Birds Through an Opera-Glass

An ancient civilization cooking on a mound of sand discovered glass around 3500 BC but it wasn’t until the 16th century that glass was shaped into the first telescope in an arrangement of glass lenses that magnified objects up to 30 times. Later, double telescopes were created – the first binoculars – but awkward and of poor quality.

Antique Opera Glasses, Nuremburg

Optics slowly improved but binoculars were harder to create because they required two small telescopes to form one image from two. Most of these were in the form of opera glasses with a magnifying power limited to about 3X. Later larger binoculars became available with a magnification of about 6X. A nice article on How Binoculars Work explains their inner mechanism.

Until about 1900 researchers and artists studied birds by examining skins of those that were shot. As binoculars improved more observations could be done without killing birds although that continued fin a declining fashion for many decades until about 1960. But the observation of birds at a distance required a field guide.

Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey (1863 –1948) was an American ornithologist and nature writer who organized early Audubon Society chapters and was an activist for bird protection. She wrote what is considered the first bird field guide, Birds Through an Opera-Glass, in 1890. A crude line drawing served to identify each species. Merriam considered her guide to be a failure because she claimed that only about 90% of birds can be identified with an opera-glass. The others (like flycatchers and vireos) still needed to be shot to be identified.

Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey

A little later (1896), the major guide to North American birds was Robert Ridgway’s Manual of North American Birds. With more than 600 pages and over 100 plates of drawings of the various parts of birds, Ridgway’s guide was to be consulted after a bird shooting expedition, not carried into the field, because it mostly described bird skins with a technical and dry text.

Merriam followed up her first book with Birds of Village and Field in 1898. She provided technical material at the beginning of each count and then devoted the rest of the space to anecdotes in a larger, more inviting font. The wood engravings Merriam used as illustrations were better than her drawings.

Mabel Osgood Wright, a New Englander and contemporary of Florence Merriam, published Birdcraft, a field guide to 166 species of eastern birds, in 1895. Wright used images from Audubon and other bird artists onto 15 color plates. The color of the plates was poor and the illustrations were not detailed enough but the book went through nine editions over the next three decades. The book, however, was again too large to serve as a field guide.

The first successful pocket guide to bird identification was Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies by Chester Reed, 1906. Reed was an artist and his paintings of birds were quite good and the book was field guide size. Roger Tory Peterson received a copy of Reed’s book in the seventh grade. This book, Peterson’s first field guide, must have inspired him to produce a classic field guide 28 years later: A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America.

Most recent field guide

Some of this information was extracted from Maine Birds, August 2010.

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