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In the Field, Among the FeatheredA History of Birders and Their Guides$

Thomas R. Dunlap

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199734597

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199734597.001.0001

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Birding in a Silent Spring

Birding in a Silent Spring

(p.147) Six Birding in a Silent Spring
In the Field, Among the Feathered

Thomas R. Dunlap

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines birding in the environmental age, with particular emphasis on the ways the gospel of environmental conservation changed the balance between conservation and recreation in the hobby and the ways ecological insights influenced field guides. It looks at three books that represent the early environmental years: Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Chandler Robbins and Arthur Singer's Birds of North America, and Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway. The chapter first traces birdwatching in the early environmental years, focusing on the tension between conservation and recreation as well as conservation's transformation from a genteel concern with birds as something good in our lives to a staunch advocacy of the ecosystems on which both birds and humans depend. It then considers Carson's ideas and in particular the battle over DDT, in which birders such as Lorrie Otto and Joseph Hickey figured prominently. It also analyzes recreational birding, along with the emergence of a new generation of field guides and the growing national competition for a record list.

Keywords:   birding, environmental conservation, recreation, field guides, Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Birds of North America, birdwatching, birds, DDT

We were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We became a community of birders.

—Kenn Kaufman (1997)


Birding in a Silent Spring

6.1 Cover of Robbins-Singer guide · This “guide to field identification” incorporated knowledge gathered since Peterson’s 1947 edition and new ways of presenting information. From Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brun, and Herbert Zim, illustrated by Arthur Singer, © Western Publishing Company, 1966. Used by permission of Chandler S. Robbins and of Alan and Paul Singer, The Estate of Arthur Singer.

(p.149) Three books represent the early environmental years: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Chandler Robbins and Arthur Singer’s Birds of North America, and Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway.1 The first edition of Carson’s famous work, with its nicely printed text and line drawings heading each chapter, had a respectable, even sedate look. Later ones, such as a 1970s paperback with a bird’s skeleton and the blurb “The World-famous Bestseller about our Ravaged Environment and the Man-made Pollution that is Imperiling All Life on Earth” on the cover and quotations from an incongruous pair, Margaret Mead and Richard Nixon, on the back showed the effects of fame.2 The other two books spoke of the growing interest in field identification, the sophistication of its methods, and the intensity of the competition. Birds of North America, by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brunn, and Herbert S. Zim, illustrated by Arthur Singer, published in 1966, looked like a “bird book,” with its sturdy, water-resistant cover decorated with a picture of three buntings, the declaration that this was “A Guide to Field Identification,” and the logo “A Golden Field Guide.” It was just the size of Peterson’s 1947 edition, but the browser in the bookstore would have noted some important differences. All the plates were in color, and the silhouettes not an afterthought on the endpapers and in the limbo of the back matter. They marched in ranks across the plates, inviting birdwatchers to use body shape as well as field marks. Rather than describing birds’ ranges in words, this guide had maps, color coded for (p.150) season, and (most striking to those frustrated by having to flip from plate to full description) all the information about each species on the page facing the picture. Finally, Kaufman’s memoir of growing up birding, organized around his quest for a new record list from North America, spoke of a larger, and younger, national community of expert birders. Taken together, the books recorded a time when conservation became a vital, even a moral, matter and recreation became a more intense and competitive activity.

Conservation became an urgent matter as the public became alarmed about the residues of chemicals returning from fields and forests to their bodies, accumulating in the tissues with results no one could predict. Nature protection became more than a matter of saving the world beyond society for aesthetic enjoyment. It meant protecting human health and the future of life on earth. New crowds swelled the ranks of established conservation groups and formed many new ones. And while they read Silent Spring for its account of residues in our bodies, cancer, and birds’ failure to reproduce, they made it a core environmental text for Carson’s analysis of the problems produced by industrial society and her vision of a new relation between humans and the rest of nature. They found in it a compelling way to think about their relation, as a species and as individuals, to the world.

This chapter traces birdwatching in the early environmental years, as a new tension developed between conservation and recreation. The first part takes up conservation’s transformation from a genteel concern with birds as something good in our lives to a vigorous defense of the ecosystems on which both birds and humans depend. It looks at Rachel Carson’s ideas and in particular the battle over DDT, in which birders from Lorrie Otto to Joseph Hickey played key roles. The story of their concern, particularly Hickey’s movement from indifference toward DDT to active opposition to it, followed a common trajectory, but Hickey was more than ordinarily conscious of how and when his ideas changed and had an important role in the battle. The next section considers recreational birding, represented by a new generation of field guides and the growing national competition for a record list, a quest few undertook but many watched. Like many of its predecessors, Birds of North America grew out of ornithologists’ interest in recreation. Chandler Robbins, like Frank Chapman sixty years before him, wrote his guide to serve his hobby, for he began as a bird-struck teenager writing to Ludlow Griscom, then became an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His guide built on Peterson’s work, adding new knowledge about identification and refining its presentation on the (p.151) page. It had more poses and plumages, treated subspecies more thoroughly, and had a simpler format, but it also moved beyond plumage patterns, relying more heavily on form. It gave “Peterson” its first serious competition and marked the start of a new era of competition in the general field guide market. Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, with its tale of a teenager hitchhiking around the country in the early 1970s in search of a record list, showed the competitive edge of this larger and more expert community, the people who needed or appreciated the new guide. Like the boys of the Bronx County Bird Club, Kaufman had friends and mentors, an audience and a cheering section, but his were spread across the country.

A New Foundation for Conservation

By the time she died, Rachel Carson had become a nature saint, though the iconic photographs—standing against a wooded background with a pair of binoculars around her neck or on her hands and knees peering under a sea-side boulder—showed only a small, serious, middle-aged woman. They suggested her love of nature but said nothing about her fierce commitment to the sense of wonder and joy she found there or the radical path she came to espouse.3 She found the common cause of our apparently disconnected problems of dwindling wildlife, contaminated air and water, and new threats to human health in our our arrogant belief that we could and should conquer nature. Her eloquence and evidence converted a growing public unease into a political cause. In 1960 only scientists used the word “environment,” and “ecology” meant a subfield of biology; in 1970 a quarter of a million people gathered for the first Earth Day in Washington, where they heard speeches by members of Congress, politicians, and activists calling for environmental legislation and ecological responsibility. By then, two states had banned most uses of DDT, and two years later the federal government ended all but emergency use of the chemical that in 1945 had been the wonder of the age and evidence of the Progress of Mankind.

