Tracking the birder's flight of fancy

It takes passion to explain a birder's passion. Well done.

By Jen A. Miller, Special to the Times
Published November 11, 2007

Scott Weidensaul is a man dedicated to birds. Not only does he volunteer in a bird-banding program, but his house is overrun by bird books. "They fill shelves in our offices, our bedroom, our living room; they sit stacked in corners, on the bureaus, on chairs, on the floor; when we're not looking, I think they multiply, like rabbits."

Weidensaul puts this passion, and a lot of research, into Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Don't let the title fool you - Of a Feather is hardly brief. But it is a well crafted and tightly packed guide to how birding has transformed from a hobby associated with eccentrics to something practiced by46-million Americans.

Who would have guessed there was so much violence in the history of watching birds? In the 1800s, bird collecting was in vogue, e.g., shooting birds and stuffing them for your permanent collection. The demand for feathers and even stuffed birds as hat decorations drove species to the brink of extinction, until those who loved birds where they belong - in the sky - began to push bird watching and bird conservation over bird collecting.

Even today, birders argue over why they watch. Is it to see as many species as possible in the span of a day, a year, a lifetime? Or is it to conserve bird habitats and to enjoy birds for their beauty?

For any serious birder, the book provides the background that formed the sport today, from the back stories of those familiar birding names, like Audubon and Peterson, to why there is a World Series of Birding in New Jersey. For the nonbirder, though, this "brief" history can be tedious as Weidensaul dips into the specifics of different species.

His enthusiasm might be enough to carry you through. Depends on whether you curse the bird droppings on your car or see them as a mark of a thriving bird population in your neighborhood.

Jen A. Miller, a frequent contributor, blogs about books at bookaweekwithjen.blogspot.com.


Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding

By Scott Weidensaul

Harcourt, $25, 368 pages