Books set off one birder’s curiosity

Written by Roger Bird


During member’s night, there was a brief report on a new biography of Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) which could be of interest to club members who weren’t there. Alexander Wilson: the Scot who founded American ornithology was written by U.S. ornithologists Edward Burtt and William Davis. What slowly dawned on this reader was how Wilson’s pioneering methods, ambitions and sense of wonder are still part of the outlook of today’s field naturalists – right down to the notebook that our president Michael Runtz urges upon us. Wilson never went into the field or woods without one. Combined note- and sketchbooks were his only tools besides his gun, because binoculars, spotting scopes and field guides did not exist. He spent much of his short life observing birds in the field, noting their preferred habitats, finding out how they foraged or hunted, how they selected mates, built nests, fed their young and avoided or fell prey to predators. It’s easy to see a straight line from Wilson to Charles Darwin to Roger Tory Peterson, to Sibley and Runtz. And even us.

Along the way Wilson solved mysteries that baffled European naturalists, who never crossed the ocean and worked from specimens shipped from the Americas in bottles of brandy. The dead birds were always in bad shape when they arrived, all the more so when, as often happened, sailors broke open the bottles for a drink. It was Wilson who discovered that the Black-throated Blue Warbler was one species, not two: the different plumage of the males and females had convinced people they were different species. Similarly, the Orchard and Baltimore orioles (male, female, juvenile, adult) had given rise to six separate “species” in the minds of “naturalists” who rarely ventured into the field, as Wilson did.

This biography’s tales of mistaken and corrected identification spurred me into trying to learn something of taxonomy myself. On a field trip in Texas once, I was encouraged by John Dunn (co-author of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America) to learning the scientific Latin names of birds. The Wilson book pushed me into buying James Jobling’s Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. It provides the meaning of all those formal, Latin names that you find in italics in a field guide, and provides insight into what ornithologists (in the past and today) were thinking about when they sorted out one species from another. Both books will be on hand at our February meeting.