Silent Spring had two careers, a short but turbulent one as best-selling exposé, then a continuing role as an environmental text, a guide to how we should live with nature in our modern society. Accident and publicity made it a cause célèbre. In the summer of 1962, as the New Yorker printed excerpts from the forthcoming manuscript, it was found that an apparently safe drug, thalidomide, used as a sleeping pill, caused horrifying birth defects if taken at a certain point in pregnancy. Several thousand children were born, mostly in Europe, without arms, their hands (p.152) attached to their shoulders; without legs, with feet directly attached to hips; or with other characteristic deformities. The news stories all noted that an American manufacturer had been pressing for approval to sell the drug in the United States, against the opposition of an FDA staff physician, Dr. Frances Kelsey, who felt its safety had not been established. In the face of that vivid evidence of the hidden dangers in chemicals, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, representing the pesticide manufacturers, campaigned against Silent Spring, not only disputing Carson’s science but calling her a hysterical woman opposed to science, progress, and the greatest accomplishment of Western civilization—as the group saw it: the conquest of nature. She wanted us, the association said, to go back to living in caves, eating nuts and berries, and dying young of preventable diseases.4

Silent Spring looked like earlier muckraking books, exposés like Kallett and Schlink’s Depression-era sensation 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs (to which it was compared), but whereas that book looked at chemicals deliberately added to foods, drugs, and cosmetics, saw them in the context of public health, and looked for solutions in legislation, Carson’s book made a larger case. The central problem of the modern age, she charged, aside from the prospect of “nuclear war [was] the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm—substances that accumulate in the tissues … and even penetrate the germ cells to shatter or alter the very material of heredity upon which the shape of the future depends.” We had put

poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm [and] allowed them to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effects on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself. Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.

The way out lay not in banning chemicals but in abandoning the “smooth superhighway of chemical controls” that led on to disaster. We should turn to the vast array of biological solutions, some now in use, others being tested, still others only yet ideas, all “based on an understanding of the living organism they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong.” They offered “our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”5

(p.153) Critics and defenders argued vigorously about Carson’s use of science but fiercely about her call to learn to live with nature. Her supporters saw in it a guide that would save us and the wild world, her opponents an “end of all human progress, reversion to a passive social state devoid of technology, scientific medicine, agriculture, sanitation. It means disease, epidemics, starvation, misery, and suffering.”6 Both sides appealed to science, but to different sciences and for different ends. Her defenders relied on ecology, which described the processes and relationships that bound organisms together, and made Aldo Leopold’s dictum from A Sand County Almanac an environmental Golden Rule. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”7 Critics used mainly the biological and physical sciences, but more fundamentally they saw the conquest of nature as the first requirement of civilization. Further progress, they believed, depended on ignoring environmentalists’ fears.

Carson’s view had deep roots in Western intellectual history, going back to visions of Eden, but it grew more from her life. As a child she explored the woods around home with her mother, identified birds, made a life-list, and read nature literature.8 In college she majored in English but also studied biology, went on to a master’s of science in that field, and took a job with the Fish and Wildlife Service, where she divided her time between marine research and editing agency publications. She wrote nature articles on the side, and in 1952 the success of The Sea around Us allowed her to leave the agency. She wrote mainly of her first love, the sea, but followed the pesticide question. She wrote an unpublished manuscript in the late 1940s, using the results of the Service’s wartime studies of forest sprays. A decade later, when she returned to the topic, virtually everyone had DDT residues in their body fat, DDT production was at its peak, and the public was becoming worried about suburban sprays for gypsy moths and the bark beetles that carried Dutch elm disease.

In 1958, protests in the letters column of a Boston paper inspired her to write Silent Spring.9 She used examples from the headlines but built her case on research and concerns that went back to the wartime tests. In the summer of 1944, for example, one of Ludlow Griscom’s friends wrote to him about a story in Time about the Fish and Wildlife Service’s forest spraying of DDT. It had virtually wiped out leaf-eating insects and flies. Nothing in the report, he said, answered or even raised “some of the questions that occur to a moderately ignorant layman.” What would this do to plants or birds? Griscom replied that he had no (p.154) information but “commonsense biology proves that the wholesale elimination of any living creatures is always certain to have an [sic] backfire somewhere, sometime, somehow.”10 The next year, Chandler Robbins wrote to Griscom that he would be spending his summer at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Patuxent Research Center assessing the effects of DDT on breeding bird populations. A year later, the president of the National Audubon Society, John Baker, warned that DDT might have unexpected and disastrous side-effects, and two years later the Society issued a press release calling for restraint in its use. The dangers were clear enough that two Fish and Wildlife Service officers wrote an article warning economic entomologists of the dangers of careless spraying and of any spraying around water.11 The combination of new kinds of problems and greater threats to wild areas from expanding suburbs and factories led Audubon’s leaders to move beyond programs that directly protected birds to those that saved essential habitat, a change in policy so marked that in 1949 Peterson wrote to Griscom that “one of the criticisms I hear most about the Society these days, and it is a danger too, is that it is becoming less and less of a bird organization and is losing its identity as a rather nebulous, thinly spread, conservation society [sic].”12

