The Peterson Centennial I

A hundred years ago tomorrow, Roger Tory Peterson was born in Jamestown, New York. Houghton Mifflin is marking the centennial of one of its most valuable authors with the publication of a new Field Guide, fusing in one handsome, generously formatted volume the old eastern, western, and Texas guides. The new book will please and instruct most of those who use it, and destined for bestsellerdom, it will ensure the seaworthiness of the Peterson juggernaut for another generation at least.

Those birders likely to use this guide will rely in the first instance on the plates. I’ll leave to others a full analysis of the travels and traditions of the paintings included here, but will note that most are, unfortunately, from the editions letzter Hand of the eastern and western books. I, for one, miss the brilliant little smudges illustrating Peterson’s earliest guides, and I wish that the editorial team had risked the worthy experiment of introducing their startling eloquence to a generation that has learned to think of Peterson not as an outstanding illustrator but as a poor painter. A number of Peterson’s images have been digitally corrected under the supervision of Michael O’Brien; O’Brien also contributes new paintings of species not included in earlier editions of the guides and supplementary images of some taxa, such as jaegers, originally depicted only in flight.

The familiar Petersonian pointers draw the user’s attention to each species’ field marks. In this version, the designer’s quiver bristles with arrows of widely different lengths, making plates where they are mixed look poorly planned; arrows are not consistently placed, either, making the user wonder, for example, why the leg color of Stilt Sandpiper should be marked at the “ankle” and that of Wilson’s Phalarope at the toes. In my review copy, at least, the arrows are thicker, heavier, and blacker than in earlier editions, and intrude badly on some figures: look at the face of the lower Philadelphia Vireo, for instance, whose (badly painted) dark lore nearly merges with the clunky head of the arrow pointing it out.

The paintings themselves are large and bright, crisply reproduced and generally pleasing to the eye. This guide’s new format allows the images to be reproduced some 20% larger than in its most recent predecessors. The effect is frequently stunning for those used to the small images in, say, the “big Sibley” or even the National Geographic guide–and almost literally stunning for those of us who grew up with the 1947 Peterson. Paradoxically, in a few cases (the Calidris sandpipers, most notably), the superior size of the images reveals their disappointing blandness, as the eye seeks feather details that just aren’t there; this seems to me a missed opportunity for enhancement, digital or analogue.

As they have in Peterson bird guides since 1980, the plates in this new volume share the opening with the corresponding species accounts. Notoriously, the facing-page format reduces the space available to the text, and some pages that have to squeeze in several species run dangerously close to the bottom edge; other modern field guides have dealt with this problem by slightly reducing the print size (as in NatGeo) or by making brilliant use of captions (as in big Sibley) or both (as in Mullarney/Svensson/Zetterstrom/Grant). No such effort to pack information in is apparent here; indeed, there are vast white spaces where the text apparently runs out of things to say, even about such challenging groups as gulls, gadfly petrels, and rails. The two text pages devoted to the skuas and jaegers are fully half blank–surely one or the other member of the editorial team could have filled those creamy acres with a simple essay introducing the techniques that many birders (not, I hasten to add, those of us who grew up on the Great Plains and live in the desert southwest) now use to identify these difficult birds.

The identification material we are given in the texts is generally accurate and helpful, likely to satisfy most of the time most of those who reach for this guide. A quick scan finds less new information than old resignation: female Archilochus hummingbirds, for example, are simply “very difficult to separate.” To be fair, the treatment of the gulls here is more extensive than in any previous incarnation of the Peterson guides, and the fall parulids are no longer “confusing,” a discouraging label they were forced to bear for 75 years. Ambitious users of the guide will find occasional references to more thorough identification guides, too, making it easier for them to take the next step to sophistication if they wish.

While most of the text is hippocratically harmless, there are a few passages that may mislead the user, especially in matters of taxonomy. The words “wader” and “shorebird” are, or should be, synonymous, the former more frequent in European usage, the other current in North America, as the general introduction to the families concerned notes; but the headers to the plates and the separate family introductions switch back and forth without motivation, and in one case seem to draw a distinction between “snipelike waders” and “sandpipers.” The beginning birder can be forgiven her confusion on trying to tease these sloppily applied terms apart.

