Handbook of Birds of Eastern North American
by Frank M. Chapman
D. Appleton and Company, 1912
This book came right from the heart of America’s early natural history movement. Frank Chapman was the Curator of Ornithology the American Museum of Natural History in New York and was one a handful of men who shaped what birding and ornithology are today.
This beautiful little book came from my step-daughter Emily. Emily works at an Indianapolis auction house and claims that she had to fight someone for this book. (Thanks Em!) Though I’ve never come across a copy it’s not rare or expensive. I highly recommend this book become an addition to your birding library. (Really)
First of all I love to explore the perspective of a field guide that still allows for the pursuit of the great auk, the-ivory bulled woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon. The demise of each of these birds is pretty certain by the time this book was published but most were still out there and could be found.
This was an era of collecting. Any serious birder could only confirm a sighting if they brought back and preserved the skin. (The demise of the Carolina Parakeet and the passenger pigeon was accelerated as collectors raced to get increasingly rarer specimens. (That’s the premise of the wonderful kid’s movie Up!)
(Though collecting specimen skins of rare birds appears horrific [and is] without these skins we would have no surviving physical evidence of these extinct birds.)
Serious collecting puts a very different slant on birding technique and equipment lists. Collecting bags, scissors, corn starch, wrapping paper and firearms are all discussed in length. Included is an complete chapter on properly preparing and tagging skins. Collecitng eggs and nests is also considered important.
Though much of his field technique is archaic there is sound advice.
Common sense will tell you how to act in the field. Birds are generally shy creatures and must be approached with caution. You must not, therefore, go observing in flaming red, but in some inconspicuous garb and as quietly as a cat. Furthermore, go alone and keep the sun at your back — two apparently unrelated but equally important bits of advice.
The observer of of birds will find that by far the best way to study their habits is to take a sheltered seat in some favored locality and become a part of the background. Your passage through the woods is generally attended by sufficient noise to warn birds of your coming long before you see them.
Later he writes about constructing a portable blind for these long sits in the woods. I’ve been contemplating construction a blind and like his plan. He describes using an “advertising umbrella” and hanging a curtain around the perimeter. It would fold nicely and could be carried into the field on one shoulder.
In Mr. Chapman’s defense he includes one of the first chapters on bird photography. A few years later he would publish two books discussing field photography. Perhaps he foresaw the changing tide.
Early chapters include very complete discussions of birdsong and migration.
The birds are arranged in logical sequence, much as is used today. (Linnaeus had figured this our over a century before.) Each entry is accompanied by a tedious description (This was long before Roger Tory Peterson developed fieldmarks and clear illustrations.) In many cases keys are included that allow the collector, bird in hand,to answer a series of “if, then”, “yes, no” questions and pare down the list of possible identifications until one lone species remained.
There are illustration. There are several Louis Agassiz Fuertes color plates and some really nice typecut technical illustrations. Pages and pages include beautiful cuts comparing the heads, bills, feet, tails and wings of several species in order to clarify identification.
There is clearly a struggle to find an orderly way to share his vast knowledge of bird identification with the masses of emerging amateur natural scientists. Like many birders he had developed a set highly detailed criteria. The difficulty arises when he applies one set of criteria (ie. the proportion of bill length to head length) to one family of birds and another (color and body length) to another. This systems work for him in his study, but are impossible to articulate for amateur application in the field. This book contains amazing technical information, but in a fashion that’s difficult to use.
Like many early field guides this book includes cited reference to specific areas where particular birds have been spotted.
Chapman’s localities are fairly generalized. In contrast Amos Butler, in The Birds of Indiana, 1891, (Another “must have” for the Indiana birder) gives specific localities. My copy is not at hand, so I am paraphrasing. “Dr. Henry Clayton, four miles north of Strawtown on the Noblesville Pike, reports nesting Blue Herons on Pipe Creek just north of where it runs into the White River on the northwest corner of his farm.”
My favorite (like giddy with excitement favorite) are the two plates defining colors. With the exception of a handful of color plates this book is printed in black and white. Chapman had a desire to be as specific as possible when describing color. We all know that the perception of specific color has a wide range between different folks. His solution was to publish two color charts, much like one would find in a period paint company color chart.
(Perhaps much of my giddy-ish excitement is because I own and treasure a small collection of Victorian paint samples. When we selected the colors for our house — particulary for the sky blue of porch ceilings — I sometimes went to the trouble of matching exact colors from these charts.
I am toying with the idea of standardizing the palette that I use to paint my carved birds. His color selections, presumably, cover the spectrum of North American birds. In using these colors I would be making another connection to our collective birding past and conveying a sense of how bird colors were perceived at the turn of the last century. I design, carve and paint my birds in the spirit of the early excitement for natural history and this might be a natural connection.
Frank also published Bird-Life (a guide for the masses), Bird Studies with a Camera, The Warblers of North America and Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist (Which includes information regarding field photography).
I suspect the last will be my next “new” book.