by Ryan Treves
Most birdwatching journeys begin with a step out the door. They involve trips across miles through diverse ecosystems and vivid scenery. Today, however, I took an ornithological journey not through space, but through time — back to the origins of modern birding.
Tucked behind numerous flashy, modern field guides on my shelf is a modest book I had scarcely ever noticed. This time my eyes rest upon its beige-olive spine purposefully: “Birds of North America,” it reads. How chaste. As I pull the book away from the shelf, a dazzling illustration of North America’s buntings is revealed on the front cover. The vibrant drawing and curling title contrast the book’s binding so starkly that I become curious immediately.
The Golden Field Guide to the Birds of North America was published in 1966, before the founding of the American Birding Association and several years before Kenn Kaufman’s first Big Year. The book describes about 700 species of birds observed in North America, including several casual visitors. Chandler Robbins, Bertel Brunn and Herbert Zim collaborated to put the guide together, with Arthur Singer illustrating each species. Turning the pages, I am continually absorbed in the artwork. In comparison to the refined depictions in my standby National Geographic guide, the plates in the Golden Guide show richer colors and more pure brush strokes. The page of tanagers stands out as particularly vivid, as Singer manages to capture the range of scarlet, rose and flame-colored hues of each male bird. The pine needles above and the subdued gold of each female tanager provide balance, adding an aspect of visual pleasure to the plate’s educational function.
As I pore over the book, I begin to notice discrepancies within its pages. Why have I never heard of a “Pigeon Hawk”? Since when were there five species of Juncos? What is a Blue-Gray Tanager, native to South America, doing in a North American field guide?
The answer lies in nomenclature, taxonomy and distribution. Nomenclature is the devising on common names for individual species, for example, the convention to call Coccyzus americanus a “Yellow-billed Cuckoo.” Nomenclature has changed significantly across the years, leading to a “Pigeon Hawk” now being called a Merlin, a “Water Pipit” an American Pipit and the “Sharp-tailed Sparrow” a Nelson’s Sparrow. Nomenclature sometimes changes as older names predating modern species descriptions are replaced with names that modern Ornithologists deem superior, as is the case for the Long-tailed Duck (“Oldsquaw” in the Golden guide). More productively, it often shifts to prevent confusion between species. For example, Capella gallinago had its name changed from “Common Snipe” to Wilson’s Snipe because it was not the same species as the Old-World* species named Common Snipe. Often, nomenclature changes are gradual in their affection: some birders still refer to the Eastern Towhee as a “Rufous-sided Towhee.”
The Flycatcher family has had more than its share of name changes, as shown here in the Myiarchus genus. The “Wied’s Crested Flycatcher” in this plate is now the Brown-crested Flycatcher, and the “Olivaceous Flycatcher” is now the Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Both species retained their scientific names, however: Myiarchus tyrannulus and Myiarchus tuberculifer, respectively.
Taxonomy changes, while more unusual, are certainly more interesting. These occur as a result of increased knowledge about what constitutes a species, and where a species fits in its genus or family. Alterations in the taxonomy of North American birds usually occur in two forms: ‘lumps’ and ‘splits.’ For instance, the five subspecies of Juncos illustrated above were ‘lumped’ into one species after the Golden guide was published, while the “Plain Titmouse” was split into two species in 1996, the Oak Titmouse and the Juniper Titmouse. Other notable examples include the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker split into the Red-naped Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the Blue Goose and Snow Goose lump. Taxonomic changes that are neither lumps or splits have occurred, though they are few and far between. The Screech Owl, for example, not only split into its Western and Eastern variety, but also moved into the new genus Megascops. Even more drastically, the Olive Warbler was moved into its own family — Peucedramidae — as a result of a 1998 study of the bird’s mitochondrial DNA. Though taxonomy changes continue today (2016 changes), the definition of a species is questioned now more than ever. When a bird’s anatomy, behavior and genetics all suggest different conclusions, the reality arises that, in some cases, animals do not adhere to rigid classification.
The last major clue to what makes the Golden guide so different is distribution: the way a species or population is spread across a given area. The most common distribution change is a decline in range or population. Several species in the Golden guide have experienced drastic population changes since 1966. Bachman’s Warbler, Dusky Seaside Sparrow and Aplomado Falcon** have been considered all but extinct due to habitat loss and/or hunting. The population decline of other species such as Red Knot and Black Tern can be seen by comparing the species descriptions in the Golden guide to a field guide today. Nevertheless, there are a few notable instances where a species has rebounded from its 1966 status to reach healthy levels today. Due to human effort and the ban on DDT in the 1970s-1990s, Bald Eagles and Ospreys have both made spectacular rebounds in North America.
Looking up, I realize several hours have passed. For a time I was completely consumed by the intricacies of a magnificent bird book, every page sparking new curiosity. By looking back through the years, I glimpsed what it would have been like to be a birdwatcher in the 1960s, in the budding field of ornithology and field identification. Yet I did not only learn about name changes and species lumps—I learned about why I love birdwatching. While names and styles and even species may have been different way back then, birding in 1966 was driven by the same core reason that birders go out today: for an unwavering passion for our feathered friends. On the 50th anniversary of the publishing of the Golden Field Guide’s Birds of North America, I became a better birdwatcher—without even leaving the house.
*Old World refers to Africa and Eurasia. Old World warblers and Old World Buntings, among other families, are very different from New World Warblers and New World Buntings.
**Efforts to re-introduce the Aplomado Falcon to southwestern U.S. have had some success.