More seriously and more pervasively, the new guide is hopelessly muddled in its approach to geographic variation. This is sadly ironic, of course, as the 1947 Peterson remains (alongside Pyle) perhaps the best source for information on the identification of subspecies in North America. The new guide reveals both its eastern bias and a lack of taxonomic awareness when it labels the Song Sparrows of the east “typical”; they are no more “typical” than any other subspecies or subspecies group of that species.

The Introduction’s brief discussion of the subspecies concept is equally inaccurate. It is nonsensical to write that “When the distinct geographic forms of a species reach a point when [sic, for: the point that] the population is dominated by individuals that are recognizably different from typical individuals of the ‘parent’ species, the local group is formally designated a subspecies of the parent species.” Members of a subspecies differ consistently from members of other subspecies of the same species, not from “typical” individuals of the species. The same illogic renders incomprehensible this sentence: “Often a subspecific group is so distinct from the parent species that several members can be easily recognized in the field….” Huh? Subspecies and subspecies groups are by definition identical to and part of the parent species that they make up. (And I have no idea what “several members” is supposed to mean here: several “members” of “a subspecific group”? several “members” of “the parent species”?) This is poor thinking clouded by a weird Platonic notion of what constitutes a species, and Roger Tory Peterson would roll in his grave to hear such nonsense imputed to him.

Apart from such goofs, the language of the texts in the new guide is noticeably less lively than in earlier editions. Peterson was never much of a stylist, at his best attaining a sort of even-toned weekly-reader clarity; but I wish that the editorial team responsible for this new edition had retained the occasional bits of humor and poetry that flash through the earlier guides. In 1947, Lincoln’s Sparrow was “a skulker, ‘afraid of its own shadow’,” and displaying Common Nighthawks could be seen “zooming up sharply … with a sudden deep whir that sounds like the well-known ‘Bronx cheer’.” Sixty-one years later, the charm of the birds is no longer reflected in the charm of the language; Lincoln’s Sparrow is now simply and pleonastically a “somewhat skulking species [that] prefers to be near cover,” and Common Nighthawks have learned their company manners. At least Prothonotary Warbler is still “a golden bird of the wooded swamps”!

If the new guide disappoints in some respects, the large-scale maps–gathered in the back of the book and reproduced as thumbnails in the species accounts–are a great and greatly appreciated improvement. Created by Paul Lehman, the large and clearly visible maps are both precise and accurate; the few quibbles one could raise are matters of degree, not of fact. American Black Ducks, for example, are probably too rare nowadays in southeast Nebraska to merit mapping. Conversely, the range of White-winged Dove across the continent could have been painted much more lavishly. Telegraphic notes on the maps indicate vagrancy patterns for many species; while completeness would be an unrealizable goal, there are occasional instances where records worth mentioning are passed over in silence: the vagrant ranges of White-eared Hummingbird and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, for instance, are understated here. But few are the questions that these laudable maps do not answer, and authoritatively; I am especially pleased to see many species’ ranges in northern Mexico and the Caribbean limned with the same care given their distribution in the US and Canada.

With the publication of this new single-volume guide, the Peterson legacy is assured. And now it’s up to a new generation of birders to decide whether that legacy is a living one, or merely a tribute to the book that in some ways started it all.


Croseri, The Flight: In Memory of Homing Pigeons in Combat

Feathered rats, RoPi-dopes, pigs in space: How we birders love to hate ’em! Even those of us who confess to a grudging admiration for such aliens as European Starlings and House Sparrows have nothing but scorn for the Rock Pigeon, a filthy beast that, in its nearly worldwide introduced range, has never made the break with its utter dependence on man and his habitats.

But even the most cursory look reveals that like all creatures, Rock Pigeons have a fascinating natural history, as Cornell’s Project PigeonWatch continues to remind us. And the very commensalism that makes so many of us look down on the lowly pigeon means that the species has long enjoyed a special and privileged place in cultural history, too.

