Sunday, March 6, 2016

Birds in the Bush by Bradford Torrey

Why I read it: I lived, for a short time, a stone's throw from the Bradford Torrey Bird Sanctuary in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Summary: A series of short essays on birdlife around New England in the 1880s.

My Thoughts: Bradford Torrey had that gentlemanly birder way about him, always excusing himself for intruding on the lives of the birds he was seeking. But that was the way it was in the 19th century. If you weren't shooting them and building up huge piles of feathers and bones, you were meandering about gathering behavioral data, on the cutting edge of ornithology (one might say we're still there today; we have so much to learn!).

For those folks who have never read a 19th century birding book, start with the oldest bird ID guide you can find. Eastern Towhees weren't towhees, they were "chewinks." Yellow Warblers weren't warblers, they were Summer Yellow Birds. The names alone add a lyrical bent to the storytelling, sometimes reminding us of the evolution in nomenclature we take for granted.

And, if this is your first foray into Victorian birding in the Boston area, know, too, that not all is the same. Torrey talks of flocks of Fox-colored Sparrows; a single bird spotted today will make your winter. He talks of the rarity of Northern Cardinals, and he was right. They arrived, en masse, as even winterers decades later. And he laments the arrival and overwhelming advance of House Sparrows. We lament it today as well, but he was there to see the transformation, the loss of the cavity nesters, the movement of the sparrows (at that point they were still classified as sparrows, eventually to be recognized as weaver finches, though retaining the name) from the cities and into the suburbs and countryside.

Torrey moves out across New England, to Vermont and New Hampshire, in the days when to do so meant taking a carriage to a train to a - or, the - hotel in a given area. In what has to remain one of the most interesting birding experiences of all time, Torrey rode on a slow-moving flatbed railroad car through the White Mountains' Franconia Notch while sitting on a freshly-made coffin being transported to a - the - hotel for immediate use. Quite frankly, if given the opportunity, I would have done the same thing.

One interesting sidelight to the book is the direct parallels to today. Torrey spends several paragraphs detailing the life of the hunter, how he wantonly kills the birds (as it was in those days) just for sport, and then compares it to his own hobby. Why, he says, am I labeled as the odd one, for just looking at them? Birders still live by this stigma today in America. (Note: Believe me, individual birders give the world plenty of reasons to think they're all nuts, but in truth, they're not).

Torrey's voice is one that is lost to time, but should be right there with Thoreau (whom he championed) and Muir as the great describers of the American wilderness in their days. He was a pen pal of the Isles of Shoals' Celia Thaxter, too, deeply tied into the corps of writers defining New England in the late nineteenth century.

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