Inventing the Field Guide


From The World of Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, 1977

by Thomas R. Dunlap

Even people with no interest in field guides know about them; they lie on friends’ shelves and windowsills (the one near the bird feeder, usually), and people stand in the park, binoculars around their neck, thumbing frantically through them. Like millions of others, I knew and used field guides since I was a child, but a few years ago I turned my professional curiosity on them. I asked the standard historians’ questions—where did they come from, how did they change and what can they tell us about our society? I wound up writing a book, In the Field, Among the Feathered, tracing the history of field guides from the late nineteenth century to the present.

The past, as they say, is another country, they do things differently there, and for field guides nowhere more so than in the early years, when the first authors had to convince people that birding would be fun , as well as make a guide that would help them enjoy their first ventures afield—and come back with their friends. The line of work that began with Florence Merriam’s first book, Birds through an Opera-Glass, in 1889, and reached maturity with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, in 1934, which was the first in the modern form, and grappled with a host of issues. How could you describe a bird so people could identify it at a distance? What kind of illustrations worked best, and how could cost and quality be balanced to make an inexpensive book with useful pictures? What information did birders need and how should it be arranged? None of the early guides solved all these problems but together they did well enough that Peterson found a large and enthusiastic audience for his “Bird Book on a New Plan.”

Birding began as part of bird conservation, and genteel women, as the title of Merriam’s first book suggested, filled the early ranks and through their values shaped the hobby. Identifying birds by sight, rather than along the barrel of a shotgun, allowed them study nature in a humane and socially suitable way. Learning about birds around the home would, it was thought, encourage them to campaign for bird protection. They did, and they pressed for nature study in elementary schools too, thereby enlarging the audience. Early guides catered to these needs by treating common species around the home and in the countryside rather than describing all the species in the region. Merriam, for example, had some seventy birds in her first book, but left out the “divers, all kinds of swimmers, waders, herons, cranes, parrots and others that most of us never see outside of museums.”

Guides had to describe the birds so people could identify them; the available books, done by and for ornithologists, simply did not work. Merriam tried putting a name to all birds she saw during a summer on her Uncle Gustavus’s ranch near San Diego, a idyll she described in A-birding on a Bronco. She confessed she “made the acquaintance of about seventy-five birds, and without resort to the gun was able to name fifty-six of them… The fact of the matter is, you can identify perhaps ninety percent of the birds you see, with an opera-glass and patience; but when it comes to the other ten percent, including small vireos and flycatchers…,” you must fail. [1] Modern birders would scoff, but they use guides packed with a century of experience in field identification and in arranging information to help the reader. She had Robert Ridgeway’s A Manual of North American Birds, a four pound volume that described birds in detail, but as they were seen in the hand, not the bush. Here is a page from the descriptions of those small vireos.

This, clearly, would not do, but what would?

Some early guides just stripped the ornithological model down. Frank Chapman, a curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, used that approach in his Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America (1895). He describe the American Robin first with its number on the American Ornithological Union’s list, 761, and its scientific name, Merula migratoria, then, for the adult male:

“Top and sides of the head black, a white spot above the eye; rest of the upper parts grayish slate-color; margins of wings slightly lighter; tail black, the outer feathers with white spots at their tips; throat white, spotted with black; rest of the under parts rufous (tipped with white in the fall), becoming white on the middle of the lower belly.”

Several more lines described the female and young, and then came information on range and nest. One frustrated user, the young Roger Peterson, complained that the Handbook “would describe a bird from its beak to its tail, but wouldn’t give you the clue you needed it identify it quickly.” Nor did the section following the description, which began:

“While the few Robins that have the courage to winter with us are seeking protection from chilling winds in the depths of friendly evergreens, their comrades who extended their journey to the south are holding carnival under sunny skies.” [2]

Charming, but not to the point. Chapman was more succinct in his Color Key to North American Birds (1903), where the Robin appeared as:

“L[ength]. 10; W[ing]. 4.9; T[ail]. 3.8. Outer tail-feathers with white tips. Ad[ult male] Breast and belly rich rust-brown; above dark slaty, head and spots in back black. [Adult female] Similar but paler below, little or no black above.” [3]

That got down to useful information for the field. Merriam had much the same approach in Birds of Village and Field (1898), where the Robin appeared as: “Adults, upper parts blackish brown; under parts bright reddish brown; throat striped black and white; corners of tail white.” In his first edition Peterson just said the Robin was a bird everyone knew, but in the 1947 edition, the book every post-war birder had, said “easily recognized by its gray back and brick-red breast.” That gave you the clue you needed it identify it quickly.