Alessandro Croseri’s moving Flight is a brief video homage to one aspect of that cultural history, the role that Rock Pigeons have played in war. Combining historic stills with beautiful images of pigeons flying free over New York City, The Flight reminds us that homing pigeons, by carrying messages and even taking photographs with cameras strapped to their iridescent-feathered necks, saved lives and won battles in the First and Second World Wars. The film does without narration, relying on a somber but appealing sound track and the juxtaposition of images to carry its message. Particularly memorable is the morphing of pigeon wingbeats into artillery fire, and the visual fade of a flock of birds into a squadron of bombers.

Such images might suggest that Rock Pigeons in combat were nothing more than another weapon. But Croseri includes other, equally remarkable images showing the birds and their relationship to their human handlers. Pigeons are cradled and caressed before being sent “into harm’s way,” and their sacrifices are commemorated both photographically and taxidermically. In one of the film’s more bizarre shots, captured ‘enemy’ pigeons are paraded through town in cages, simultaneously spoils of war and prisoners.

Al Croseri is to be congratulated on an effective and moving piece of film-making, and anyone interested in birds and their place in human history is encouraged to watch this film. It will change the way you think about pigeons.



Ber van Perlo, Birds of Mexico and Central America

It’s a great idea, the “illustrated checklist,” and as Princeton University Press keeps turning them out, I’m beginning to wonder whether Ber van Perlo may soon become the only illustrator in history to have painted every bird in the world.

Unlike a full-scale (and full-weight) field guide, the Princeton Illustrated Checklists offer only densely packed color plates, with terse facing-page descriptions of field marks, habitat, voice, and distribution. The seven Myiopagis and Elaenia flycatchers in this volume, for example, are dispatched in eight images and 21 lines of tiny type–and share their plate with no fewer than ten other tyrant flycatcher species. A few openings feature as many as 20 species; in the case of the swallows, for example, or the northern warblers, several plumages and attitudes are presented for each species, making the plates so ludicrously crowded as to be essentially useless.

This, of course, is the price to be paid for the PICs’ great advantage, their portability. The standard guides to Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama combined would add nearly 10 pounds to the thorough birder’s backpack. The present volume, covering all of the bird species in the AOU area south of the United States, comes in at just over a pound, or about one third the dry weight of Howell and Webb; this truly is a pocket book, easy to carry and quick to consult in the field.

Many birders over the years have devised their own approach to the weight problem: they have their heavy field guides disbound and the plates assembled into a new, slimmer volume for carrying. But the PIC has several advantages over even this Solomonic solution. First, the facing-page captions in the PIC contain voice and habitat information generally found only in the texts of the larger guides. Furthermore, the PIC includes range maps for each of the species covered, a feature absent from the plates of any of the national guides. Complete indices give English, Spanish, and scientific names for each species. And, perhaps most importantly, the PIC illustrates every one of those species, including, critically, a large number of North American breeders for which the standard field guides, in an attempt to save space and weight, provide only a reference to a North American guide.

The paintings, several thousand of them, are the most important component of the PIC. Plumage patterns appear to be depicted accurately, and the level of detail is often surprisingly fine on images so small. Unfortunately, van Perlo has a noticeable tendency to give his birds oddly “friendly” expressions, making even such lean, mean, bug-eating machines as Northern Mockingbirds look downright cuddly. His large parrots grin disarmingly where they should leer threateningly, and I’d hardly think twice at meeting this book’s Great Black-backed Gull in a dark alley. This is unlikely to bother the birder using the volume as a memory jogger, but anyone attempting to learn the birds from this book is likely to be led astray.

The inclusion of voice descriptions is a nice touch here, but the terminology used is not intuitive to a native speaker of English, and the definitions provided in the introductory matter are not carried through in the text. The trumpet of Whooping Crane, for example, is described as “high/very high,” terms defined earlier as corresponding to “the average pitch of a woman’s voice (e.g., oystercatcher).” I know very few women whose voice, absent the judicious application of helium gas, is nearly as high as the squealing of an oystercatcher, and the call of the crane is very much lower. Should this book be re-issued, these voice descriptions will require thorough revision.

