Picks and Pans Review: A World of Watchers

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Joseph Kastner

What is there about birds that fascinates man? Kastner, who nine years ago wrote A Species of Eternity, a charming history of America's first naturalists, has now produced this account of "the American passion for birds—from its scientific beginnings to the great birding boom of today." After the Indians, who left no records, the earliest watchers included William Wood, who in 1634 made a rhyming list of 35 varieties, and clergyman John Clayton, who in 1688 described 45 birds. The most important early figure in the field was Spencer Fullerton Baird, who went to the Smithsonian, became its chief and used U.S. Army doctors as ornithological scouts in the West. These men sought new specimens, observed habits and collected eggs and skins. One of the best things about this account are quotations from such birders as Elliott Coues, who wrote that the prairie warbler sounded "like the plaints of a mouse with a toothache." The most delightful chapter tells of Margaret Morse Nice of Columbus, Ohio, who for 10 years studied song sparrows, especially a male named 4M. She described the life of this undistinguished sparrow in such amazing detail that even a reader who never considered bird watching understands its fascination. From apparently massive research, Kastner has distilled the essence of birding, in which a favorite site becomes to a watcher "what a remembered poem or a piece of music or a painted scene is to others." The book is illustrated with watercolors and drawings. (Knopf, $25)

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