By Lauren Smith
In 1924 someone named Trox gave my great-grandmother a bird field guide. The inscription is sparse: “To Betty from Trox. Xmas 1924.” I haven’t been able to figure out who Trox is, but he—I decided the name is masculine—isn’t a relative, that much I know.
Betty, or Connie, depending on who was talking to her, was born in Rushden, England, in 1898, eighty-nine years before myself. Her full given name was Constance Beatrice Hewitt, named after one of the girls her mother used to govern. My father, when he speaks of his grandmother, calls her Connie.
An internet search tells me that Rushden is in Northamptonshire, and that from Missoula, Montana, it would cost me $4,905 and 40 hours, 27 minutes to get there. Rushden lies in a valley 70 miles north of London, and the 172-foot tall spire of St. Mary’s church, nearly equidistant from the Rusden Library and a Domino’s Pizza, can be seen from any direction in town. I’ve seen a faded picture of the church in a family album, and it looks the same as in the pictures I find online. The single spire is tall and pointed like a wizard’s cap, with three windows along its height, the top-most nearly at the tip.
Even though I’ve done some Googling, I don’t pretend I know Rushden. I find it hard to know the entirety of a place through a brief description of its buildings and history in a Wikipedia article. Those words are sometimes enough, but they’re not the complete truth. Places, like animals, like people, are living things, constantly changing from one moment to the next. By the time words are put on a page, the thing being described has changed. Maybe only subtly, but it is different. Our words are artifacts of what a thing was.
Connie’s bird guide is a small book, a rectangle shorter than the length of my hand. Its cover is black, made to look like stippled leather. On the front is an embossed drawing of a great blue heron standing on one leg in some cattails next to the book’s title, Bird Guide: Water Birds, Game Birds and Birds of Prey East of the Rockies. There is a small crease in the front cover, and the book’s spine is worn. The pages are yellowed and a few are loose, but only one has fallen out, a result of my carelessness.
This field guide was written by Chester A. Reed, the Curator in Ornithology for the Worcester Natural History Society, according to the bio printed in the book. Reed authored many guides, and dominated the market before the late great naturalist Roger Tory Peterson came into his own with the hugely popular Peterson Field Guide series and identification system. The Peterson system pointed out easily seen visual characteristics, or field marks, with arrows. These arrows were also used to point out key differences between similar species. Peterson guides have multiple birds per plate, or page, and allow for much easier comparison between species. Peterson’s first field guide may very well have been a Reed, given to him at school. Perhaps RTP (as my ornithology friends and I would affectionately call him) wanted to improve upon Reed’s guide. In any case, RTP set the tone for field guides to follow.
Of his own Guide, Reed wrote, “May it be the medium for saving many of today’s seekers for ‘bird truths’ from the many trials and tribulations willingly encountered, and hard and thorny roads gladly traveled by the author in this quest for knowledge of bird ways.” After reading Reed’s preface, I’ve decided I’d much rather be a “seeker for bird truths” than a simple “birder.” It makes the activity sound deliciously thrilling and noble. Perhaps these chickadees at my feeder and I won’t change the world, but on some level this does describe birdwatching, or any study of the environment—we seek the truth of the natural world in order to better understand our own. Birdwatching is not just a pastime: I’m a truth seeker, bettering humanity with each minute I spend watching the birds out my window.
However, as a modern-day truth-seeker, my bird books of choice are decidedly less romantic. David Allen Sibley’s Field Guides have been the modern standard for a number of years, and are my preference as well. Each species account consists of multiple detailed paintings, showing the bird from the side as well as in the air, and sometimes while performing a characteristic behavior. The barred owl page in The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, for example, gives a concise description: “Common to uncommon in woods, particularly hardwood swamps. Usually solitary. Nocturnal…note dark eyes. Overall brown above with pale spots, and pale below with bold streaks.”
Reed, by contrast, includes this in his brief barred owl entry: “This species is the common ‘hoot owl,’ that is the terror of small children and many older ones…They spend the day in slumber, unless routed out of the dense trees where they rest, by crows or human beings. They are one of the least harmful of the family and should be protected.” Other than describing the color of their eyes (“dark brown”) and mentioning their height (“20 in.”), Reed leaves the aspiring truth-seeker to rely solely on his painting—which, while accurate, can’t compete with Sibley’s five images of two different color morphs, a fledgling, and two owls in flight with views of wings raised and lowered. Sibley’s voice is impassive, succinctly imparting information, while Reed is more conversational, sometimes adding personal anecdotes and opinions.
