Skip to main content

A World Of Watchers

March 2023
1min read

by Joseph Kastner; Alfred A. Knopf; 256 pages; $25.00.

According to a recent survey, there are about two million bird watchers in America expert enough to recognize more than one hundred species of bird, and three times that number who can spot at least forty species, making bird watching one of, if not the , most popular outdoor sport in America. It is high time, then, that all these enthusiasts should be treated to a history of their passion. This first such study is a delight.

Indians were bird watchers before the white man ever got here, as witness the acute observations embodied in their bird names. For instance, the Chippe-was called the house wren o-du-na-missug-ud-da-we-shi , which means “making big noise for its size.” All the early explorers mentioned birds, but the first real birder—that is, one who keeps a life list—was perhaps the Virginia clergyman who recorded forty-five species in 1688. Artist naturalists such as Mark Catesby and John James Audubon discovered and recorded many New World birds, and a roster of military men from the Revolution on contributed significantly to American ornithology during their tours of duty at the nation’s outposts.

The enthusiasts were always divided into the protectors and the destroyers (even Audubon worked from dead specimens, which he often ate after drawing), including little boys who collected birds’ eggs. The first formal, nondestructive organization for bird watching was the Nuttall Ornithological Club in Boston, organized in 1873, whose members were expected not only to love birds but to have “qualities of mind and heart that make a man clubbable.” A less elitist group emerged when a bunch of boys from the Bronx started observing birds in such places as the Jerome Avenue Reservoir or the Hunt’s Point dump. This group eventually acquired a member named Roger Tory Peterson, whose bird guides are still today carried around in birders’ pockets. Kastner’s history will be a happy addition to any bird watcher’s library.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "December 1986"

Authored by: John A. Garraty

This is not a test. It’s the real thing.

When Elsie Parrish was fired, her fight for justice led to dramatic changes in the nation’s highest court.

Authored by: Bethany Ewald Bultman

New Orleans cuisine—with its French roux, African okra, Indian filé, and Spanish peppers—is literally a gastronomic melting pot. Here’s how it all came together.

Authored by: Henry I. Kurtz

Fifty years ago these rough-and-ready tin soldiers were sold from bins cheap and by the handful. Today collectors are seeking them for their bright, simple vitality.

Authored by: Peter Baida

It began early. It’s not going away. It’s about a lot more than payoffs and ward politics.
And it’s about a lot more than New York.

Authored by: Ronald H. Spector

Historians have failed to help Americans understand what the war was all about. So charges this scholar, author, and Vietnam veteran.

Featured Articles

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.