Daniella Napolitano, Fall 2019
Field guide, noun. An illustrated manual for identifying natural objects, flora, or fauna in nature (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
It seems almost impossible to discuss field guides without mentioning John James Audubon and his Birds of America. An achievement of its time, Birds of America was one of the first attempts to catalog every species of bird in North America. While an inspiration to many naturalists and ornithologists, one could consider Birds of America as a predecessor to the modern field guide rather than a field guide itself.
Audubon was born in what is now Haiti and moved to France when he was young (National Audubon Society). As a child he liked to wonder the woods, collecting bird eggs and nests (Streshinky). He later moved to family land in America to avoid conscription into the French Army. On his family land, he hunted and studied birds, and “conducted the first known bird banding experiment in North America” (National Audubon Society). However, before he became the dominant wildlife artist of his time, Audubon was a businessman. It was not until his businesses failed that he decided to depict all of America’s birds (National Audubon Society).
Despite being best known for his Birds of America, Audubon was not the first person to endeavor to document all the birds in North America. Ornithologist Alexander Wilson published his nine-volume American Ornithology between 1808 and 1814 (Burtt and Davis), 19 years before Audubon published the first set of Birds of America prints in 1827. Wilson’s “work was a model for field guides and an inspiration for Audubon.” At the time, the most common method of illustrating a species was to hunt, stuff, pose, and then draw the animal. Wilson also drew birds in “poses meant to facilitate identification” (Burtt and Davis). In contrast, Audubon’s bird portraits were “highly dramatic” and were paired with “embellished descriptions of wilderness life” (National Audubon Society). Skilled at taxidermy, Audubon would use small pins and fine wire to pose his specimens, depicting lifelike movement and narrative. It is to be noted that while Audubon was “avid hunter… he also had a deep appreciation and concern for conservation” and “in his later writings he sounded the alarm about destruction of birds and habitats” (National Audubon Society).
The original edition of Birds of America is a feat of printing. Audubon collaborated with accomplished engravers Robert Havell Jr., and his father, Robert Havell Sr. to oversee the project. Using a combination of copperplate etching, engraving and aquatint, Audubon’s illustrations were printed on handmade paper “assembly line” style with more than 50 people assigned for each color (Rhodes). In order to fund the costly production of prints, Audubon sold “pay-as-you-go” subscriptions where subscribers would get five prints a month (Rhodes). After the first edition, Audubon produced a smaller, more affordable second edition of lithographs. Birds of America was met with great praise. His dramatic style appealed to Romantic era England, where he gained the most financial support for Birds of America (National Audubon Society). Subscribers of the editions included both England’s King George IV and France’s King Charles X (Rhodes).
However, as beautiful and detailed as Birds of America was, it is difficult to classify the book as a field guide. The book is far too large and would be impractical to take into the field. The original folio was 39 ½ inches tall by 28 ½ inches wide (minniesland.com, LLC) and was distributed as unbound prints. Birds of America was also very expensive. The full edition of plates and accompanying text cost subscribers around $1000 (about $27,672 in 2019) and only about 200 full sets were ever completed. In fact, the first modern field guide Birds Through an Opera-Glass, was published in 1899, and is attributed to Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithologist and nature writer (Martinez).
Florence Merriam Bailey preferred to study living birds in the field rather than study dead, stuffed specimens like Audubon, Wilson, and naturalists of her time. At 26 years old, Bailey published Birds Through an Opera-Glass, encouraging beginning bird enthusiasts to look no further than their own backyards. “The book…suggested that the best way to view birds was through the lenses of opera glasses, not a shotgun sight. Her approach, now commonly practiced with binoculars, helped form the basis of modern bird-watching” (Wolfe). Bailey’s passion for protecting birds extended to grass-roots efforts in ending the fashion industry’s use of birds in hats. She and hundreds of other women’s protests helped lead to the passage of the Lacey Act, “which prohibited trade in illegally acquired wildlife,” and the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, “which protects migratory birds” (Wolfe).
A few years after Bailey published Birds Through an Opera-Glass, Ralph Hoffman published the first “true” field guide in 1904. In his book, A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York, Hoffman focused on describing markings, habitat, and behavior to identify species of birds. These identifiers “set the standard” for field guides today (Martinez).
Today, field guides are more and more being replaced by applications and websites. Many bird enthusiasts enjoy the ability to view multiple photographs of birds, as well as video and sound recordings from their cell phones. Like Audubon and Bailey, organizations like the National Audubon Society and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology not only share information for identifying birds but also advocate for bird and habitat conservation.
Today’s bird guides owe a lot to Wilson, Bailey, and Hoffman, however John James Audubon remains the most well known for Birds of America. While not a true field guide, the Audubon prints are “considered to be the archetype of wildlife illustration.” Following with modern times, each print is available online for free as a high-resolution download so that they may continue to inspire others for years to come. Audubon’s full set of prints can be found at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.
Burtt, Edward H., Jr.; Davis, William E., Jr. (2013). Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Martinez, Timothy, Jr. (2014). A Brief Look at the History of Field Guides, Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https//www.backyardchirper.com/blog/a-brief-look-at-the-history-of-field-guides/
minniesland.com, LLC (2009). Havell Edition, Retrieved November 17, 2019 from https://web.archive.org/web/20100619135214/http://www.minniesland.com/study_Havell_Edition.html
National Audubon Society (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://www.audubon.org/content/john-james-audubon
Rhodes, Richard (2004). John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-41412-6
Streshinky, Shirley (1993). Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness. New York: Villard Books, ISBN 0-679-40859-2
Wolfe, Jonathan (2019). Overlooked No More: Florence Merriam Bailey, Who Defined Modern Bird-Watching, Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/17/obituaries/florence-merriam-bailey-overlooked.html