The First Bird Guides

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It wasn’t until my junior year in college when I took ornithology and started watching birds. My first bird guide was a Peterson. We didn’t ask for a bird guide when we wanted to look up that bird on the fence post, we asked for a Peterson. If you were a serious birdwatcher, you had a Peterson with little stick-on tabs marking the pages so you could go to the sparrows or shorebirds quickly.

People have always watched birds but until the late 18th century, interest in birds revolved mainly around their use as food. But at the dawn of the Victorian era in the mid 19th century birds became subjects of both serious study and decoration as well as food and decoration. Exploration was expanding and the specimens brought back to Europe piqued the public’s interest. Collecting bird skins and eggs, keeping caged birds, acquiring bird art and identifying new species were common interests.

In 1904 a Bird-Land camera for wildlife photography was invented and in 1912 the first exposition of bird photography was held in London. Now birdwatchers, artists, and naturalists could take photos of birds in the wild. Bird banding (ringing in Europe) also became popular in the early twentieth century, so capturing birds alive for study somewhat replaced shooting them. In the late 1800’s the first laws were passed to protect birds and habitats. The federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was enacted in 1916 to implement the convention for the protection of migratory birds between the United States and Great Britain for Canada. And then came field guides.

First came local guides like Archibald Thorburn’s 1883 Familiar Wild Birds (of Scotland). Ludlow Griscom published Birds of the New York City Region in 1923. In 1931 Neville Cayley wrote What Bird is That, an enormously popular guide to the birds of Australia. The first field guide to birds in the U.S. was Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889) by Florence Merriam Bailey, and in 1902 she published the Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. In 1905 Chester A. Reed’s bird identification book sold 600,000 copies.

Later came a revolution. In the early 1930’s Roger Tory Peterson, frustrated by existing bird guides at the time, decided to write his own. He drew the birds so that the most important features for identification, now called “field marks”, were shown and described in the text. After being turned down by several publishers, Houghton-Mifflin took a chance and in 1934 printed 2000 copies of A Field Guide to the (Eastern) Birds. They sold out immediately. In 1941 a western edition was added. Today the Peterson Field Guide series is comprised of dozens of field guides by various authors of seashells, lizards, fish, and rocks, as well as birds.

There were and are many other field guides in the U.S. and around the world, but Roger Tory Peterson’s has to be the iconic one which has arguably become the model for all natural history field guides worldwide.

3 thoughts on “The First Bird Guides”

  1. Dear Professor, if Merriam-Bailey’s was the first field guide then what was Robert Ridgeway’s A Manual of North American Birds, which was published earlier in 1886?

      1. Cathian Summa-Wolfe

        Thank you Professor for your timely response!
        Another query if you please—Are you familiar with Irene Grosvenor Wheelock’s, Birds of California (1904)? Do you by chance know if this might be considered the first field guide published for California Birds?
        Thank you again.
        Kind regards,

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