birder and ornithologist. Finally, he argues that birders and ornithologists need to be more proactive in bird protection and conservation.

His consideration of the origin and early development of the combined science and hobby is neatly done. After a very brief outline of the connections Native Americans had with birds, he considers the lives, contributions, and foibles of Catesby, Wilson, Audubon, and other ornithological pioneers, complete with the plagiarism of Wilson on Catesby, Audubon on Wilson, and Catesby on his predecessors. Weidensaul seems to excuse this malfeasance by pointing out that such “borrowing” was common in that day, but he does not let the plagiarists off the hook entirely. He points out that much of the borrowing was not acknowledged, a clear breach of morality, and he explains some of the subtle ways that the borrower changed his version, suggesting a conscious attempt to cover up the similarity and thus the plagiarism.

Weidensaul describes the methods of the early ornithologists in a chapter titled “Shotgun Ornithology”: Find the organism, shoot the organism, prepare the organism for the museum, and study the prepared specimen. Catesby, Wilson, Audubon, and many others used that system. Later, however, these methods led to serious disagreement between ornithologists and birders. Few modern birders see the need for specimen collection. They would document the bird photographically or visually without collecting it, while some ornithologists still prefer to document species and their distributions with specimens.

In the “Shotgun” chapter and the following chapter, titled “Angry Ladies,” Weidensaul traces the accomplishments of female ornithologists and birders. He introduces a few whose skill and determination carved out niches for them in the male-dominated field. He argues that women were the backbone of early conservation efforts, which opposed large-scale scientific collection and other activities detrimental to birds. Two examples of such female leadership involve the early history of the National Audubon Society, which was organized to protect birds from hunters, feather collectors, scientific collectors, and others who were slaughtering them at the time. Ironically, the society’s namesake, Audubon, was a “shotgun ornithologist.” The society was named for him because of his contribution to the knowledge of North American birds and his paintings, not for his collecting skills. Collection of specimens was (and still is) necessary to understand some aspects of ornithology. However, the combination of overenthusiastic collectors of birds and their eggs (often collecting more than necessary) and market hunters who killed birds for several uses, including feathers to decorate women’s hats, was decimating bird populations. In 1886, George Bird Grinnell led an attempt to form an Audubon Society to protect birds. It failed in 1888. Beginning in 1896, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and several other women renewed the effort, resulting in the Audubon Society’s more permanent development.

The second example is from the 1930’s. When the male leadership of the Audubon Society failed to press for the protection of the birds passing Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, women stepped in again. Local geography funnels migrating hawks past this point in the Appalachian Mountains, and hunters were shooting many of them as they passed. Richard Pough...

(The entire section is 1916 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 22 (August 1, 2007): 18.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 15 (August 1, 2007): 781.

Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 115.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (September 9, 2007): 27.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 27 (July 9, 2007): 44.

Science News 172, no. 10 (September 8, 2007): 159.