How Puffins Can Turn People Into Environmentalists

Stories from OnEarth, a Survival Guide for the Planet
Aug. 17 2013 8:30 AM

For the Birds

Everybody’s individual path to environmental consciousness is different. Curious, though, how many of them turn out to be flight paths.

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Puffins return to their summer breeding grounds on the Farne Islands in England.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Last month, when I read that Atlantic puffins were threatened, I had an immediate and visceral reaction. It wasn’t to form a Pro-Puffin League, or to post something about saving the puffins on Facebook, or to organize a Puffin Power March on Washington. It was instead to remember the moment on that small boat off the rocky, wind-blown coast of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton when I first saw these strange, spectacular, and, by human standards, silly-looking birds. It was a moment of surprise, intense and joyful as new sightings tend to be, and as I read about the puffins’ demise it came back to me as if it were happening again, right then and there. It had been an oddly personal encounter—though not for the birds of course: if I was anything to them it was an annoyance, some guy with binoculars staring them down. But to me they were something else entirely.

One thing they were was an invitation into a new world, and a new way of thinking about this one. I’m currently reading Roger Tory Peterson, a terrific biography by Douglas Carlson. Peterson, the founding father of modern birding and the creator of the first real birders’ field guides, grew up wandering the woods near Jamestown, N.Y., and from an early age took a kind of instinctive, wild joy in birds. Born in 1908, Peterson’s joy would become his profession, despite his immigrant father’s dismay that his son wasted all his time on a hobby that would never amount to everything. Enraptured, Peterson responded to the birds he saw by filling notebooks with observations, drawing and painting them, and photographing them with an ancient, unwieldy camera.

What is it about birds that captures so many of us? That moment of flight, maybe: a moment that combines the artistic and the athletic, as well as surprise. The discovery of worlds beyond the troubling human world. And the sheer vicarious pleasure of briefly getting outside of oneself.

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Peterson had certainly experienced all this and more when he moved to New York City to attend art school in 1926. There he fell in with the legendary Bronx County Bird Club and their charismatic leader, Ludlow Griscom. Charging around New York to spot birds on beaches and parks and dumps, Griscom and Peterson were in the midst of a birding revolution. Before them, the way to study a bird was “in hand,” which is to say: after you had shot it. But these new birders were after something different. They called what they were looking for “field marks,” and they could see them through binoculars, often from great distances.

Before Peterson and Griscom’s time, dusty tomes filled with autopsy-inspired descriptions of birds (yet amazingly very few pictures of them) had been the norm. In 1934, the publication of Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds would change all that. Here, finally, was a book meant to be taken into the field, packed with clear and simple illustrations that pointed out the identifying characteristics birders should always be looking for. Notably, Peterson didn’t group birds taxonomically—which was how it had always been done before—but rather with other, similar-looking birds, in order to highlight subtle distinctions.

Peterson helped turn an activity that had previously been thought of as laborious into one that was fun. Birding was now freed from the stuffy academic halls, and the shift was reflected in the high-spirited, athletic way that Peterson and his fellow Bronx birders went chasing after the objects of their obsession, a mood they passed along to others during events like their Christmas Bird Counts and “Big Day” birding competitions. Peterson’s field guides would go on to sell more than 20 million copies.

But something else was happening back then, too. Douglas Carlson argues—persuasively, I think—that without Peterson’s field guides, we wouldn’t have ended up with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, or, for that matter, the modern environmental movement as we know it. He quotes David Clapp, a director of sanctuaries for the Massachusetts Audubon Society: “Those field guides opened a door, and culturally all of America walked through it. By becoming aware of birds, we essentially opened up all of our environmental thinking.” Noble Proctor, an ornithologist who has written several well-received guidebooks of his own, goes a step further: “It was [Peterson’s] field guides that really started the conservation movement. Through the field guides, people obtained the knowledge to identify the plants and animals and birds. Before you can go out and save anything, you have to know what it is.”

The shift in consciousness that signified the birth of modern environmentalism could only have taken place, in other words, once the lesson Peterson had absorbed as a bird-obsessed young man—what Carlson has called “a more biocentric understanding of his place in the natural world”—was absorbed by others.

Whatever Peterson’s larger impact on the environmental movement, there’s little question about how his personal environmental ethic developed. Carlson writes that “like everything else in his life, [it] began and ended with birds.” Once you get to know someone it becomes a little harder to stand idly by as their homes are destroyed and their populations decimated. In this way, many individuals re-live Peterson’s evolution, his movement from anthropocentrism to biocentrism. And from apathy to concern.

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