Audubon needed new policies, though, to meet a new threat to wildlife, even more diffuse than the habitat changes that spurred interwar game management work. The new chemical pesticides spread from the farm to the world. Farmers applied DDT to fruits, vegetables, row crops, cow barns, and dairy cows; timber companies sprayed entire forests; towns sent spray trucks down tree-lined streets to keep suburban yards mosquito-free; and housewives bought “bug bombs” to kill insects around the house. In the desperate days before the Salk vaccine, a few communities sprayed schoolchildren, hoping the miracle chemical would protect them against polio. The materials did not remain where they were applied, though, and they were persistent. When DDT was applied to cow barns, even when the cows were in the field, its residues appeared in the milk. By 1950, residues were so ubiquitous that baby-food manufacturers abandoned their rule of allowing no residues in their products. Only five years after the chemical had been approved for civilian use, the Centers for Disease Control reported that virtually everyone in the United States had DDT in their body fat. Insects developed resistance with alarming speed; in 1950 military entomologists found that body lice on American, Korean, and Chinese troops survived treatments that in World War II had easily killed them. Soon birders and amateur naturalists saw troubling signs. Charles Broley, a retired banker who took up banding and studying Bald Eagles near his (p.155) home in Florida, found in the mid-1950s that the birds were failing to raise young. Extrapolating from Fish and Wildlife research, he suggested that DDT might be to blame.13

Lorrie Otto traveled from Milwaukee to see Joseph Hickey, now professor of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He gave her a skeptical hearing. Observations by housewives, he thought, were not science. Then, in the summer of 1958, a mulberry tree in an Illinois town roused his suspicions. It was loaded with berries, and there was not a bird in sight.14 Finding robins outside town, he wondered if reports in the Bulletin of the Illinois Audubon Society about birds vanishing from small towns—reports he had dismissed because the bulletin was not a scientific publication—might be true. Back in Madison, his graduate students worked out how much DDT it took to poison robins and then looked at the breeding populations in sprayed and unsprayed towns. While they counted robins in the suburbs, Hickey saw the situation close up as authorities sprayed the campus in Madison to ward off Dutch elm disease. He was appalled, for “they literally used tons of DDT on the campus and birds were dying all over the place—robins, Yellow Warblers, and so on. We lost our Screech Owls, which never came back … [and] all the Yellow Warblers in front of the Ag. School building … and it took them years and years to come back.” Collecting dead robins and counting nesting pairs, he estimated that 89 percent had been killed. The graduate students reported that the longer a town sprayed, the fewer robins it had. Wauwatosa, which sprayed for three years in a row, lost 98 percent of its breeding population. It had, he said, “experienced Silent Spring.”15

His colleagues’ work added to his concern. George Wallace found that spraying on the campus of Michigan State University decimated songbirds, and Roy Barker at the University of Illinois’s Urbana campus told an even more disturbing tale. Spraying left residues on elm leaves, which fell to the ground in the fall and were eaten by earthworms; robins returning the next spring ate the worms and died of the accumulated residues. Hickey learned that scientists in California had traced the die-off of Western Grebes at Clear Lake to the buildup of DDD, a chemical closely related to DDT, in the lake water. Applied to the lake in very low concentrations to kill midges, it built up in the lake’s food chains; the grebes, at the top end, had levels in their body fat eighty thousand times those in the water. Those were local problems. Then in 1962 he heard, but dismissed as rumor, that “the Peregrine Falcons in the eastern part of the United States … had not raised a single young.” An article by the British ornithologist Derek Ratcliffe made (p.156) him reconsider. It found “that the Peregrine Falcon population in Britain had collapsed and that it possibly could be due to insecticides.” That caused Hickey to warn Carl Buchheister, president of the National Audubon Society, that if the same thing was going on in North America, “then we indeed were in trouble.”16 The next spring he sent “two young historical naturalists named D. D. Berger and Charles Sindelar on a 14,000 [mile] trip around the eastern part of the United States” to check eyries. He went to Europe, where he learned that many populations were “gone … [for] not a single bird was fledged.” When he returned, Berger and Sindelar told him they had not found a single fledging from Georgia to Nova Scotia.17 But while their report and the European’s story “fit right together like a beautiful mesh … we did not understand what had happened to the American birds.” To find out, he organized a conference on Peregrine Falcon populations.

At this point he felt caught between his friends and his scientific convictions. He felt it was all right for conservationists, like Roger Tory Peterson or Carl Buchheister, to take a stand, but as a scientist he had to be more cautious, for science meant testing hypotheses, and they might be wrong. Until he had convincing evidence, he was not willing to come out against DDT. In a letter to Buchheister he said that “perhaps to Roger’s distress, I approach this peregrine problem less directly than he would…. I view this crash cautiously and allude to [the upcoming] conference as one ‘on the biology of Falco peregrinus’ (population biology would be a better term).” The conference would document the species’ decline, but Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles “just don’t lend themselves to uncomplicated research projects on pesticides hypotheses. The more conclusive evidence is apt to come from work on pelicans, cormorants, herons, and the like.”18 He had reason to speak of “Roger’s distress,” for a year earlier Peterson had written to Olin Pettingill that he was “becoming almost frantic about [the problem of pesticides]—particularly in relation to the birds” at the end of long food chains. “And have you noticed the drastic decline of butterflies: We did not have a single large Saturnid moth at my studio lights all spring and only two or three Polyphemus last year.”19

Hickey wanted the conference funded by nonpartisan sources, but when the federal agencies turned him down he took a substantial grant from the Audubon Society. In Madison, the ornithologists’ reports showed that on two continents and in habitats as different as the Arctic tundra and the East Coast of the United States, Peregrine Falcons had failed to raise young. They laid no eggs, the eggs broke or did not hatch, or the chicks died. Some blamed pesticides, and a few suggested an (p.157) experimental ban on DDT on the East Coast, but others, including Hickey, wanted more research. After learning that museum and private collections in Great Britain had shown a thinning of eggshells in 1947, he set a graduate student to check American collections. In California and Massachusetts, average shell thickness dropped just after DDT came into common use. Meanwhile, analytical chemists tested Herring Gull eggs from the East Coast and the Great Lakes for “residue levels … [and] for eggshell thickness,” and, Hickey said, “we found a perfectly inverse correlation—the higher the residue levels in the eggs the thinner the eggshell. And analyzed statistically the indications were that this could have occurred by chance were one in a thousand times. And that convinced me [in] I believe … June of ’68, that DDT,” in the form of a breakdown product called DDE, was responsible for the birds’ plight.

