Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bird Brained: Avian Interests

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Barnett Newman, the ‘zip’ master from the New York School of abstract expressionism, made a famously wry comment to the effect that art history is to artists what ornithology is to the birds. Bummer for art historians, but for those who enjoy the art of ornithology, what an endless world of feathered fascinations.
Remember the national stir about “Pale Male,” the dad of the red-tailed hawk family nesting on an upscale Fifth Avenue penthouse ledge next to Central Park? The hawks’ reappearance on the skyline is considered no less than proof of the city’s improving health, which is one reason for their continuing celebrity. “Birds are indicators of the environment,” Roger Tory Peterson concluded. “If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” Trouble is one euphemism for extinction.
Woody Woodpecker, or "Elvis in Feathers"
An unconfirmed sighting of the rare ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas in 2004 prompted Cornell biologists to ante up $50,000 in award money to anyone who can lead them to an actual nest, seeing as that bird may have permanently flown the coop three decades ago.
If you are of the bird watching persuasion—in other words, one of an estimated 70 million in America alone—you may cherish your favs, from Sibley to those good ol’ portable $5 Golden Books paperbacks. But the inventor of the truly modern field guide, credited with educating America about the flappable species, is Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996), celebrated in the spiffy centennial tribute, Birdwatcher (2008). Elizabeth Rosenthal, with chops in both journalism and law, emphasizes how Peterson’s aims transcended mere documentation, identification and illustration of the feathered set by making some of the earliest waves in the environmental protection movement, alongside the likes of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, or Rachel Carson.
Peterson’s personal trajectory is especially poignant considering that his family’s misfortunes landed him in a New York state mill by the age of ten. Following his bliss with a lot of dogged footwork led him to hobnob with the greatest avian illustrators and ornithologists of the early 20th century—until he became one of them. Ultimately, Peterson received every major American natural science award, several Nobel Prize nominations, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a slew of honorary doctorates, and yes, his own institute. Peterson’s passion fueled a determination to improve the dense, poorly detailed guides available during his youth, eventually revolutionizing the conception of field guides that served the general public as well as professionals with a practical identification system. In turn, Peterson’s ceaseless field trips brought the plight of our disappearing avians, and their habitats, to the fore.
Roger Tory Peterson: Close up and personal
Accurate identification is perhaps the greatest bugaboo for professional, scientific birders, let alone amateurs: how does anyone manage all the infinite variations, or notate in print the many distinctions in songs, in one bird alone? The enterprise is aided by the fact that the contemporary ornithological community fostered by Peterson and others may be one of the most organized and expansive sectors in the natural sciences, according to Valerie Chansigaud, an environmental scientist. Her History of Ornithology (2009) is a profusely illustrated, snappily designed chronological review that moves along trippingly, from Antiquity to the 20th Century, with interesting marginalia and brief profiles of all the major players—starting with Ari (Aristotle, the first and ultimate organizer of things natural, who reputedly described as many as 140 species but lacked an iPhone app to record his avian revelations).
(If you get a macaw you have to buy 70 years' worth of feed)
"New" 19th century ways of presenting bird samples
Chansigaud’s efficient biographical sketches often morph into stories—think of Darwin’s eye-opening experiences on the Beagle in the Galapagos and elsewhere—but with equal fascination, she also explains shifts in perception and technology that advance the field in a spritely narrative tone (translated from the 2007 French version, mais oui!). Significant discoveries, books, societies, and institutions appear throughout the author’s respectful narrative, underscored in an illustrated timeline section at the back. I thought this History delivered a lot of fun facts, augmenting such a great array of bird books offered by Daedalus that they cannot all be celebrated here.
Of course, if you’re on the opposite end of the birding spectrum and just want to enjoy them rather than notate the frequencies of their appearance, treat yourself to Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day (2009). a poet, essayist and naturalist, Diane Ackerman has contributed a steady stream of poetry books, non-fictions, and kid’s books since 1976, as well as a Cornell dissertation overseen in part by the scientist Carl Sagan, and various opinion pieces in the New York Times and the New Yorker. In recent years, much of her effort has gone into caring for her husband after his stroke, and learning how to meditate on the showstoppers in nature, history, literature and religion during the quieter moments. Amidst several dozen short meditative reflections in Dawn Light, organized by the seasons, Ackerman contemplates the pleasures of field guides, woodpecker tattoos, and the metaphors revealed in the simple formation of words, or the migratory habits of each season’s birds. Her writing, at once exacting and luxurious, is as freed and as familiar as, well, a crane’s dance.

Roger Tory Peterson's tools and trade

Karen L. Mulder is an equal opportunity historian, even if history is for the birds, and recently spotted an indigo bunting on her deck in Virginia. Exceedingly rare and beautiful!


  1. What a coincidence! I've been a little bird-crazy of late myself:) Just visited the aviary @ Catoctin State Park (a must for MD Gleaners)! There's soemthing about spring this year... it's been wonderful for birders. A special wink-wink to my co-workers obsessed with the red-tailed hawk that visits daily!

  2. Karen writes, regarding bird craziness: LOVE Catoctin! Was stunned to almost walk UNDER a spotted owl a few weeks ago at a local nature preserve in the middle of the day, near Ivy, VA. It gave me a stern look and ruffled its feathers impressively, then silently glided away. I was, evidentally, too big of a morsel!! This morning, we had what I call a Primary Color Event: a cardinal, bluejay, and goldfinch in the same tree, all burbling away. It is a joy and a wonder, no?

    1. So many potential gleaner run-ins! I was just in Ivy, VA on my way to a hike & a picnic in the Blue Ridge Mountains this weekend. No owls were seen, which is very unfortunate. The only birds I spotted was a group of vultures circling overhead.

    2. I love the way "indigo bunting" rolls trippingly off the tongue. Heading off to refill the birdfeeder in hopes of sighting one!

  3. It must take loads of patience to get a picture of even your indigo bunting. I was honored by the nesting of a Hollywood finch (another smallish songbird, but the color of a crossing guard's safety vest) on my terrace, but I could not approach him for a snapshot.
    He was evicted by a bluejay, who seemed to be enforcing some zoning law, for the pigeons have the territory now, despite my strenuous efforts to chase them away.
    They are the dirtiest birds known to man--and if you still believe in their famed monogamy..HA! I have witnessed more mate-swapping than on any daytime soap opera. Statutory rape included!

    1. Did the Hollywood finch have sunglasses & a cell phone?

    2. Haha! No, but he was followed by a gaggle of paparazzi birds with tiny cameras!

  4. Birds,COOL!!! Last year, while driving around with a few friends, I saw a hawk with an injured wing on the side of the road, it almost looked as if it was trying to hitch a ride. We immediately pulled over and assessed the situation, the hawks wing was broken and infected. After calling animal control and a bunch of other places that just wanted to euthanize the poor bird of prey, we were able to get in touch with an animal rehab/sanctuary in Woodstock,Md, somehow we managed to get the injured hawk in a pet cage and drove it to the rehab, where it still lives today:)

  5. Karen again...Thanks so much!