The People Behind Modern Bird Guides

When most people think about modern bird books, the first name that comes to mind is Peterson. Yet, many years before Roger Tory Peterson published his field guides – such as A Field Guide to the Birds in 1934 – the groundwork was being laid for the hobby of bird watching as we now know it.

Back in the late 1800s, ornithologist’s primarily identified birds by first shooting them, and then inspecting their carcass to determine the species. While some birds were shot for this purpose, still others used their remains for fashion. In fact, it was so common for women to wear birds or feathers on their hats that in the 19th century it lead to the annual “deaths worldwide of about five million birds a year” ( Florence Merriam Bailey saw this trend as murder and sought to raise awareness and get women and men alike to view birds in their natural habitat rather than at the hat shop. Her book “Birds Through an Opera-Glass” was published in 1889 and encouraged readers to go into the field and encounter birds. Opera-glasses, like modern day binoculars, allow the reader to pick out details of the birds as specified by textual descriptions and wood block prints in her book. Merriam worked to influence others through publications through the National Audubon Society and her own social work. Her efforts eventually led to legal protection for birds in America as well as reform in the millinery industry.

Another voice who worked to make birding more accessible was Frank Chapman. Starting in 1888 Chapman began his work in the natural history museum industry. At the time, stuffed birds were arranged in rows on shelves and served as specimens to be observed and studied by ornithologists rather than the casual observer. He introduced the idea of arranging them into a diorama which quickly became the norm for natural history museums. Chapman first published the magazine Bird-Lore in 1899 and also published field guides such as “Birds of Eastern North America.” One of his main contributions towards changing the culture around birds was the introduction of the Christmas bird count in the 1900s. This aimed to counteract the Christmas “side hunt” which was a contest to see how many birds one could shoot in a day. The first count had 27 participants who counted 90 different species ( Today numbers of participants have soared leading to the 122nd Bird count in 2021 having 64.8k participants.

Fellow naturalist Mabel Osgood Wright worked with Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History and became a quality guide publicist in her own right. Her book Birdcraft (1895) took the next step from Merriam’s wood block prints and included illustrations of birds in the Audubon collection rendered by John James Audubon and Louis Agassiz Fuertes ( Wright worked as editor of the Bird Lore journal (now Audubon magazine) and wrote children’s books in the birding world. In 1914 she established a bird sanctuary called Birdcraft which is the oldest bird sanctuary in the US.

Another important ornithologist of the early 20th century is Chester A. Reed. He created a regional series of bird field guides and worked with Frank Chapman on publishing “Color Key to North American Birds” which introduced the idea of organizing birds on the same page who have similar coloration for ease of comparison. From 1903-1912 he published 24 books, of which the majority were related to ornithology. Dying the next year at the age of 36, who knows how much more he would have done. As of now Reed’s work is documented online by Michel Chevalier who finds that his documentation on nests and eggs is still applicable and, in some cases, more thorough than modern sources. I was really touched by the work put into maintaining it and the story of how it was made, go check it out if you have time:

Around this time Ralph Hoffmann was also working on his field guides, and goes as far as to call him “the author of the first true field guide to birds.” In 1904 he published A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York which is praised for being “unprecedented in that it focused on field marks, behavior, habitat, call notes and songs, even going so far as to provide a refined phonetic system to help identify songs.” Hoffmann highlights identification marks using italics and notes points of comparison between bird species, but the phonetic system is what truly shines from his work. Hoffman’s love of nature led him to become director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History where he even gave a tour to Albert Einstein. In his study of the surrounding Santa Barbra Islands, he finally met his fate in 1932. As he was reaching for a plant specimen, he tumbled off the side of a cliff (

Just two years after Hoffmann’s death in 1934, Roger Tory Peterson printed his first run of 2000 copies of A Field Guide to the Birds. Peterson took these books to the next level by adding in arrows to indicate “field marks” (important features) of the bird. Having clear markers next to easily understandable descriptions led his books to become the gold standard for years to come. Beginners and not just ornithologists could use these guides to interpret what they were seeing in the field. He was both an illustrator and photographer, leading his books to have a uniform and familiar feeling. In the 1950s and 60s Peterson saw the effects of DDT on birds and “testified before Congress, blaming DDT and related pesticides for massive mortality among bird species” ( Peterson’s activism and guides still influence the birding community to this day and his field guides are a common fixture of many birder’s homes.

Modern bird guides often include the innovations of Peterson and those before him in addition to detailed geographical maps showing migration patterns and where birds are seen. Authors like Kenn Kaufman and David Sibley continue the tradition of illustrated bird images in tandem with short descriptions. Others like Audubon and Donald and Lillian Stokes have taken to using high quality bird photographs to serve as a visual aid. Richard Crossley takes this one step further by creating a scene of birds at different distances using photoshop in his Crossley ID Guide series. “I wanted it to be almost like reality birding” says Crossley, the “small birds in the distance are what I consider the most important part of the book.” For Crossley the practice of identification begins in the field guide itself, as we do not always get to see birds in full detail in real life.

From the first stuffed birds in museums to the wonders of modern photography, our ability to identify and track birds worldwide has expanded with innovations in the resources we use as well as our equipment. Many birders will now pull up a field guide app on their phone or record bird song to be identified by their device. The future of field guides is just as exciting as it has ever been. I look forward to seeing the next innovations that invite us to step into their world, and look beyond the lens of our opera glass.