Around this time, Lorrie Otto came back, urging action, and Hickey suggested she get in touch with a new group he had heard about on Long Island, a dozen people calling themselves the Environmental Defense Fund. It seemed an unlikely force for change: a pugnacious workmen’s compensation lawyer, Victor Yannacone (his motto was “Sue the Bastards”), a young biologist, Charles Wurster, a small group of enthusiasts, and no money. Its attempts, in Michigan, failed, as did its first one in Wisconsin, an action against the city of Milwaukee.20 It turned out that Milwaukee and the spraying company had not signed a contract to spray, as alleged in the complaint, and the hearing examiner promptly ended the hearing. Lorrie Otto, according to the examiner, began to cry (she later did not remember that detail). Curious, he asked Yannacone what was going on. There would be no spraying and this woman was crying? After Yannacone explained they wanted a forum to present a case against DDT, the examiner told them to request a declaratory ruling, a provision that allowed businesses to discover whether their proposed operations would comply with state law. The Environmental Defense Fund promptly asked the state Department of Natural Resources to rule on whether DDT was or was not a water pollutant. At the hearing, Hickey not only testified but organized a scientific research service (staffed by graduate students) to help Yannacone prepare for cross-examination. By the time the hearing ended, Michigan had already banned DDT, the Environmental Defense Fund had many requests to bring suits, and the movement to ban DDT had become national. Within a few years, a coalition of conservation organizations petitioned the new Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT. By 1974 its use and manufacture in the United States were at an end.

(p.158) The campaign, which depended on amateur-expert cooperation, justified the first generation’s belief that watching birds would rally people for bird conservation, but also showed the shrinking role ordinary birders had. Otto saw dead robins on the lawn, Broley eagles in Florida failing to raise young, Peterson the Ospreys disappearing from around his home in Connecticut, but it took the concerted efforts of ornithologists on two continents to discover the connections among these phenomena, to trace such things as thin eggshells back to the resides of chemicals applied miles away. Protecting birds now required expertise, planning, and coordination among groups, agencies, even governments. It was not enough for citizens to lobby for laws. In saving endangered species, for example, amateurs had important roles only if the scientists allowed them to. The Whooping Crane project, for example, became almost entirely an agency program. In 1967, following passage of the first federal Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service began captive breeding of cranes at a special facility in Maryland, using eggs from the nests in Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, and for years it refused amateurs access to eggs.21 Restoring Peregrine Falcons in the eastern United States, on the other hand, involved much more teamwork across scientific borders. That the species was not, worldwide, in immediate danger and the falcon not a national symbol of the wild may have allowed this, but the decisions reflected as well the willingness of people like Tom Cade, a Cornell ornithologist who helped organize the work, to enlist falconers in breeding birds for release into the wild. By 1975, birds were being hatched and raised in captivity. Fields ranging from ethology to veterinary medicine helped define the birds’ requirements, but hatching and rearing depended on patience and insight, qualities not always well correlated with degrees and research skills.22 Experience helped, and here the amateurs, used to raising their own birds, were the experts. It took more work and several trials to find ways of releasing the captives into the wild with a good chance of survival (Great Horned Owls often killed the birds released in the early days), but soon the falcon was reoccupying its old range.23

Audubon found new roles in these new campaigns but defended old values, for these had become part of the environmental movement, in part through Silent Spring. The text relentlessly footnoted scientific studies, but Carson set the argument in the context of the first chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” which presented a dystopian vision of a world destroyed by chemical residues in an American small town where nature was part of humans’ lives. Neither Carson nor her readers saw any contradiction in that mixture. Nature literature relied on science to (p.159) induce awe and wonder, amateur nature study harked back to natural history’s roots in natural theology, mixing piety and self-improvement, and conservation used science to guide action, while seeking support with appeals to wildlife as symbols of the precious natural heritage that was wild America. Environmentalism did not discard older values and commitments but gave them a new, ecological context.

Conventional Birding Refined, Perhaps Redefined

The environmental crusade swept up an established, somewhat staid conservation movement in an aggressive crusade to save the planet, but recycling newspapers and turning down the thermostat did not interfere with watching birds. Often enough, the watchers had in their pocket not “Peterson” but the Robbins-Singer volume, often called just the Golden Guide. Unlike Pough and Eckelberry’s Audubon series, which was aimed at amateur naturalists, or Hausman’s, catering to beginners, Robbins-Singer competed for Peterson’s audience, people with some experience who wanted to learn to identify all they saw, while also serving the more expert group trained on and ready to go beyond “Peterson.” It built on his crucial innovation of making pictures rather than words central, offering a greater array of plumages and poses, making body shape a key criterion, and completing the shift in the book’s form from text pages interrupted by plates to a set of plates accompanied by text. The bookstore browser found paintings on the right, shown in color against a neutral background, and all the information about each species on the facing page, arranged so as to answer common questions. Rather than field marks, descriptions began by indicating abundance—“common,” “uncommon,” or a phrase like “common (but quiet, retiring, and easily overlooked)” (Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)—and included behavior: “Rides on the water in tight flocks; flies on loose flocks over short distances, in long lines when migrating” (White-winged Scoter). Peterson used words for the ranges. (For the Louisiana Water-thrush, for instance: “Breeds from w. New England, s. Ontario, se. Minnesota and e. Nebraska to cent. South Carolina, n. Georgia, n. Louisiana and ne. Texas; winters in Central America.”) Robbins-Singer had a small map of the United States and Canada in the left margin, colored to show summer, winter, and year-round ranges and migration routes.24 Rather than describing the calls, Robbins-Singer used a visual method, “sonograms,” grids developed by Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology that plotted pitch against time. These had, as the two-page explanation in the front admitted, to (p.160)

Birding in a Silent Spring

6.2 Robbins’s Loons · These plates added to paintings showing diagnostic patterns an array of shapes, and on the opposite page more information and maps that showed at a glance range and migration. It served a generation ready to move beyond Peterson’s field marks. From Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brun, and Herbert Zim, illustrated by Arthur Singer, © Western Publishing Company, 1966. Used by permission of Chandler S. Robbins and Alan and Paul Singer, The Estate of Arthur Singer.

