Roundtable: In the Field, Among the Feathered

One of the attractive features of the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History is its commitment to field trips.  On at least one day, historians are encouraged to get out of their hotels, change into comfortable clothes, and hop on a bus to one of several optional locations—a museum, an interesting building, a park, or perhaps a wilderness area.  Usually there is a trip for birding (or as many know it, bird-watching). There are at least two species of humans who sign up for these birding field trips.  Some call themselves birders: they know a lot about birds, how to differentiate them, and how to identify them. They carry scopes or binoculars, they dress appropriately, and they typically wield some kind of pre-printed list. The other group—and I confess to have belonged to it—are those who are curious about the enterprise, are happy to be outside, and count themselves lucky if they can differentiate ducks from non-ducks. At the 2012 trip to a wildlife area outside Madison, Wisconsin, I personally witnessed some ducks and several of what I termed “regular birds.” Back on the bus, I was stunned to learn that my companions had identified dozens of different species.

It is easy to envy these birders, whose hobby has imparted to them not only a discriminating eye and some cool gear, but also a working knowledge of nature, including ornithology, ecology, and natural history.  They seem to be products of an informal nature education that exists outside the walls of any school or university.   Their source, besides one another, is the printed field guide. The guides themselves might at first appear as technical manuals, or something like a stamp-collector’s toolkit.  But don’t they also serve as a conduit of knowledge?  If so, what kinds of values, what kinds of science, do they convey?  How has that changed in the past century or so?

Such questions motivate Thomas R. Dunlap in his book In the Field, Among the Feathered. If there were millions of people buying them and tramping around in natural settings, birding guides should bear investigation as primary sources for environmental historians and historians of science. In Dunlap’s hands, the guides serve as a lens for those who watched, those who read, those who studied, and those who quested to fill up their lists.  He starts with the first American guides written by aristocrats toting opera-glasses, and he culminates in an era that, he suggests, reflected the values of environmentalism.

I asked Kristin Johnson to provide commentary because of her expertise in the history of science, particularly ornithology.  Like Dunlap, she has resisted studying natural history as mere stamp-collecting, and has looked to key publications to trace important transformations in the perceptions of birds.  She has argued for example that the British Ornithologists’ Union’s journal The Ibis can be taken as evidence of the increasing infiltration of specific scientific values from evolutionary theory, ecology, and ethology.  In Johnson’s study, the printed journal became a venue for reshaping scientists’ identities.[1]

Paul J. Baicich offers a rather different perspective, as an author, editor, and longtime birdwatcher.  Unlike the other contributors to this roundtable, he has written numerous columns about birding and has written and edited a number of bird guides, including one on nests, eggs, and nestlings.  The latter was a new edition of a late-1970s field guide by Colin Harrison, and Baicich not only updated the taxonomy and added new illustrations, but offered a portrait of what remained to be learned about the habits of several species.[2]

Akihisa Setoguchi has devoted considerable scholarly attention to the place of animals in historical narratives.  His interests cross between environmental history and the history of biology, including the introduction of scientific values from one culture to another, and the importation of cultural practices such as hunting.  He has written, for example, about the Japanese royal family’s interest in ornithology as a product of the rise of hunting after the Meiji Restoration.  He shows how a Japanese sport hunting magazine, Ryôyû, shaped the earliest Japanese ornithologists and also encouraged women to participate in sport hunting.[3]

Jeremy Vetter is an environmental historian and historian of science, and has been particularly interested in drawing scholars’ attention to the field sciences.  He shares with Dunlap an interest in laypeople’s involvement in science, and has argued that despite the purportedly sharp distinctions between professionals and amateurs, the lines often blurred—especially for sciences whose activities entailed fieldwork, where negotiations with local people could shape the practice of science, or perhaps create a network of knowledge production.[4]

The full roundtable, along with all the others, can be accessed (for free) at

A direct link to this roundtable’s PDF is

[1] Kristin Johnson, “The Ibis: Transformations in a Twentieth Century British Natural History Journal,” Journal of the History of Biology 37 (2004), 515-555.

[2] Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison, A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds (San Diego: AP Natural World, 1997).

[3] Akihisa Setoguchi, “Hunting and the Japanese Royal Family: Politics, Science and Gender on Animals in Ryôyû Magazine,” Thinking of Animals, (2008) 13:39-50 [in Japanese].  Abstract in English here:

[4] Jeremy Vetter, “Cowboys, Scientists, and Fossils: The Field Site and Local Collaborations in the American West,” Isis 99:2 (2008), 273-303; Jeremy Vetter, “Lay Observers, Telegraph Lines, and Kansas Weather: The Field Network as a Mode of Knowledge Production,” Science in Context 24:2 (2011), 259-280.

One response to “Roundtable: In the Field, Among the Feathered”

  1. The illustrations in birding and other natural history field guides fascinates me. There is a way they are done so as to make prominent the tells that observers want to know about but they are considered “realistic” pictures ordinarily. There’s a nifty doctoral dissertation I’d bet, in studying the art of the Roger Torey Peterson books and the like.


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