Dunlap: In the Field, Among the Feathered
by Rick Wright
“Birds,” writes Thomas R. Dunlap, are “good to think with.” And Dunlap’s In the Field, Among the Feathered provides thoughtful readers an equally thoughtful history of our sport, from its beginnings in the late nineteenth century more or less up to today, a history written and read in the books that make us birders.
Dunlap takes a purely chronological approach here, dividing American birding into three periods: a “pioneering” stage when field guide authors remained uncertain about the precise functions and audiences of their books, a “mature” and “popular” phase beginning with the publication of the first Peterson guide, and a poorly named and unsatisfyingly explained “environmental” period characterized by often conflicting emphases on ecological connection and identification expertise.
A bright thread running through the entire narrative is Dunlap’s identification of an American Sonderweg in birding. No one can reject his assertion that practices and cultures are very different here from those in the other great strongholds of amateur ornithology-Scandinavia, The Netherlands, Great Britain—but the author’s arguments in explanation of those differences are extremely diffuse and, if I read them correctly, simplistic. Disappointingly, Dunlap appears to summarize American uniqueness as constituted in an emphasis on the list; he seems to explain this emphasis historically, as the necessary result of the circumstances surrounding the origins of American birding: where in the rest of the English-speaking world birdwatching grew out of amateur natural history pursuits focused on life histories and journal keeping, North American birding was founded in the late nineteenth century as a way to enlist “an enthusiastic but inexperienced group of mainly women and children” in conservation efforts. Once the plume wars were won, North American birdwatchers were left with nothing but listing and simple identification as the content of their hobby. This is plausible, if decidedly reductionist, but it would be more convincing if Dunlap did not also assert that the list had its origins in natural history (p. 29, p. 83) and that birdwatching was simply the “focus” for a general American interest in nature (p. 34). Maybe all these things are true at once and there are no self-contradictions here, but if that is so, then this story requires a great deal more subtlety.
Other issues are raised without really being treated at all. Dunlap's introduction introduces as the two great themes of the book the changing ways in which Americans have used science to understand the world and the process by which "commercial realities have both enabled and restrained the passage of knowledge" between scientific and hobbyist communities. The first matter arises only occasionally and is never made the subject of sustained argument or investigation, the book focusing instead on the popular side of amateur ornithology; the second is essentially denied at the end of the book, when Dunlap asserts--disappointingly and incorrectly--that the commodification of birding in the 20th century did not result in any fundamental change in American birding culture. The author notes, accurately, that birders have more consumer goods with each passing year, that there is a growing cohort of professional birders, that optics companies now vie for birder endorsements, that books and software appear at a tremendous rate--and concludes that none of this matters, that birding is fundamentally the same as "what it was in Merriam's day"!
Dunlap is more convincing when he leaves argument behind to engage in simple narration. The straightforward history of the books and personalities he treats here is told on the whole accurately and well; another proofreading (this is OUP!) would have caught most of the minor but annoying lapsus the careful reader will note. Many of the names and dates here are familiar, of course, but I am surely not the only one to have never heard before of such interesting characters as Ynez Mexia, whose 1925 Bird-Lore manifesto as summarized here is startingly modern and startlingly valuable.
As I scanned the table of contents, I looked forward most eagerly to Dunlap's final chapters on birding since 1980. This period, the one perhaps of greatest interest to the largest number of birders, has never been well treated in any of the available histories of North American birding, some of which simply stop with the first Peterson guide, as if we'd at last attained perfection. Unfortunately, Dunlap's treatments here are hurried and superficial, a sort of heaping up of material without much discussion. The principal exception is his biographical and bibliographical introduction to Rachel Carson, gracefully written and interesting but probably not as relevant to the history of recreational birding in North America as the other books and authors in these chapters.
Dunlap considers the past 30 years a period of "environmental" birding, an odd label for a time when, in my view, our hobby is more and more stubbornly divorced from conservation--not that many birders don't participate in such efforts, but I believe that for most of us, our birding remains purely recreational, even when it contributes incidentally to such laudable "citizen science" projects as eBird. The author appears to admit the awkwardness of his label when he identifies as the principal characteristics of "environmental" birding an awareness of ecological connections and an emphasis on subtle, accurate identification. I would have enjoyed reading an explanation of how these two impulses coexist--and if, as I suspect, they don't, then they certainly deserve separate treatment.
In the Field ends with nine closely spaced pages of bibliography, which would have been even more useful were primary and secondary sources separated. I missed several important titles here, among them Ray Korpi's A Most Engaging Game and any of the various publications by Spencer Schaffner, both of whom treat, often in greater and more satisfying detail, much of the same material.
None of these criticisms is intended to discourage readers from taking up this book and learning from it. There is a great deal of fascinating information between the covers here; I wish only that some of it were couched in more coherent argument.