Everyone had illustrations, for a picture really was worth a thousand words, but good ones cost more than a thousand words and poor ones wasted space and money. To keep costs down authors turned to wood engravings, a method in which a raised outline was carved into the end grain of a block of dense wood (carving into the plank side gave a woodcut, which had the grain running through the picture). Since the block could be into the press and printed with the letters, the newspapers relied on it from the 1850s until photo-reproduction became practical.

This plate, from Merriam’s Birds of Village and Field, of the head patterns of male warblers in the spring shows the technique. It is also an early instance of grouping similar species to make comparisons easy.

Colorful, but the colors were not all that good and poses less than lifelike—the Red-winged Blackbird is standing on one foot.

Other authors had black and white photographs, which kept the cost down, but required using, as with Blanchan, stuffed and mounted birds, since late nineteenth century cameras and film could not get good pictures in the field. This plate and the description on the facing page, from John Grant’s Our Common Birds and How to Know Them, at least gave the beginning birder a place to start.

It looks crude, but it seems to have worked, at least for some. Ludlow Griscom got a copy of Grant’s book for his sixth birthday, in 1896, along with a pair of three power binoculars, and went on to become, in Roger Tory Peterson’s words, the “dean of the birdwatchers.” (On Griscom’s career, see William E. Davis, Jr. Dean of the Birdwatchers, 1994)

The most successful of the early authors, Chester Reed, sacrificed other qualities to make a book people could easily take into the field. His guides (two for the eastern United States—land and water birds—and one for the West) were small enough to fit into a shirt pocket but had pictures and descriptions of all the species in the region.

The illustrations were photo-reproductions of his oil paintings, the text a mixture of science and sentiment, sometimes helpful, sometimes useless. It did not make for easy comparison of similar species, but it was easy to carry, and that must have trumped everything else, for Reed’s guides dominated the market until Peterson appeared. Chapman’s Color Key, mentioned above, made it easier to compare similar species—the bane of the beginning birder—by putting several species on a page, paring the descriptions down to essentials, and putting illustrations and text together.

The pictures, aimed at the birder’s needs, made it notable. They were line drawings (by Chester Reed), colored in blocks without shading, not to save money—though they did—but to help “the student in identifying birds in their haunts by giving, in color, those markings which most quickly catch the eye. They do not pretend to be perfect representations . . . but aim to present a bird’s characteristic colors as they appear when seen at a distance.”[4] That pointed toward a new kind of bird art, not the feather-by-feather paintings of natural history, or bird portraits, or studies in nature, but the average bird seen in the field. Peterson, who perfected the form, painted what you saw from about 20 yards off with a pair of binoculars, and he put in those little lines to point up the distinctive marks.

Chapman’s pictures looked beyond markings toward patterns, what the naturalist, writer, and artist Ernest Thompson Seton called the birds’ “uniforms.” Here is a plate from an article Seton published in AUK, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, in 1897, on “Directive Coloration in Birds.” Here all appear in the same pose against a neutral background, and the plate is painted in large blocks of color. Four years later Chapman printed an article by Seton, “Recognition Marks of Birds” with the same plate, in his popular magazine, Bird-Lore. [5]

Peterson acknowledged Seton’s influence, and his plates, particularly the early ones, showed Seton’s approach carried out systematically and artfully—not fine art, but functional art. [6]

Birders, though, relied on more than patterns. They commonly used a variety of other clues—season, place, activity, song—to decide what that bird was. Ralph Hoffman’s pioneering Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York (1904) took the first steps toward that form. It looked old-fashioned, with its large blocks of text, wood engravings, color key for common land birds, and advice–opera glasses were “almost indispensable, a field notebook “indispensable”, but it was arranged to answer birders’ questions.

