A friend recently gave me some bird guides that belonged to her father who was an avid birder. I’ve enjoyed leafing through them and the view into the birding past they have provided.
Of particular interest in that regard is a volume entitled Bird Neighbors: An Introductory Acquaintance with 150 Birds Commonly Found in the Garden, Meadows and Woods About Our Homes. The book was written by one Neltje Blanchan and was published in 1898! According to a biographical entry in Wikipedia, Neltje Blanchan was the pen name used by Neltje Blanchan De Graff Doubleday (1865-1918), the wife of publisher Frank Nelson Doubleday (1862-1934).
There is an introduction by noted naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs (1837 – 1921) who, we are told, praised Bird Neighbors for being “reliable” and “written in a vivacious strain by a real bird lover.”
The author describes just 150 species. She excluded birds of prey and waterbirds to focus on, as she wrote, “the birds that live near us.” Her goal was to present that information “in a popular accessible form” and to describe it in such a way using color, size, instinct, temperament, etc., that the bird is “so live before the reader that when seen out of doors, its recognition shall be instant and cordial, like that given to a friend.”
Bird Neighbors contains 52 vivid color plates that have the appearance of having been made posing museum specimens in front of an species appropriate backdrop, although the author says in her introduction that the images were made “afield.” Here is an image taken from the Wikipedia entry:
What particularly intrigued me about the book is the way its subject matter is displayed. She first introduces the different bird families describing them by “their characteristics” following the Linnaean taxonomic system of “order” and “family.” In the second section she organizes them by “Habitats of Birds” such as “Birds Most Frequently Seen in the Upper Half of Trees” and “Birds of Low Trees or Lower Parts of Trees.”
In the third section she classifies her subjects by “Seasons of Birds” grouping them by the time year they most likely will be seen in “The Latitude of New York” with the admonition that “allowances must be made for other localities.” In section four the birds are grouped by size with examples like “About the Size of the English [sic] Sparrow” or “About the Length of the Robin.
Finally, she has “Descriptions of Birds – Grouped According to Color.” Categories include “Dusky, Gray and Slate-colored,” “Brown, Olive or Grayish Brown, and Brown and Gray Sparrowy Birds” and “Conspicuously Yellow and Orange.”
Taken as a whole, Blanchan’s system seems eminently sensible. How many times have we fumbled through our Peterson or Sibley guides trying to pinpoint a specific species before us? Using her system, one can quickly narrow down the possibilities. What is its size? What is its coloration? What time of year is it being seen? Where is it being seen? What are its habits and characteristics?
Imagine if Sibley’s guide had its birds arranged by habitat rather than taxonomic order. If you were standing in a boreal forest, there would be no need to look at bird species that make their homes in the dessert. Serious ornithologists might scoff at seeing a guide broken up into sections based on color, but it would certainly make things easier for a fledgling birder if he or she confronted with a mostly red bird could go to a book or app that had a section depicting birds of that coloration. A step in that direction is the Cornell Lab’s Merlin app that walks you through a series of questions similar to Blanchan’s. (http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/)
In the meantime I will content myself with thumbing through Blanchan’s pioneering effort to make birding more accessible to the average person. I am looking forward to reading her descriptions of our neighbor birds. Did you know that flycatchers are “moody and silent when perching on a conspicuous limb,” that they are "pugnacious and fearless” and are "excellent nest builders and devoted mates?” What other entertaining notes will I find?