The plate layout has Peterson’s neutral background and common pose, but it included silhouettes for comparison as a standard feature.

This points toward the modern guide’s use of poses of birds at rest and in flight, winter and summer, and the silhouettes serve not just to distinguish forms but, at the bottom, differences in the silhouettes of related species.

The plate has no heading, for the text stands directly opposite.

Text, like illustrations, was a marvel of compression and arrangement, written, like Hoffman’s New England guide of 1904, to answer the questions birders used to make identifications.

(p.161) (p.162) be learned, but in theory they gave an immediate grasp of the song. Robbins-Singer addressed the problem of finding the right section of the book by listing families of birds on the inside cover and giving directions for marking the edges of the pages. A book on the presentation of graphic evidence and mapping described the book as having “a sense of craft, detail, and credibility that comes from gathering and displaying good evidence all together.”25

Peterson emphasized plumage patterns, because they could be shown in pictures and novices easily grasped them, and downplayed form. He told readers to become acquainted with birds’ shapes but used them only in the silhouettes, which were relegated to the endpapers or placed after the text.26 Robbins-Singer put silhouettes throughout and arranged them for easy comparison. The first page of loons, for instance, had flying and sitting shapes of cormorant, scaup, merganser, loon, and grebe across the top of the page. On another the small tree-dwellers—chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch, creeper, and wren—marched across the top, three in characteristic poses on branches, and the nuthatch and creeper on the trunk, the first head down, the second head up. Robbins-Singer included extensive arrays of different plumages, again organized for comparison. Two pages showed heads of male warblers in the spring (shades of Merriam’s Birds of Village and Field, but in color), one for those without wing bars, one with; two more had fall warblers, “Olive or Yellow immatures without wingbars” and “With wingbars and tail spots”; another two pages pictured sparrows with “Streaked Breasts” and “Unstreaked Breasts.” Specialized plates showed other important groups: “Hawks in Flight,” “Female Ducks in Flight,” “Winter Plumage of Smaller Shorebirds,” and “Immature Gulls.”27

Birds of North America served a generation trained on Peterson’s guides and using modern binoculars, and it pointed out how the community had changed. Merriam’s generation had had books that treated a selection of common species and looked at them through opera glasses. Peterson’s early readers found all the species treated in a uniform manner and, with the third edition’s plates of “Confusing Fall Warblers,” could move beyond simple plumages, and they had better optics. Peterson painted the plates for the first edition to show what could be seen through binoculars that magnified objects four times. After the war, bird-watchers had six- or eight-power glasses, and some lugged military surplus ten-power ones. By the 1960s, the market was large enough that binocular makers began catering to it, touting models light enough to carry all day, with better light-gathering ability, wider (p.163) field of view, and quick-focus mechanisms that, the ads said, let you focus on the bird before it flew away. Good but not expert birders could identify birds in almost any plumage and pick out details of shape at greater distances. Robbins, recognizing that fact, included juvenal and female forms and common variations and emphasized shape. The advances in Robbins’s guide owed more to other improvements in field identification besides optics, for in birding, unlike most field recreations, equipment did not give a decisive advantage. Expert birders ran up larger lists with up-to-date binoculars than they could with outdated glasses, but they relied primarily on knowing the significance of what they saw, and each generation of guides gave ordinary birders information gathered by the experts in the last. In a systematic way, Robbins-Singer helped readers use plumage variations, juvenal plumages, color morphs, body shape, postures and flight patterns, clues that had been the cutting edge of identification in Griscom’s day.

Peterson knew his book needed revision, and he was concerned about Robbins’s guide. Two years before it appeared, he warned Paul Brooks that it “may well cut us to ribbons,” and eight months later said its publication would put Houghton Mifflin in a bad spot, for it would be three years before a new revision of the eastern guide would be ready. “I have not been worried about other competing guides since Dick Pough’s books—and there have been several—but this one is something else again—a very powerful, astute publisher and the best possible choices of author and artist.”28 When the book appeared, he asked Brooks to look at it without prejudice, even if, as a competing publisher, he might find that difficult. “It certainly is a lot of good color for an incredibly low price. The color is far more accurate and cleaner than in our current eastern guide with its worn plates. Of course the book does not have our system but it is a lot for the money and supplements the field guide in many ways.” It lacked the Peterson system, he went on, because of “my own pressure during the last two or three years on both Singer and Chan Robbins who are decent fellows. Zim,” he said, “was all for taking over our system lock, stock, and barrel.” In a second letter to Brooks, written that same day, he warned that the guide would “herald a complete series of Golden Field Guides eventually. How they managed to get 340 pages in color (good, clean color) plus bibliography and index for only $2.95 I shall never know.”29 Olin Pettingill agreed, writing to Robbins that the new guide, “covering all the species of North America under one small cover, in full color, and at modest cost, reached a milestone in publishing on birds for the amateur.”30


Birding in a Silent Spring

6.3 Robbins’s flycatchers · Habitat, so important with these species, crept back into the illustrations, and songs appeared in the new, and sometimes baffling, form of “sonograms.” From Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brun, and Herbert Zim, illustrated by Arthur Singer, © Western Publishing Company, 1966. Used by permission of Chandler S. Robbins and Alan and Paul Singer, The Estate of Arthur Singer.

Robbins-Singer lacked Peterson’s relentless focus on comparison, but the treatment of these confusing species was a model of clarity.

This plate shows, more than most, attention to what was around the birds, perching each species on characteristic vegetation.

The heading, unlike that on the loons, emphasizes the problems of identification, telling readers these are “frequently impossibly to identify in the field.”

Songs are treated here in sonogram and text, and in detail, with differences for southern and northern specimens of Traill’s Flycatcher.

