A friend of mine loaned a book to me that she thought I might be interested in. It was a bird book and she knew I was interested in birds. The book is entitled BIRDS and was written by Neltje Blanchan. The book is part of a series called Little Nature Library that was published in the mid 1920′s.
At first, I was a little skeptical. I thought, since it was written almost 100 years ago, that it wouldn’t be very useful to me. But as I started to read, I quickly changed my mind. I came to think that it didn’t matter how “useful” it was, but rather how ”interesting” it was.
The book is divided into “family” groups, with a chapter devoted to each: The Thrush Family, Lively Singers, The Warblers, The Swallows, etc. Within each of these “families”, she devotes a page or two or three, to each species that falls in that category.
Neltje Blanchan certainly was very informed about birds. But the world was a different place 100 years ago. And her knowledge is a reflection of the time. There is a very defensive attitude throughout the book, praising the work of the young Audubon Society in raising awareness about the true value of birds, while damning the practice of killing and eating birds and also the former use of decorative feathers in clothing and in hats.
In this day and age, it is difficult to imagine, a hunter with a catch of a dozen Killdeer slung over his shoulder heading home to prepare the birds for the supper meal. But I had to remind myself, that this book was written shortly after the great economic depression. Food was not as plentiful as it is now. Many more people lived “off the land”. And if it was a matter of going hungry or cooking up a meal of Killdeer, well, what would you do?
I also found it interesting to note all the name changes. Many bird species have been known by various nicknames over the years and the author made a point of high-lighting these nicknames. Habitats, food and nesting habits of each species are also described.
The range, or areas in which the birds breed, has also changed over the years. For example, this is how the range of the Northern Cardinal is described: “Eastern United States. A Southern bird, becoming more and more common during the summer in states north of Virginia, especially in Ohio, south of which it is resident throughout the year”.
A few birds are absent from this narrative. For example, Red-bellied Woodpeckers are not mentioned. It certainly was a different world at the time. And although ornithologists now have a great treasure trove of knowledge about birds, I found it very interesting just how knowledgable naturalists were 100 years ago, even though that knowledge base has been expanded and improved since those days long ago.
Most birders I know, in addition to spending time in the field searching out and viewing birds, also spend quite a bit of time reading about birds in various books and periodicals. There are many publications available besides field guides and over the years, my personal library of bird books has grown considerably.