1934 was an important year for birding in North America. That is when Roger Tory Peterson published A Field Guide to the Birds, a seminal guide for identifying the birds of eastern North America in the field.
Peterson was an accomplished artist and prepared all the plates used in his guide. However, the revolutionary aspect of the guide came to be the use of arrows on the bird portraits to indicate important characteristics for the identification of each species.
This guide sold its first run of 2,000 copies in less than a week. The importance of these and subsequent Peterson guides can hardly be overstated in improving the skills of birders and in bringing new birders into our fold.
However, the Peterson guide did not spring from a sudden inspiration. There were field guides prior to Peterson, most of which are little known now. Several of these were authored by women.
Florence Merriam lived in San Diego and developed an interest in bird identification near the turn of the 20th century. Her brother, Hart Merriam, headed the federal Bureau of Biological Survey; field biology was a family interest.
At the time, the major guide to North American birds was Robert Ridgway’s Manual of North American Birds. With more than 600 pages and over 100 plates of drawings of the various parts of birds, Ridgway’s guide was a resource to be consulted after a birding expedition, not carried into the field. The text was technical and dry.
Perhaps influenced by the daunting Ridway text, Florence Merriam published Birds through an Opera-Glass in 1889. This guide is much more welcoming than the dense text of Ridgway. If you visit googlescholar.com and search for the title, you can see selected pages of the book. It is delightful and decidedly non-technical. For instance, here is a portion of the account of the Chimney Swift: “And what a noise these swifts make in the chimneys! Such chattering and jabbering, rushing in and scrambling out! If you could only get your spyglass inside the chimney.”
A line drawing served as a visual aid to identification for each species but the drawings were rather crude. Merriam considered her guide to be a failure because she claimed that only about 90% of birds can be identified with an opera-class. The others (like flycatchers and vireos) she claimed needed to be shot to be identified.
Merriam followed up her first book with Birds of Village and Field in 1898. She provided technical material in small type at the beginning of each count and then devoted the rest of the space to anecdotes in a larger, more inviting font. The wood engravings Merriam used as illustrations were quite useful. The full book can be seen on GoogleScholar
Mabel Osgood Wright was a New Englander and a contemporary of Florence Merriam. In 1895, she published Birdcraft, a field guide to 166 species of eastern birds. Wright cobbled together images from Aududon and other bird artists with photographs of fine bird art onto 15 color plates. The color of the plates was reproduced poorly and the illustrations were not detailed enough to be useful for tricky identifications. Nevertheless, this book went through at least nine editions over the next three decades. The book was too large to serve as a field guide. Rather it was an accessible reference to be conferred after a birding expedition.
Neltje Blanchan published Bird Neighbors in 1897. Blanchan’s guide was a photographic one. However, the photos were of stuffed birds, often in poses that were decidedly not lifelike. Blanchan’s volume was large like Wright’s book, certainly not small enough to carry into the field.
The first successful pocket guide to bird identification was Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies by Chester Reed . The guide as first published in 1906. Copies are available for download at http://openlibrary.org/. Reed was an artist and his paintings of birds were quite good. For his Bird Guide, he had selected paintings photographed as viual aids to identification..
The account for each species covered identification features, song, nesting structure and the geographic range of the species.
Roger Tory Peterson received a copy of the Reed Bird Guide when he was in the seventh grade. The National Audubon Society was giving copies to all members of the Junior Audubon Club. The Reed guide was Peterson’s first field guide and must have inspired him to produce even a better field guide 28 years later.
The inspiration for this article was a 2009 article by Thomas Dunlap in Forest History Today See his article for a fuller treatment of the topic.
[Originally published on July 18, 2010]