So Long, Audubon! Time for a New Generation of Birding Apps.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 3 2013 12:12 PM

The High-Tech Future of Staring at Birds in the Woods

The arms race—wings race?—in bird-watching field guides.

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Illustration by Frederik Peeters

Is there no aspect of human life that hasn’t been offered an unrequested helping hand from technology? Is there a drowsy Luddite left on the planet who hasn’t one way or another been forced to wince in the cold floodlight of electronic efficiency? We might never know for sure (they won’t respond to my emails), but my guess is nope.

Even we birders—who should need little more than a pair of binoculars and a good field guide—are constantly confronted with the next newest thing. In fact, we’re in a boom time for bird field guides in America. Those books with the pretty pictures of wild birds and maps of their ranges—you’ve probably seen one gathering dust on your grandmother’s windowsill—are currently undergoing a swirl of innovation, debate, and controversy. They’re evolving at a pace faster than their living subjects.

A good American field guide should contain at least 700 of the 976 species on the official American Birding Association checklist—each species with its own peculiarities of plumage, habit, and song. Even for a single species, plumage differences between adults and juveniles and between the sexes are all equally likely to be encountered in the field, meaning they all need to be illustrated if a birder is to be fully prepared. Field guides offer a uniquely complicated problem of data display: What’s the best way for a book to relate this incredibly detailed mass of information?

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The earliest field guides—if you could call them that—existed to dazzle, not to teach. Early American ornithologists and painters (among them Mark Catesby, Alexander Wilson, and John James Audubon) created vivid images of American birds, many previously unknown to science. Published between 1827 and 1838, Audubon’s The Birds of America is the grandfather of American field guides—a massive work depicting more than 500 species in nature. (Norton published a mammoth, beautiful edition of Audubon’s chromolithographic prints this fall.) It is a work of breathtaking artistry; the vivid colors and exciting scenes stir a naturalist’s enthusiasm in even the most sedentary contemporary viewers.

But it ain’t a field guide. For starters, it’s 3½ feet tall—you’d need a pack mule to take it into the field. Audubon’s drive was inspiration, not utility; in fact, he purposefully excluded any text accompanying the paintings to avoid having to furnish free copies of his toilsome work to English libraries. There were some subsequent landmarks, most remarkably Florence Merriam Bailey’s 1889 Birds Through an Opera-Glass, but most 19th-century bird guides were dense works, filled with detailed notes and observations but only a handful of images.

The modern era of field guides began in 1934 with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. It seems obvious now, but Peterson’s major innovation was simply showing people the dang birds. Instead of bricks of text, similar species were illustrated side by side on a single page. Range maps were added to clue beginning birders in to distribution and migration patterns. Even the simple addition of arrows pointing to key identification points proved a major step forward. For many, A Field Guide to the Birds was something of a Rosetta stone, allowing them to understand a language they didn’t even know was being spoken. Peterson’s field guides were a smash: The first run sold out in two weeks, and they’re still in print nearly 80 years later.  

The Peterson Identification System of comparison illustration dominated the world of field guides. Peterson’s line of books were the most successful, but National Geographic and Golden introduced popular competitors. The illustrated style was perfected by David Sibley in 2000 with his Sibley Guide to Birds, which I still consider to be the best field guide in existence. The artwork is effectively utilitarian, and the book’s larger size (apparently getting larger in 2014)—which received criticism at the time—permits an unmatched comprehensiveness of plumages and subspecies.

And comprehensiveness is what birders need. The fun of birding is that you never know what you’re going to see, so when you see something unusual, you need to make sure you’re covering your bases. One of the first “good” birds I found on my own was one of Mississippi’s first records of black-headed gull, and I’ll never forget sitting in my freezing car frantically leafing through Sibley to make sure I wasn’t overlooking a more common bird before spreading the word.

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