The best field guides use paintings, not photographs. A painting can capture the variation of individuals; instead of showing the unique characteristics of one individual it highlights distinct features and field marks of the species as a whole, and can exaggerate certain colors or patterns that might be indistinguishable in a photograph. One individual can’t tell you much about an entire species. But there is value in careful examinations of individuals, and in observing the peculiarities of life.
The desk where I sit to do to this research is an old, many-times-badly-repainted kitchen table with wooden legs and a scratched and stained white metal top that used to belong to Connie. Before I packed the table into my car for the cross-country drive from Ohio to Montana, my dad helped me carry it up from the basement and out to the driveway for a thorough cleaning. With a rag, cleaning spray, and a paint chipper, I worked my way through the layers of grime and paint and history. I found the remnants of three different paint colors on the legs: industrial pea-soup green and retro teal covered by a dingy creamy off-white, though it’s hard to tell if the almost-white is the intended color or if the paint is just so grimy that it no longer wipes clean. This table now sits in my bedroom in Montana, underneath a window. Its surface is cluttered with papers stuffed in an old napkin holder shaped like an owl, an aloe plant, and bits of paper with half-completed to-do lists. I often have to shuffle my lists into piles to make room for my laptop. The table is not very big, only twenty by forty inches, and I can’t imagine my own family of five attempting to sit down here for a meal. Connie and her husband Eric only had one child, my grandad Gordon. I’m not sure how long they used the table, but I know this was grandad’s while he was growing up.
This winter, I stuck an old suction-cup-soap-holder-turned bird feeder on the window above my desk and filled it with sunflower seeds. The window is grimy, streaked with dirt and covered with water splotches. I don’t want the birds to run into the glass, so I keep it dirty. The window is also high enough from the ground outside that washing it would be a production, and I’m much too busy for any of that nonsense. The feeder mostly attracts black-capped chickadees, who are industrious in removing the contents seed by seed. I haven’t been able to get a very accurate count on the number of individual chickadees that visit, but my best guess is five or six. Usually they arrive in a pair or trio, one bird going straight to the feeder while the others wait in the lilac bush a few feet away.
The chickadees’ hunger is insatiable, and I top off the seeds every few days. Winter is giving way to spring here in Montana, but the nights are still cold. Chickadees survive the most frigid nights by becoming hypothermic—dropping their body temperature significantly in order to slow their metabolic rate and lower their energy requirements. But even with this advantage if a chickadee doesn’t eat enough during the day it might not survive the bitter cold winter night.
The chickadees cheep at each other from the bush, and every so often I hear a distant chick-a-dee-dee-dee from the nature preserve across the street. A warning call, the number of dees indicate the type of threat: fewer for large predators, like a great-horned owl; more for smaller pygmy or saw-whet owls. I wonder if they’ve found the roosting great-horned owl I’ve been seeing lately. Now that the days are getting longer, I sometimes wake at dawn to the chickadee’s clear whistled song: cheeese-bur, cheeese-bur-ger.
Dad tells me that Great-Grandma was a birder, and a good one. I like to think I inherited the condition genetically, but even if her English extreme-bird-enthusiast genetic contribution to my DNA wasn’t the driver, she did help nudge me towards birds. Her old binoculars were the first real pair I used. They had a heavy metal casing, were missing two of the four black plastic lens caps, and after each use were always carefully put back in their carrying case made of pleather-covered, hard-walled cardboard that closed with a snap. I’d often get them out of the coat closet, more interested in the feel of them in my hands than actually using them to look at anything outside. Their heft and the cold metal made them feel expensive. I tried to use them in my undergraduate ornithology class but the optics couldn’t compete with more modern models, and I soon received a nicer pair from my parents for Christmas. But Great-Grandma’s binoculars still have their place in the cupboard under the kitchen island with recipe books and the bird guides, close at hand for peering out the back windows at the nesting hawks or deer that regularly come through the yard.
My dad says that Great-Grandma was a diminutive woman, 5’1” and maybe ninety pounds. Instead of letting her grandsons open doors for her, she’d march up to heavy plate glass double doors on a store or bank, grasp the handles in both hands, use all her strength to heave the doors open, and go charging in. “I always got the feeling that she saw the door as an obstacle to what she wanted, and she attacked it with the determination that it would not be a barrier,” my dad told me.
