In the Field, Among the Feathered By Thomas R Dunlap | 241 Pages | 8 Colour Plates | 26 Black & White Photos | Oxford University Press USA | Hardcover | 2012 | ISBN: 9780199734597

Publisher’s View: America is a nation of ardent, knowledgeable birdwatchers. But how did it become so? And what role did the field guide play in our passion for spotting, watching, and describing birds? ‘In the Field, Among the Feathered’ tells the history of field guides to birds in America from the Victorian era to the present, relating changes in the guides to shifts in science, the craft of field identification, and new technologies for the mass reproduction of images.

Drawing on his experience as a passionate birder and on a wealth of archival research, Thomas Dunlap shows how the twin pursuits of recreation and conservation have inspired birders and how field guides have served as the preferred method of informal education about nature for well over a century. The book begins with the first generation of late 19th-century birdwatchers who built the hobby when opera glasses were often the best available optics and bird identification was sketchy at best. As America became increasingly urban, birding became more attractive, and with Roger Tory Peterson’s first field guide in 1934, birding grew in both popularity and accuracy. By the 1960s recreational birders were attaining new levels of expertise, even as the environmental movement made birding’s other pole, conservation, a matter of human health and planetary survival.

Dunlap concludes by showing how recreation and conservation have reached a new balance in the last 40 years, as scientists have increasingly turned to amateurs, whose expertise had been honed by the new guides, to gather the data they need to support habitat preservation. Putting nature lovers and citizen-activists at the heart of his work, Thomas Dunlap offers an entertaining history of America’s long-standing love affair with birds, and with the books that have guided and informed their enthusiasm.Author: Thomas R Dunlap is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, He is also the author of Faith in Nature: Environmentalism As Religious Quest.

Fatbirder View: Dunlap’s book has much to inform and entertain and I have little to say about its excellent account of the history of fieldguides in North America. I do not take issue with his view of the origins of the guides nor, for the most part with the motivation for their development. However, I do diverge when it comes to his assertion that they reflect conservation concerns. The truth, surely, is that a lot of birders are not as aware, educated nor concerned about conservation as they should be and the prime motivation for fieldguide development is to improve ease of recognition in order to help listers get their lists right. There is nothing wrong with that and I see no need to project onto the project the author’s own concerns. I too wish that more birders made more of a difference to the life chances of that which they purport to love. If your motivation is to ‘collect’ sightings then your field craft need only develop enough to get you that sighting. Moreover, if you are among those who list competitively, seeing is everything and preserving the birds for future generations is not even on the syllabus. let alone a priority and field guides reflect this reality.

Nevertheless, you do not have to share Dunlap’s conclusions to admire his research and share in his enjoyment of fieldguides. If there is one thing we birders love to collect apart from ‘lifebirds’ it is any bird book.

It’s a shame that the study did not widen to encompass the rest of the world, particularly the European Fieldguides which have been as prolific and have gone through as many changes.

I commend this work to you, maybe birders who read this will develop more concern for the long-term welfare of birds and the preservation of their habitats.


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