Farewell to the Father of the Field Guide Format
by Nate Swick
via Laura Erickson
There are a few individuals that nearly every person to pick up binoculars puts on the short list of the greats of our field and it's hardly a coincidence that many books in our birding libraries have their names prominently displayed on the covers. It's ironic, then, that perhaps the most singularly influential field guide after Peterson's original is the one without a single name on the cover.
It was first published in 1966 and, apparently from the beginning, called simply "The Golden Guide". Three great birders and ornithologists were involved in its creation, none of whom get the esteem they probably deserve. The illustrations were done by Arthur Singer, whose depictions of North American birds age exceptionally well even though so many of the names have changed. The text was written by Chandler Robbins, then working for the USFWS and probably the most well-known of the three contributers, and Danish amateur ornithologist Bertel Bruun.
Bruun, who passed away at his home in Long Island, New York, just over two weeks ago, was one of the most quietly influential birders of our time because Bruun, as it turns out, was responsible for changing the way we look at field guides forever and ever.
When I first started birding, the only guide I had in the house was my dad's well-worn first edition of The Golden Guide with the three buntings on the cover. That I, a beginning birder, gravitated towards this particular field guide instead of the more storied Peterson books is nearly entirely due to Bruun's inspired layout and design. It was Bruun who came up with the idea, revolutionary at the time, of placing plates on the right page and species accounts and, critically, maps, on the left. Field guides have never been the same.
It's truly a statement to the effectiveness of this elegant solution to the "maps in the back" problem that this layout is ubiquitous in field guides around the world. And for good reason, it places all the relevant information in front of the person seeking it, and for a kid birder who simply could not get enough information fast enough, it was a godsend. It's easy to discount the impact of an ingenious designer as opposed to those who actually wrote the words, but for a medium as visually oriented as a field guide, the design, in many ways, is as or more important than the words themselves. Sufficed to say that I can't abide field guides that separate maps, information, and plates to this day.
Additionally, all birders know that knowledge of status and distribution (S&D in birder lingo) is as important as any plumage detail when it comes to identifying a bird. I don't think that it's too much to imply that Bruun's layout encouraged the promulgation of this aspect of bird-finding, and pointed the way towards new horizons in birding. There's certainly a reason few field guides have ever gone back to the old way of doing things.
So from this birder, a heart-felt thank you to Bertel Bruun for his insight and his skill. The bird world has certainly lost a visionary.
Bertel Bruun's New York Times obituary can be found here.