The nation's top recreation: Would you believe birding?

The Argument

Hundreds of books play into a fancy with 46 million fans, providing 900,000 jobs and $13 billion in revenues.


November 30, 2003|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,Special to the Sun

There have never been so many good books in print on the national pastime. One is a new and improved edition of the 1934 volume that set the standard, has never been out of print and created the national pastime. Another is one that many say is even better.

Among new ones due next year are two especially to look forward to. One is a biography of the man who made the national pastime what it is today, Roger Tory Peterson (A Quiet Passion by Doug Carlson); another is a collection of bird-watching journalism, some that appeared in The Sun, by the late Eirik Blom of Bel Air. As yet untitled, it was put together by Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest.

What? You thought I was talking about baseball?

Get real.

In 2001, there were 46 million bird watchers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and that's using a very conservative definition: at least 16 years of age, who took trips at least a mile from home "for the primary purpose of observing birds and / or closely observed or tried to identify birds around the home." More liberal estimates are as high as 70 million.

The lower estimate is still probably more than the number of individuals who attend organized baseball games in a season. More significantly, it is far more than the number of individuals who play baseball at any level from sandlot up, even as little as twice a year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. The total of those players, 7 years of age or older, is 15.6 million. The majority play only "occasionally" or "infrequently."

Why is that the significant comparison? Because birding is recreation, not entertainment. Birders are players on the field, not fans in the stand. Birders are also players in a more profound way. "More of the body of knowledge we have about birds comes from amateur birders than from professional ornithologists," says Jim Berry, president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

Peterson created bird watching as we know it in 1934 with A Field Guide to the Birds. Before that, studying birds as a pastime was practiced mostly by a relatively small number of mostly white males, who mostly studied freshly killed birds on a lab table, not in the field. "Shotgun ornithology," so called.

One such was John J. Audubon, the first great painter of North American birds. His Birds of America, an art book not a field guide, came out a century before Peterson's guide. Peterson, also a talented painter, emphasized distinguishing field marks in his illustrations, and added population maps, notes on bird behavior and voice in his guides. He taught people how to identify live birds in their habitat.

Binoculars supplanted gun sights. And before long a large, diverse spectrum of Americans was out birding, and uniting with hunters and anglers in a growing, stronger conservation movement.

Seven-and-a-half-million copies of the first four editions of Peterson's field guide had been sold when the fifth edition was published last year. (Birds of Eastern and Central North America, Houghton Mifflin, 450 pages, $30) He died in 1996, when the new edition was 85 percent complete. His wife and mapmaker Virginia Marie Peterson and consultants finished the job. That updated version of what has been called "the most influential nature book of the Twentieth Century" has 175,000 more copies in print in the 21st.

In 2000, well-known birder and writer Kenn Kaufman produced Birds of North America (Houghton Mifflin, 384 pages, $30). Instead of paintings, he used digitally edited photographs that are more representative than single snapshots tend to be. There are 225,000 copies in print.

Another birdwatcher's guide using the painter-author's illustrations and text came out that year, The Sibley Guide to Birds (Knopf, 544 pages, $35) by David Allen Sibley. It took off like a roadrunner. It showed birds in many more varieties of appearance (seasonal, age, in flight, at standstill) than any previous guide. There are some 650,000 copies in print. A British leader of global bird-watching tours has called it "by far the best guide yet to North American birds."

Its only negative is that it isn't as portable as a field guide should be. It is practically a coffee table book compared with Peterson's and Kaufman's.

Sibley hasn't rested on his successful debut. He produced birding-related books in 2001 and 2002. This year, he produced smaller, portable versions of his original Guide. One is for eastern North America, one for the West. Also published by Knopf, $19.95.

Maryland is a big bird-watching state. Bird Watcher's Digest was edited here 1985-1995 by Mary Bowers in her Roland Park home. She was assisted by Bill Thompson III, who now edits it in Marietta, Ohio.

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