The English and scientific names used in the book rely largely on the AOU Check-List, though with a number of unexpected deviations. Of course, the latest revisions (Tringa, the terns) are not included here–or in any other standard field guide for the American continents. Blue Grosbeak is still given its own monotypic genus Guiraca (merged into Passerina a Supplement or two ago), and its English name here is simply “Grosbeak.” The Spanish names are said to reflect Mexican and Costa Rican usage, though numerous local variants are included in the index.

For many birders accustomed to carrying a guide in the field, the PIC will prove a useful and handy aide-mémoire. But it really can be no more than that, and any birder tempted to rely on this as her or his primary guide to the region’s incredibly rich avifauna should resist, and immediately seek immersion in Howell and Webb or in Ridgely’s Panama.


David Beadle and J.D. Rising: Tanagers, Cardinals, and Finches

I was quite prepared to wax enthusiastic about this new photographic guide to this assembly of nine-primaried oscines: they’re pretty birds, many of them, and the authors have already done the birding community a great favor with their works on emberizid sparrows. But it turns out, surprisingly, that there is little to recommend this new book, and birders who already own a good field guide to North American birds will likely find that they don’t need or use this one.

This is another in Princeton University Press’s Photographic Guide series, which thus far includes volumes on hummingbirds, emberizid sparrows, and shorebirds. Where the earlier volumes featured generally excellent photos of their subject birds, most of the images here are neither attractive nor informative. There are exceptions (Laura Erickson’s wonderfully instructive Hoary Redpolls, for example, and a number of Brian Small’s photos), but far too many of these photos are small, poorly composed, and fuzzy, far below the standards routinely attained in photographic guides (or in magazines, for that matter). Even the images of birds in hand and of captive birds are of shockingly low quality; the Carpodacus finches in 31.4, for instance, are distant, out of focus, poorly lit, and awkwardly posed against a dark and ‘busy’ background. I sputtered for hours over the single shot of a Blue-gray Tanager, which is not only horribly blurred, but does not even depict the same subspecies described in the text.

The concise texts that accompany the images are much better, but in general add little to the information already available in modern field guides. Each begins with a set of mensural data. As birders have known since the appearance of the Sibley guide half a decade ago, weight information is extremely helpful in gauging the “size” of an unknown bird; all the same, it is surprising to find the average mass of Yellow Grosbeak calculated here from specimens of a different species. “Wing” length is never defined, leaving the reader unsure whether the figure here is the wing chord, flattened wing, or even wingspan; such figures are of little use in the field in any event.

The texts continue with information about each species’ habitat, behavior, vocalizations, distributions, and geographic variation; oddly, the descriptions of the birds’ appearance do not come until the end of each account, just before the very helpful discussion of any known hybrid combinations and a short list of references. This is, after all, an identification guide, and it would have made far better sense to move the descriptions, molt discussions, and “similar species” sections to the head of each entry.

Perhaps the most useful component in this book are the distribution paragraphs, which provide extremely detailed, state-by-state and province-by-province descriptions of the breeding, winter, and vagrant ranges and abundance of each species. A fairly extensive spot check reveals that these sections are quite up to date and complete, making them a very handy resource for birders interested in range expansions and retractions. The same sampling also finds, however, that the maps were not invariably prepared using the same data as the written descriptions: the map for Northern Cardinal, for example, omits the bird’s occurrence in California, Colorado, and Manitoba, all areas correctly included in the authors’ prose.

The main text and photos are preceded by an Introduction of the usual sort, offering cursory advice on identification techniques. The long paragraph (p.3) on taxonomic polysemy and polylexy should have been very carefully edited for clarity; unwilling to believe that William St. could let writing like this out the door, I showed it to a well-educated high-intermediate birder with better than average reading skills, who also found it badly jumbled. The two or three sentences introducing each genus are generally fine, though the merger of Guiraca into Passerina seems to have tripped the authors up in their species counts (five of seven Passerina breed north of Mexico).

None of this is to suggest that the authors don’t “know their stuff”: they most certainly do. I only wish that they had communicated that stuff more clearly and more attractively than this volume manages to do.