(p.165) (p.166)
Birding in a Silent Spring

6.4 Robbins’s ducks · This plate, giving the duller females careful treatment, catered to a more advanced generation of birders than those who first read Peterson. From Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brun, and Herbert Zim, illustrated by Arthur Singer, © Western Publishing Company, 1966. Used by permission of Chandler S. Robbins and Alan and Paul Singer, The Estate of Arthur Singer.

This groups related species both for patterns and form. In the silhouettes, non-ducks appear in blue rather than black.

The paintings show the wings at the bottom of the down stroke to make it easier to compare the important wing patches.

The specialized plates in this new guide emphasized how many birders had moved from identifying species to trying to put a name on any bird they saw.

Text here did little more than remind readers what to look for, “the wing pattern, the most important field mark.”

(p.167) (p.168) Peterson had reason to worry, for the market had changed since Houghton Mifflin had made the first printings of the 1947 edition almost a special production. Paperbacks and lower costs for color printing challenged a business model built around selling an unrevised volume for many years. A year after Robbins’s book came out, Peterson wrote to Brooks that he was “a bit disturbed … when I learned that the Robbins-Singer bird guide was outselling us by a very considerable margin at the bookshop at the Massachusetts Audubon headquarters.” Brooks said the competition was “stronger than I realized” but attributed it to the price difference: Peterson, only in hardback, cost $4.95, while the Golden Guide, in paperback, sold for $2.95. The firm’s sales representatives, he said, wanted something at a competitive price—by which he meant a paperback version.31 Peterson resisted, at least in part because of the difference in royalties, arguing that “the weakness in the Eastern book is not cheap competition but need of revision.”32 In 1969, he said the Golden Series “threatens to be very extensive” and the publisher was already preparing a new edition of the bird guide. “Incidentally, this item in its earlier edition sold well over three million copies.”33 That level of sales allowed frequent revisions, which made his own unrevised book even less attractive.

Wild America Meets On the Road

Peterson and Fisher’s tour inspired Kenn Kaufman, but his memoir Kingbird Highway told of a new kind of search in wild America. Peterson and Fisher described a three-month expedition by a pair of accomplished, middle-aged naturalists, touring in a station wagon on a schedule arranged through an extensive network of friends and acquaintances, many of them eminent ornithologists and birders, with the North American year-list record (at least in the telling) an afterthought. In Kingbird Highway a teenager hitchhiked, took side trips for rarities discovered through community gossip passed on by telephone, had an enthusiastic audience following his progress, and the list was the thing. Looking back, twenty years later, he saw his teenage adventures not as a naturalist’s journey but as part of

an active game, even a competitive sport. [In the] early 1970s we were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We were out to seek, to discover, to chase, to learn, to find as many different kinds of birds as possible—and, in friendly competition to try to find more of them than the next birder. We became a community (p.169) of birders…. [As] improvements in communication and in travel made it possible for people to seek birds from coast to coast … birding changed from a mild local pastime to a continent-wide craze…. Birding for the 1990s—indeed birding for the twenty-first century—was born in the brief period from 1970 to 1975.34

That turned the story inside out. It made the road central and put nature and conservation to one side. The postwar naturalists had wanted to see “everything that walked, hopped, swam, or flew, and the plants and rocks too,” and they had looked at the land in the context of American history.35 Their chapter titles recalled regions and events; searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Peterson and Fisher harked back to John James Audubon; and at the Dry Tortugas they looked at the old fort as well as the birds. Kaufman looked for birds alone and no further back in time than Wild America, which he took as a starting point and not a touchstone. Where Peterson lamented the loss of the wild, Kaufman mentioned conservation only in wondering how many birders would see the Cape Sable Sparrow before developers filled in the marsh it lived in. In a coda to that chapter, he described the fate of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow, forgotten as a subspecies, gone by the time taxonomists began to wonder if it might be a true species.36 He put at the head of each chapter an outline map of the United States marked with the route traveled in the pages that followed. The Wild America tour told of the early years of the postwar boom, when long-distance travel was an adventure, war and the Depression recent memories, and the wild almost at hand. Kaufman hitchhiked on the interstates when conservation had moved out of being a cause that good citizens lobbied for, discreetly, to become the environmental movement.

Even as birders rallied to save the wild and the environment, devotees of recreational birding became a closer, more self-contained community. Griscom had spent a decade alone before finding “blessed companionship” and had competed within a small circle, but Kaufman knew about lists and competition from his childhood reading of Wild America and followed national birding events through newsletters from the American Birding Association—which set him dreaming. “I had thought that seeing 600 species in North America must be the result of a lifetime’s effort by the most dedicated bird experts…. But by 1970 there were many birders with lists well over 600; one guy, Joe Taylor from New York State, was pushing seriously toward 700.”37 Guides allowed birders to master the details of identification in a few years rather than a lifetime, and the community told them where to find the (p.170) birds across the country. It was possible for teenagers to dream. When Kaufman dropped out of school at sixteen to pursue his, he found a national network of birders ready to help, and the social barriers of Griscom’s generation long gone.38 At the American Birding Association Convention in 1973, Kaufman asked if he could “just sort of stick around and watch,” since he could not afford registration or field trips, and while the local volunteer wondered what to do, not having “anticipated that bearded teenagers with backpacks would come to lurk around the edge of the otherwise orderly group,” three of the association’s officers spotted him, asked how the Big Year was coming, and swept him off to the members’ meeting.39