Entries began with a two-line physical description in small type giving important features visible in the field, followed by a longer section in larger print, but this, rather than sentiment or stories, had information in a standard format. First came information about where the bird could be found in the region, when during the year, and how common and abundant it was. The White-Breasted Nuthatch, for example, was “a permanent resident of southern and central New England and the lower Hudson Valley and a summer resident throughout New England and New York”; the Cliff Swallow, or Eave Swallow as it was called then, “a summer resident of New England and New York, arriving about the first of May, and leaving early in September.” Habitat followed: the Pileated Woodpecker was found only in areas “that are still heavily forested,” while the White-eyed Vireo “frequents tangled thickets, particularly in the lowlands.” Then came behavior and habits, and at the end a review of helpful characteristics. The Brown Thrasher could be “readily told by the reddish-brown color of its upper parts and by its long tail” and the meadowlark could be picked out by the white outer feathers on its tail and a distinctive way of flying–a few strokes, than a short sail on outstretched wings. Hoffman helped birders weave together evidence from body, voice, behavior, and habitat, and his was the first book systematically to look beyond feathers for field identification.[6]

The first edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds marked the beginning of the modern field guide. It gave ways to identify all species, for by then birders had worked out them out. His experience teaching in Audubon summer camps meant Peterson knew just where novices had difficulties, and he arranged the book to help them, focusing the text relentlessly on identification and grouping similar species on the plates. However, the pictures and their use made the guide. His training as a commercial artist meant he could not only paint what he knew but do it in a way that could be inexpensively reproduced, and he stripped out everything but pattern and form. His woodpeckers perched on tree stumps of ectoplasm, the warblers had no more than a stub of branch under their feet, and the ducks and geese were cut off at a rule-straight waterline. The great change lay in making illustrations, not the text, central. Rely on the pictures, he told his readers, they will often tell the story without resort to the letterpress. Despite appearing in the depths of the Depression, it was an instant hit, and new editions appeared through his life–the last finished by another painter after his death in 1996.

The field guide continued to change as birders learned more and authors had better technology to present that information. Robbins’s Golden Guide, as it was commonly called, catered to a generation raised on Peterson and looking for something more advanced. Besides incorporating new knowledge, it refined the form, putting all the text for a species on the page facing the plate (Peterson had plates scattered among letterpress pages), range maps in the margins rather than text descriptions (much easier to grasp quickly) and sonograms to convey songs (an innovation some liked, some hated). In the 1990s a battle of the bird books broke out. It is still being waged down at Barnes and Noble and on, where close to a dozen general guides compete for birders’ attention and dollars with digitally enhanced photos (to show average birds under average light conditions), more poses, more plumages and usually a gimmick that helps them stand out from the crowd. Specialized volumes cater to everyone from beginning birders to people seeking to identify hawks at a distance; birders’ handbooks have life-history and ecology for all the species; and there is a thriving sub-genre of books about compiling record lists—the Big Year literature.

Anyone interested in collecting guides will find a large field, for roughly one new one or a new edition of an old one has appeared every year since Florence Merriam wrote Birds through an Opera-Glass, and then there are ornithologies and bird-related books, from coffee table art books down to department store giveaways from the Depression (rare now). I paid forty dollars for a copy of Robert Ridgeway’s Manual of North American Birds (1887), but fifteen for its most important competitor, Elliott Coues’s Key to North American Birds, and even less for many of the older guides. If you want a copy of the first printing of Roger Tory Peterson’s first Field Guide to the Birds, published in 1934, on the other hand, be prepared to lay out several thousand dollars, and for one with a dust jacket, well, that’s even more. The rest of us will settle for reprint Houghton Mifflin published when Peterson died. Most are inexpensive because they were, after all, field guides. People took them out, got them wet, and marked them up. Collectors do not like markings but they give us a peek at someone’s birding life. Why are there four exclamation points beside the Chestnut-sided Warbler’s description? It must have meant something to the person who put their name in the front in blue ink.


[1] Merriam, A-Birding, 2, 140, punctuation in the original.

[2] Chapman, Handbook, 401.

[3] Chapman, Color Key, 207.

[4] Chapman, Color Key, iv.

[5] Ernest Seton-Thompson [author varied name in this period], “Recognition Marks of Birds,” Bird-Lore 3 (Nov-Dec 1901), 187-189. Quote from 188. The previous article, written under the name Ernest Seton Thompson, was “Directive Color of Birds,” Auk 14 (Oct 1897), 395-6.

[6] Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), v.

[7] Hoffman, Guide to the Birds, 87, 145, 218, 130, 95, 191, 274.

About the Author:

Thomas R. Dunlap is Professor in the Department of History at Texas A&M University.