Fowl Obsession

Tallying species started in the 1900s with the Christmas Bird Count, but it was Roger Tory Peterson who turned birding North America into a sport. 

Excerpted from The Big Year, published by Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2004 by Mark Obmascik. All rights reserved.

Though the frontier was long gone by the turn of the twentieth century, one old sport was not: many Americans still celebrated Christmas with contests to kill the most birds in a single day. Sometimes these “side hunt” competitions were between individual men; other times they involved teams of men. But they all ended the same way—with a mound of feathers and carcasses piled at their feet.

On Christmas Day, 1900, an Audubon Society ornithologist named Frank Chapman came up with a better idea. Instead of killing birds, Chapman said, outdoorsmen should count them. On December 25 of that year, twenty-seven bird lovers from New Brunswick, Canada, to Monterey County, California—a total of thirteen states and two provinces were represented—went afield. They found 90 species and 18,500 individual birds, but most importantly, these bird lovers discovered each other. The first continental birdwatching network was born.

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count began as a way for birders to meet and greet others with the same quirky obsession. With their annual state-of-the-union census of bird populations across North America, Christmas counters told themselves that serious ornithology was being conducted here. Though this technically was true—university biologists did occasionally rely on Audubon- reported counts to analyze trends among avian species—the Christmas Bird Count also served as a hotbox for birders with competitive blood. Soon some Christmas teams began to compete with other teams to report the biggest list, and some birders began to compete with other birders on their own team to report the most species. Today the Christmas Bird Count has become a birding tradition nearly as strong as spring migration, with more than 52,000 people joining 1,800 different counts across North America.

Inevitably, some birders stopped waiting for Christmas to compete. The result was a Big Day. By rising at midnight to shine lanterns on owls, working the brush at dawn for songbirds, scoping the lakes at noon for waterfowl, and then scrambling through new habitat as the sun set, Big Day participants combined strategy and endurance in a race to see the most species in a single twenty-four-hour period. By the end of World War I, a Big Day with one hundred species, a Century Run, was something to brag about.

Then came Roger Tory Peterson. In 1934, at the age of twenty-five, he converted birding from a pastime of the peculiar to a sport for the masses.

Peterson’s pocket-size book, A Field Guide to the Birds, summed up the species of eastern North America in 167 pages and revolutionized the way Americans viewed the outdoors. Before Peter- son’s book was published, bird chasers still sighted their quarry from the barrel of a shotgun; a carcass in the hand was the only proper way to identify many species. But Peterson moved identifications out of the taxonomist’s laboratory and into the hands of everyday Americans by showing them how to distinguish live birds by sight and call. His book grouped similar-looking species together on the same page and then highlighted their field marks—the visual characteristics that made one bird species different from another. Four pages of color plates were reserved for the most brilliant birds—warblers, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers—but most species were illustrated in black and white, with an arrow highlighting each bird’s defining physical feature. Until Peterson, many unarmed bird lovers had little choice but to assume that a sparrow was simply a sparrow. Then the Field Guide offered indispensable advice: white outer tail feathers signified a Vesper sparrow, large central breast spot meant a song sparrow, unstreaked underparts distinguished a grasshopper sparrow. The natural history museum’s lock on bird identification was broken.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Peterson’s book, with its forest-green cover and bufflehead flying below the title, sold out in one week. So did the next press run. And the next. Eventually more than 2 million copies of his field guide were sold. Peterson was so rich he never had to work again.

But he did—he worked and worked and worked. His original idea of using field marks to identify a species spread from birds to wildflowers to butterflies to reptiles to seashells to rocks—more than four dozen guides in all. The Peterson Field Guide series became some of the greatest-selling nonfiction titles of all time. Birders soon stopped talking about taking their field guide into the field; they simply carried their Peterson.

Of course, Peterson did more than just paint and write. He evangelized. He preached the gospel of birding in Omaha, and twelve hundred filled an auditorium. Another sixteen hundred heard the good word in Kansas City. In Detroit, officials feared an overcrowded hall, so they tried to limit his audience by giving only one day’s public notice for his lecture. More than a thousand showed up anyway. With their Petersons in their pockets and binoculars around their necks, these birders looked around the packed meeting halls and realized: Hey, there are a lot of people just like me.

In Peterson, many birders also saw themselves.

Son of an immigrant Swede, Peterson was mocked as a boy for his “nuttiness” about nature. He even began one of his books, Birds Over America, with a confrontation at home:

“So, you’ve been out after birds again!” my father snorted. “Haven’t you seen them all before? And look at your clothes—nobody with any sense would stay out in the rain.” Puzzled, he shook his head. “I swear, I don’t understand you,” he added reproachfully.

I never could explain to him why I did these things; I never quite knew myself.

Peterson’s father, Charles, was a cabinetmaker; Peterson couldn’t build a birdhouse. His father drank too much, called his nature boy a “damn fool,” and whupped him with a razor strop; Peterson was so afraid he’d look like his father that, as a teen, he tried to ward off baldness by rubbing his scalp with Grover’s Mange Cure. (His hair survived.)

He grew up in the furniture-making town of Jamestown, New York, as a “Green Swede”—an immigrant supposedly so dumb that he would eat green bananas—often pitted in gang fights against immigrant Italians. He had few friends. He was so quirky that he missed the historic landing of the first airplane in his hometown because he was watching two grasshoppers copulating. But thanks to Jamestown’s Junior Audubon Society, led by his beloved seventh-grade teacher, Miss Blanche Hornbeck, Peterson found solace in birds.

When Peterson told these stories, audience faces beamed back with smiles of recognition. Yes, these were tales of an outcast. But could all these people, in all these auditoriums, with all these sim- ilar life experiences, all be outcasts, too?

If anything, Peterson romanticized the outcast path. In 1953, he joined with Britain’s most famed naturalist, James Fisher, for a thirty-thousand-mile trek across the New World. Launching their hundred-day adventure amid a kittiwake colony in northern Newfoundland, the two loaded a station wagon with duffels, a portable blind, and a giant rooftop parabolic reflector that amplified bird- calls.

And then the buddies drove.

They marveled at wood-warblers pouring through the Blue Ridge Mountains on migration. They retraced Audubon’s foot- steps through the sooty tern rookery on the Dry Tortugas. They reveled in the wondrous comeback of egrets—once on the brink of extinction—to the Flying Gardens of Avery Island, Louisiana. Along the way, they swilled an addicting Southern concoction called Coca-Cola. Though the two ornithological icons enjoyed unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the continent’s greatest museums and endangered-species habitats, Peterson and Fisher never became grizzled enough to lose their schoolboy enthusiasm; both men stood speechless for ten minutes after their first view of the Grand Canyon. When Fisher saw his first California condor, soaring magnificently on ten-foot wings above the desert, he turned to Peterson and exclaimed, “Tally—most incredibly—ho!” In their three months of day-after-day travels, the men claimed to argue only once, when Peterson nearly slammed into another driver on a hairpin turn somewhere on a lonely mountain road in Arizona. When the trek finally ended with 2 million murres on Walrus Island off Alaska, they told their story in a book, and documentary film, called Wild America.

One footnote in Wild America was devoured by a certain kind of birder. “Incidental information,” Peterson wrote in small type after an asterisk at the bottom of a page. “My year’s list at the end of 1953 was 572 species.”

It was the line that launched an exodus from the reading chairs, movie theaters, and auditoriums of the birding nation. Soon hundreds wanted to follow in Peterson’s bootprints. They wanted to take the brakes off their obsession. They wanted to bird North America.

They wanted to do a Big Year.

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