The year had the frantic pace befitting a “natural obsession that got a little out of hand.” Inspired by tales of six hundred birds in a year, he thought “more and more … about what each new species would do for my list totals.” He set out, but on learning that that Ted Parker had set a new record of 626 species, he quit. Six hundred seemed barely possible, but “626 loomed as an impossible figure to beat, especially by hitchhiking. So I quit.” The next year he set off again. Marathon travel for birds, startling in Peterson and Fisher’s day, was common enough to have a sardonic tag within the clan: “IDIOT, Incredible Distances in Ornithological Travel.” In January, having picked up the common Arizona species, he hitchhiked from Tucson to Florida to find a Caribbean stray, the Loggerhead Kingbird, then north to Pennsylvania, on to New England, and south to the Outer Banks in North Carolina. From there he went south to spot Mexican Crows on the Brownsville, Texas, dump, back to Pennsylvania for a group outing after Boreal Owls, out to the Pacific Northwest, and back across the continent to the Dry Tortugas, off Key West. In April he caught the height of the spring migration on the Texas coast, joining a team for a day that began in Houston at 3 a.m., ended in Brownsville at midnight, and netted 229 species, of which he saw 214. Enthusiasm occasionally led him astray. Hearing of a European wanderer, the Spotted Redshank, at Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, he hitchhiked from Tucson to New Jersey, only to find the identification had been mistaken. At the end of the year he had notched up 666 species. Floyd Murdoch had 669.40

The change in listing and records measured the growth of the birding community. Guy Emerson, reporting his tally in 1939, saw it as something new and played down the element of competition. Fifteen years later, Peterson and Fisher celebrated by sending Emerson a telegram, but only gave the new record publicity in Wild America. When Keith retraced the Wild America route in 1956, he earned an article in (p.171) Audubon, but in 1963, when he asked for life-list totals for an article on listing, he got fewer than two dozen (Ira Gabrielson, retired head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, stood first with 669, then Peterson with 638).41 By the 1970s, the North American record had became the center of intense competition, followed by birders across the country. Kaufman knew who his competitors were and fielded questions all year about his progress. Like his predecessors, he relied on friends to arrange some of his outings, but he checked off pelagic birds on deepwater tours arranged for birders and picked up strays from Asia on Aleutian islands reached by flights arranged for birders. In ports on both coasts and at national wildlife refuges, birders could charter boats or planes, most run as occasional or seasonal businesses, but some full-time bird tour operations.42

Away from home, birders needed local information, and the growing market transformed finding guides. Pettingill’s hardback books were useful but not current, and in the mid-1960s one enthusiast, Jim Lane, moved from birder to writer and publisher, turning his own and others’ expertise into inexpensive, detailed, and frequently revised guides to small areas, books birders came to know simply as “Lane guides.” The first, A Birder’s Guide to Southeastern Arizona, appeared in 1965.43 A typical example, the 1986 edition of Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, lacked even the pretense of production values. It had a cover of flimsy stock and cheaply printed pages held together by two staples that went through the spine, but the pages had a wealth of detailed information. In the Falcon State Recreation Area, for example, the “Hooded Oriole can usually be found in summer around the office. One year it nested in the light standard right next to the bulb.” A good birding spot in Del Rio can be found by taking Spur 277 toward the international bridge and at a “sharp left turn marked by a 25-miles-an-hour sign turn right on a dirt road. Drive slowly and stop frequently to squeak or imitate a screech-owl.”44 Tables in the back showed the chances of finding any given species for each month, with bars ranging from a thick “Hard to Miss” to a line of dots signifying “How Lucky Can You Get.” A separate page listed even less frequent visitors: “Seldom Seen but Possible.”45 The books changed, if not quite with the seasons, at least far more frequently than traditional publications. The 1986 Rio Grande guide was the fifth edition of a booklet that had first appeared in 1971.

Lists, the community that kept them, the guides, and the finding guides all changed, but some things remained the same. A young woman in a Mustang who picked Kaufman up near Brownsville found it hard to believe he was a birder. “Aren’t birdwatchers all little old ladies (p.172) with blue hair? Or old guys with skinny legs and funny-looking shorts and safari hats?” Did he have a girlfriend? No, and “not likely to either. Young women and birding just don’t mix.” Many women birded, but Kaufman lamented an “apparent lack of young female birders: unsolved mystery, the bane of all the young male birders.”46 That dated at least to the days of Linnaean Society of New York and the Bronx County Bird Club, and the Big Day had a certain macho air. Recall Teale’s belief that Griscom’s all-day expeditions would lead people “to elevate this robust, he-man activity to a place beside mountain climbing and the cross-country marathon.”47 When Teale made that comment the most prominent woman birder was Connie Hagar, who made her reputation by patiently combing the area around Rockport for species others overlooked, not with long lists compiled on marathon drives.

Birding had gone from strolls in the park or “a-birding on a bronco” to flights to isolated Aleutian islands, but Merriam, Wright, and Chapman would have recognized the standards for checking off species. What counted was still what the scientists counted as a species, found within the AOU’s territory, and taxonomists’ decisions changed the rules. When they divided a population once considered one species into two—“split,” in the jargon—or decided that what seemed two were really one (“lumped”), the lists changed. “Once a bird was lumped,” Kaufman said, “as far as the listers were concerned, it might as well not exist.” The AOU’s boundaries held. When Mexican Crows moved from the Matamoros dump to the trash heap maintained by Brownsville, Texas, they entered “the A.O.U. Check-list Area and [were] suddenly fair game for all the listers.” Ross’s Gull appeared in the North American books because it could regularly be seen in the fall in Pt. Barrow, Alaska. Birders could search Baja California, Bermuda, and Greenland because their bird life so closely resembled that of the United States that AOU scientists regarded the areas, biologically, as American territory.

The deeper appeals remained as well. The first guide authors spoke of the birds’ world and the beauty and joy to be found in it, and while the rhetoric changed, the fascination remained. Like Peterson, Kaufman found in birds something that transcended his ordinary world. He wrote approvingly of a California birding guru who worked on his list but felt it was unimportant, who believed birds were “magical, and … searching after them was a Great Adventure … [with the list] just a frivolous incentive for birding.”48 Florence Merriam or Neltje Blanchan, Ludlow Griscom or Joseph Hickey might have said the same, and so would millions of birders. Records, lists, and the fine points of field (p.173) identification organized a great adventure whose appeal birders felt, though they could not define it.

