Outdoors & Environment

Art of the Bird Guide

by James Fox June 14, 2018
ReadArt of the Bird Guide

The term ‘bird watching’ was possibly coined by Edmund Selous with his book by the same name, published 1901. Those who take themselves seriously tend to prefer the term ‘birding,’ the noun being ‘twitchers’ in the case of those particularly obsessed (as anyone who has read some of the work of British comedian and avid bird watcher Bill Oddie can attest). One constant remains: modern birders collect books on the subject with as much enthusiasm as for the hobby itself, from early out-of-print editions to all manner of poetry and prose to contemporary guides.

The development of birding literature can be traced back to the late 18th-century works of several English naturalists: Gilbert White (Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1789), Thomas Bewick (A History of British Birds, 1797) and George Montagu (Ornithological Dictionary; or Alphabetical Synopsis of British Birds, 1802). These gentlemen shared a fascination for observing nature while at the same time championing its preservation, allowing their feathered friends to thrive.

One of the most rare books on the subject must surely be The Birds of America by John James Audubon. Each of the 435 serialized, hand-colored prints measured more than three-by-two feet (“double-elephant folio” in bibliographer’s terminology), as Audubon wanted to paint the birds life-size. However, he was not a preservationist, and believed that “the path to ornithological wisdom issued from the muzzle of a shotgun,” as described in the book Of A Feather.

On the other hand, John Clare (1793-1864) was an environmentalist before the word existed. Incredibly prolific, the English wildlife poet is said to have written while he took regular walks in the countryside. (He suffered such emotional stress following the destruction of open spaces near his home by the 19th-century Enclosure Acts that he was later institutionalized.) In addition to categorizing over 100 bird species in his work, Clare also wrote extensively on ‘bird nesting’—that is, observing bird nests and all relevant behaviors surrounding them, such as in his poem “Autumn Birds”:

The wild duck startles like a sudden thought,
And heron slow as if it might be caught.
The flopping crows on weary wings go by
And grey beard jackdaws noising as they fly.
The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by,
And darken like a cloud the evening sky.
The larks like thunder rise and suthy round,
Then drop and nestle in the stubble ground.
The wild swan hurries hight and noises loud
With white neck peering to the evening clowd.
The weary rooks to distant woods are gone.
With lengths of tail the magpie winnows on
To neighbouring tree, and leaves the distant crow
While small birds nestle in the edge below.

But what of the keen modern birder? Known for his pen and watercolor depictions of native English birds, as well as pithy captions, U.K.-based illustrator Matt Sewell developed an interest in birding from a young age. “I grew up surrounded by birds while living on a small land holding in middle-England. My aunt gave me a copy of Charles Tunnicliffe’s A Sketchbook of Birds, which was actually quite vicious—great backed gulls eating puffin chicks and the like—inspiring stuff for a young mind.”

In advance of the U.S. release of his most recent book, Owls: Our Most Enchanting Bird, we asked Sewell about some of his favorite feathered friends. “I’m more interested in seasonal birds visiting me rather than hunting down some exhausted rare swift blown here by accident from Siberia. The last thing it needs is to be chased by a load of middle age men with telescopes and expensive digital cameras. All the joy disappears quicker than a white-throated needle tail hitting a windmill.”

Top Moments in Birding History

1. Dinosaurs! What more do I need to say?
2. Pagan times: I read once that there was a Druidic cult that worshipped green woodpeckers. I bet their cloaks were cool.
3. 1731: Eleazar Albin (my favorite bird artist) published his Natural History of Birds and hand-colored the illustrations with the help of his daughter Elizabeth.
4. 1889: The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) was founded in Britain. It began as The Plumage League, established by Emily Williamson, as an organization that rallied against the fashion of wearing hat feathers from endangered birds.

My Favorite Birds to Spot

1. Lammergeier (bearded vulture): The stuff of nightmares.
2. Waxwing: The one that gets away every single time!
3. Hobby: My favorite bird as a child that I have never seen in the wild.
4. Shoebill (shoe-billed stork): A grotesque bird from the underworld that I bet looks fascinating in real life.

Essential Field Kit for Beginners

1. Decent binoculars: Try the zoomable Konus 8×24.
2. At least one bird guide: In the U.K., use The Collins Bird Guide (2nd edition with largely updated taxonomy). David Sibley’s books are well known in the U.S., and he has produced several region-specific guides as well.
3. Seawhites of Brighton hard A4 sketchpad with a Pilot V7 black ink pen.

Explore the outdoors with items from our collection

All illustrations copyright Matt Sewell. 


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