A History of Birdwatching in 100 Objects

by David Callahan

It was probably only a matter of time before the “objects” craze caught up with birdwatching. That’s the approach to narrating the history of something—all the major milestones, major advances, significant developments—by using objects as the jumping off points. Everybody can relate to objects, after all, so it’s a painless way to learn your history.

I have not read the other “objects” books, but if they are anything like this one, I’ve been missing out. I was sceptical when Don asked me to review this book, wondering if I could get into it. Getting into it, it turns out, is not the problem. It’s getting out of it. Open it at any page—it can be read that way although it is arranged chronologically – and it’s impossible not to turn back or forward and read the next entry. Each entry is two pages, always with accompanying photos or drawings.

The book has an understandably British focus since the British more or less had serious birdwatching to themselves for several centuries. However, American birders needn’t worry (or be put off). All the major US contributions are recognized here. The best way to give readers a sense of this book is to list a few of the 100 entries. But be warned! If you read further, you’ll be hooked:

  • Lysippe’s bust of Aristotle
  • Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch”
  • Pig bristle paintbrushes
  • Policeman’s notebook 1840
  • First issue of The Ibis 1858
  • Egret plume hat
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare 1890
  • Microphone 1877
  • Peterson field guide
  • Aeroplane ticket
  • Milk bottle top
  • Nancy’s Café
  • IBM PC

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare? That entry reads, “It is alleged that more than 600 species are mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, and Eugene Shiefflin had the ill-conceived idea of trying to introduce all of them to North America in the late 19th century; fortunately he failed, but not before House Sparrow and Starling had increased to plague numbers in some areas.”

Truth be told, here and there the link between the object and birding is a bit tenuous (e.g., milk bottle top), suggesting that at least a few objects have been selected for effect, for the curiosity they will arouse but not always satisfy. Even then, the milk bottle entry is still good reading if not altogether compelling.

“[M]any works of natural history were written in ancient times,” another entry reads, “and are mostly lost.” However, the knowledge contained in more than 2,000 of these was compiled by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79AD), whose Natural History contains much early ornithology, particularly the 10th volume. His classification begins with Ostrich, which he believed to be closely related to ungulate mammals, and Common Crane. The mythical Phoenix was included, Pliny raising doubts about its existence, though he still maintained that some migratory birds hibernated (a belief that persisted well into the 19th century in Western Europe).

The objects gimmick notwithstanding, this is a serious book, in the sense that it does indeed tell the story of birdwatching in considerable detail. The entries are well written and packed with information. Just as it was designed to do, 100 Objects makes reading the history of birdwatching enjoyable and often surprising.

Craig Storti

Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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