Sales of Birds of North America demonstrated birding’s rising popularity, and Kaufman’s account the obsessive lure of the list, but the storm that followed Silent Spring changed birding by turning conservation from an aesthetic interest into an urgent moral concern involving humans as well as wildlife. In the short run, the environmental gospel disrupted established conservation groups, not least because it came entangled with the counterculture. The Sierra Club went through a very public battle, as David Brower changed it from a regional conservation organization interested in hiking into a national environmental group. The strains eventually brought the board to fire him. The National Wildlife Federation, originally a sportsmen’s group, became a coalition that included both humane activists and trophy hunters. Audubon went through a less intense struggle—perhaps due to a lingering genteel tradition—but it, too, split over programs and priorities. To hardcore environmentalists, listing seemed a distraction from the necessary and all-absorbing crusade to save the planet. Recreational birders formed the American Birding Association and began the journal Birding at least in part because they felt Audubon neglected their interests to concentrate on environmental conservation.

The next chapter takes up birders’ continuing engagement with conservation and recreation as environmentalism became a part of the mainstream culture and bird protection came to depend even more on science. Field guides incorporated ecological and environmental perspectives and developing electronic media. Recreation became more competitive, with world life-lists the new standard, and more cooperative, as ornithologists enlisted more birders into continuing programs surveying bird populations across the country and even the hemisphere. Recreation and conservation found, as they had in each generation since Florence Merriam went out with the Smith College bird club, a new relationship, one that aimed to preserve nature as part of American life and Americans’ lives by encouraging the simple activity of identifying birds. (p.174)


(1.) Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962). Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Brunn, and Herbert S. Zim, Birds of North America (New York: Golden Press, 1966). Kenn Kaufman, Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

(2.) Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Fawcett, n.d.).

(3.) On Carson see Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (New York: Holt, 1997); also Mark Hamilton Lytle, The Gentle Subversive (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Alex MacGillivray, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (New York: Barron’s, 2004); and Priscilla Coit Murphy, What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).

(4.) Thomas R. Dunlap, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 104–13.

(6.) William Darby, “A Scientist Looks at Silent Spring,” 2, 1962. American Chemical Society, copy from Aaron Ihde.

(7.) Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949; reprint, New York: Ballantine, 1970), 262.

(10.) Alexander Bergstrom to Ludlow Griscom (LG), July 28, 1944 (report referred to is Time, July 31, 1944, p. 72). LG to Bergstrom, August 8, 1944, Griscom Papers, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York.

(11.) Robbins to LG, March 31, 1945, Griscom Papers. John H. Baker, “The President Reports to You,” Audubon 47 (September–October 1945), 309–15; press release, March 2, 1946, in the papers of Roland Clement, used with permission. Clarence Cottam and Elmer Higgins, “DDT and Its Effect on Fish and Wildlife,” Journal of Economic Entomology 39 (February 1946), 44–52.

(12.) Roger Tory Peterson (RTP) to LG, July 11, 1949, Griscom Papers.

(14.) Author’s interview with Joseph Hickey, July 16, 1973, tapes in Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison.

(15.) Hickey interview.

(16.) Derek Ratcliffe, “The Status of the Peregrine in Great Britain,” Bird Study 10 (June 1963), 56–90.

(17.) Their report is Daniel D. Berger, Charles R. Sindelar, Jr., and K. E. Gamble, “The Status of Breeding Peregrines in the Eastern United States,” in Joseph J. Hickey, ed., Peregrine Falcon Populations (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 165–73.

(18.) Joseph J. Hickey to Carl W. Buchheister, February 24, 1965, Roger Tory Peterson Institute, Jamestown, New York.

(19.) RTP to Olin Pettingill, September 9, 1964, Peterson Institute.

(20.) The following account relies on the author’s interviews with Victor Yannacone, Maurice Van Susteren (the hearing examiner), and Lorrie Otto. Tapes in Wisconsin Historical Society.

(21.) Thomas R. Dunlap, “Organization and Wildlife Preservation: The Case of the Whooping Crane in North America,” Social Studies of Science 21 (1991), 197–221.

(22.) On craft knowledge, New Zealand, where lack of money required using amateurs, provides the best examples. See David Butler and Don Merton, The Black Robin: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Bird (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1992).

(23.) Tom J. Cade, “The Breeding of Peregrines and Other Falcons in Captivity: An Historical Summary,” in Tom J. Cade, James H. Enderson, Carl G. Thelander, and Clayton M. White, eds., Peregrine Falcon Populations: Their Management and Recovery (Boise: Peregrine Fund, 1988), 539–47. John H. Barclay, “Peregrine Restoration in the Eastern United States,” in ibid., 549–58.

(24.) Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947), 205.

(25.) Edward R. Tufte, Beautiful Evidence (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphic Press, 2006), 115.

(28.) RTP to Paul Brooks, April 12, 1964, December 5, 1964, Peterson Institute.

(29.) RTP to Paul Brooks, two letters, June 14, 1966, Peterson Institute.

(30.) Olin Pettingill to Chandler Robbins, June 6, 1966, Peterson Institute.

(31.) Paul Brooks to RTP, November 1, 1967, Peterson Institute.

(32.) RTP to Paul Brooks, January 1, 1968, September 18, 1968, Peterson Institute.

(33.) RTP to Paul Brooks, October 9, 1969, Peterson Institute.

(p.223) (35.) Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, Wild America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), 15.

(38.) John C. Devlin and Grace Naismith, The World of Roger Tory Peterson: An Authorized Biography (New York: New York Times Books, 1977), 52–61.

(41.) Stuart Keith, “The ‘600 Club’: America’s Top-Ranking Birders,” Audubon 65 (November–December 1962), 376–77.

(42.) Kaufman, Kingbird Highway, 307, 55, 163. On modern world bird tourism see Mark Cocker, Birders: Tales of a Tribe (London: Jonathan Cape, 2001; reprint, New York: Grove Press, no date), 196–213.

(44.) James A. Lane, A Birder’s Guide to the Rio Grande Valley (Denver: L & P Press, 1986), 25, 39.

(47.) Edwin Way Teale, “Ludlow Griscom: Virtuoso of Field Identification,” Bird-Lore 47 (November–December 1945), 349.