The first bird book that I remember was my grandmother’s in Mason City. It was a small, pocket-sized book with colored pictures that I loved to look at. I’m lucky to still have that book! “Bird Guide – Land Birds East of The Rockies” by Chester Reed was originally published in 1906 by Doubleday, Doran, and Company Inc. The small colored pictures on each page were painted by the author. A second printing was published in 1909, and my copy was printed in 1930. The first words in the preface are: “The native birds are one of our nation’s most valuable assets.” It went on to describe the many ecological services that birds provide. It’s worth noting that birds still provide them where they exist in enough numbers. The second section of the book, the introduction, begins with the statement, “It is an undisputed fact that a great many of our birds are becoming more scarce with each year, while a few are, even now, on the verge of extinction.”
The same statement that began the introduction to that more-than-century-old book is still sadly true today. Some of the birds that were then “on the verge of extinction” became extinct in the next few decades. Among them were the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon. Numerous others were under threat of disappearing as humans changed the face of America. Some, like the prairie chicken, disappeared over most of their ancestral range, but hung on in small pockets where there’s still habitat to support them. The California condor, already rare at that time, has miraculously held on just above the brink of extinction, thanks to extraordinary efforts to save them.
I was recently gifted with a second wonderful old bird book that is a far more massive volume. The original copyright of “Birds of America” was by the University Society in 1917. The edition I was given was copyrighted by Doubleday and Company, Inc. in 1936. This large-format book was written a number of editors, and some of their contributions were more extensive essays. Perhaps the most significant thing about this book is that it contains 106 full-page color plates of some of the major birds by Louis Agazzis Fuertes, one of the most famous wildlife artists of that time. It also contains many early black-and-white photos of birds, their nests and eggs. Some of the photos are small and fuzzy by today’s standards, but given that cameras were larger, more cumbersome and without telephoto lenses in those days, they’re still impressive. The written descriptions of each bird are far more extensive and detailed than those in most bird books today since many of the subjects were not illustrated by either paintings or photos. Even though the writings were by the top university ornithologists of the day, there was still much that they didn’t know about some of the birds they were describing. There was only a basic knowledge of breeding ranges of many of the birds in the book, and the nesting areas of a few Arctic breeders still hadn’t been found. Little was known of the winter destinations of quite a few of the species that migrated south of our boarder.
It is still quite amazing how much those early bird experts already knew, though. Bird banding had not yet become a major research tool. Close study of birds was still by “collecting specimens,” just as Audubon had done so many years before – primarily by shooting them. Small armies of graduate students did not yet exist to carefully and patiently record bird behavior across the country. Scientists dissected birds they shot to examine body structure. They analyzed stomach contents to determine what birds ate throughout the year, and painters prepared study skins to accurately portray their plumage.
It was particularly interesting to read first-hand accounts of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, thought to be the most numerous bird on Earth well into the middle 1800s. Like the American bison only a few decades before, most people thought there was no way such a numerous creature could ever be erased from existence. The signs were clear enough to some early ornithologists, though. A few people fought for protection of the rapidly diminishing flocks, but as long as there was profit in selling their flesh, the slaughter continued. The young, just before they fledged, were fatter than the adults and were gathered by the thousands from dense nesting colonies. Adults were shot by the barrel-full and sent to markets in all the major cities. In the end, it took only a few decades of market hunting and timber clearing to erase the most numerous bird in the world from existence. The last one died in captivity in 1914.
Many more species of birds have seen dramatic declines in their numbers in the last 100 years, and more species of birds than ever are threatened with extinction today. We’re still fortunate to enjoy many species, and their ecological benefits are even better known and documented. Profits to be gained from natural resource exploitation and the expansion of development are still whittling away at habitat areas all over the Americas, though. It will take coordinated efforts from the North American Arctic to southern Argentina and Chile to insure that healthy habitats remain to sustain the birds we have left.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.