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A World Of Watchers

April 2024
1min read


by Joseph Kastner; Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.00.

According to a recent survey, there are about two million bird watchers in America expert enough to recognize more than one hundred species of bird, and three times that number who can spot at least forty species, making bird watching one of, if not the , most popular outdoor sport in America. It is high time, then, that all these enthusiasts should be treated to a history of their passion. This first such study is a delight.

Indians were bird watchers before the white man ever got here, as witness the acute observations embodied in their bird names. For instance, the Chippe-was called the house wren o-du-na-missug-ud-da-we-shi , which means “making big noise for its size.” All the early explorers mentioned birds, but the first real birder—that is, one who keeps a life list—was perhaps the Virginia clergyman who recorded forty-five species in 1688. Artist naturalists such as Mark Catesby and John James Audubon discovered and recorded many New World birds, and a roster of military men from the Revolution on contributed significantly to American ornithology during their tours of duty at the nation’s outposts.

The enthusiasts were always divided into the protectors and the destroyers (even Audubon worked from dead specimens, which he often ate after drawing), including little boys who collected birds’ eggs. The first formal, nondestructive organization for bird watching was the Nuttall Ornithological Club in Boston, organized in 1873, whose members were expected not only to love birds but to have “qualities of mind and heart that make a man clubbable.” A less elitist group emerged when a bunch of boys from the Bronx started observing birds in such places as the Jerome Avenue Reservoir or the Hunt’s Point dump. This group eventually acquired a member named Roger Tory Peterson, whose bird guides are still today carried around in birders’ pockets. Kastner’s history will be a happy addition to any bird watcher’s library.

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