From Pulitzer Prize finalist Weidensaul (Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul, 2005, etc.), a popular history of one of the country’s fastest-growing pastimes: birding.
Over the past two centuries, it’s grown from a hobby of the shy and eccentric to a craze among tens of millions of mainstream Americans. The narrative begins with the first Europeans encountering a vast new continent of natural wonders unknown in the Old World: flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons blotting out the sun; fields teeming with grouse and quail; songbirds of wondrous music and color never before seen. Weidensaul deftly notes the parallels between the evolution of the republic and the development of ornithology, a new science that benefited from enthusiastic amateurs spending thousands of man-hours providing observation data. The quirky cast of characters includes Alexander Wilson, a Scottish ne’er-do-well and convicted blackmailer who established one of the Ur-texts of ornithology; John James Audubon, whose army of lockstep preservationists prevailed over the near disaster wrought by “market shooting”; and the father of modern birding, a shy schoolteacher named Roger Tory Peterson. The author quotes extensively from early ornithologists, an indulgence more than justified not only by the rare picture they provide of a North America that no longer exists, but by the novelty and wonder of their prose. Present conditions stem fairly directly from past figures and events, we learn. For example, thanks to the efforts of a group of high-society Boston ladies, there is now a federal ban on shooting wild birds. Weidensaul traces the fascinating evolution of ornithology from a collection-oriented discipline based on shooting and stuffing birds to today’s science, oriented toward the observation of living birds. Concomitantly, he depicts birding’s progression from a clubby hobby to a mass recreation.
Highly readable, ideal for bird lovers and history buffs alike.