Book Review: Of A Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, by Scott Weidensaul.
Reviewed by Anne McCallum
Can a history of American Birding really be brief? Weidensaul covers so much in this book—early explorer/naturalists, later explorer/soldier/naturalist/scientists, classic bird books, bird naming, the great slaughter, women to the rescue!, the history of field guides, the history of counting/listing mania, modern conservation movements. Quite a few of those of us in the Early Birds book club didn’t get very far in this book or felt overwhelmed by all the names and facts that kept tumbling out of it.
Still there were interesting tidbits to be garnered: For example, the supposed meeting between book peddling Alexander Wilson and failing shopkeeper John James Audubon. The sad ending of Meriweather Lewis (suicide or murder in a frontier inn?) The difference between names of eastern birds—which evolved over time—and western birds—often named shortly after being discovered to honor an explorer or scientist. The link between young George Bird Grinnell and his teacher, none other than Audubon’s long-suffering teacher-wife Lucy! The fact that David Allen Sibley grew up “in the kind of household where he might find a California Condor in the garage.” (His father was an ornithologist.) One of my personal favorites was the account of naturalist Althea Sherman who is buried next to the highway I take to visit my hometown in northeast Iowa. The historical marker by that country cemetery describes her research on Chimney Swifts (c. 1900) using her “Swift Tower” which is reconstructed nearby, but the marker does not mention her vendetta against House Wrens!
The Early Birds also felt some frustration with encountering some of the same cast of characters in multiple chapters. When a reader thought that she had finished with Bartram as explorer, he shows up again in the section on bird names. And Audubon, probably unavoidably, is in multiple chapters.
So—we decided that the book was a superb reference to all things birdy in American history but that it wasn’t our favorite casual “read.”
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