Connie, her parents, and younger brother immigrated to the United States in 1908, leaving a Rushden that was steadily becoming more crowded. In 1891 the population was 7,443; ten years later it had risen to 12, 452, and only increased from there. I’ve been told that the family was looking for economic prosperity elsewhere. Rushden was historically an industry town, known for its lace and shoemaking. After the Hewitts left for America, the shoe industry in particular continued to grow and by the mid-1900s there were over a hundred shoe factories. Though the records I find online seem to suggest that Rushden was booming, Connie and her family were poor, her carpenter father struggling to support his family. I don’t know any more details than that.
When her family left England, Connie was ten. They left behind her older sister Dorothy, who lived with an aunt in order to finish her schooling. Dorothy was to join her family in their new country later but never did, and eventually traveled around the world as a missionary. The family settled in Chicago where Connie’s father had a hard time finding work, so they were relatively poor. Those are the bare-bone facts as I learned them, which read more like my modern Sibley bird guide than Reed’s more fanciful descriptions. I find it hard to know the entirety of a species through a brief description of its plumage and habits in a book. Those words are sometimes enough, but they’re not the complete truth.
Compared to Dad’s, my own memories of Great-Grandma are subdued. They are brief, mostly piecemeal, and I question their authenticity. I think they’re more a product of stories and pictures than my actual memories. But I do remember visiting her once in the nursing home where she spent her last years. My little sister and I were in elementary school, and we wore matching dresses, ones that had skirts which satisfyingly rose up around our legs when we spun in circles. Megan and I were both taking ballet classes at the time, and so we danced and twirled for Great-Grandma as she sat in her chair. I remember her smile, her glasses, her short wavy white hair. I know my grandparents were there too, and I strain desperately to picture my granddad, her son, standing behind her chair with his hand on her shoulder, smiling down at us. He died last year. But no matter how hard I try, his facial features are blurred.
A chickadee lands on the feeder outside my window. It perches on the rim, facing inward, and we stare at each other. I sit at my desk and watch as it cocks its head, bends down, and precisely selects one sunflower seed, which is immediately carried to the nearby bush. Holding the seed firmly against the branch, the chickadee hammers away until the kernel inside is revealed, deftly readjusting the angle and grasp on the seed as it goes. I count thirty-eight pecks, but some were so quick I think I missed a few. When done, the chickadee briskly wipes its beak on the branch, lifts its head, calls a quick chick-a-dee-dee and then flies away.
I look back down at Connie’s Bird Guide with its dark cover, lying next to my hand on the desk. My own field guides take up half a shelf on my bookcase. One is just for shorebirds, two for Eastern North America, one for Western. One for Belize, one for Costa Rica, and a guide for the Galapagos. My two Sibley guides, the ones I use most in the field, have clearly gotten their mileage. Their covers are tattered, bent, and stained, held together with Scotch tape. There are dead mosquitoes flattened between the pages, and a turned paged reveals a decidedly non-warbler feather pressed between the entries for yellow warbler and chestnut-sided warbler. Each book has survived multiple field seasons in the bottom of my backpack, schlepped countless miles through the woods, soaked by rainstorms and spilt coffee, dried by desert suns.
Last summer, I bought the Sibley field guide app for my smart phone. A few taps of my fingers give me access to not only detailed species accounts and range maps, but also songs and calls. Great-Grandma’s Bird Guide is only slightly bigger and thicker than my iPhone, with nowhere near as much information. Reed’s illustrations, while accurate, seem coarse compared to Sibley’s exquisite detail.
I wonder how using these different field guides impacts how we look at birds. Was it harder to seek bird truths a century ago, with less-powerful binoculars and less-detailed field guides? When is more information too much? With less advanced tools, one can compensate with skill. We adapt to our environmental conditions.
I don’t need to haul my paperback field guides around with me anymore, at least not every day. But their weight in the bottom of my pack is comforting, the knowledge of their authority reassuring. I wonder which of Connie’s field guides was her most treasured. I imagine she owned more than one, because no serious birder owns only one field guide. What birds did her books help her see? Did she miss the birds in her English backyard once she came to America? Or did she come to appreciate birds later in life, as I did, in her teens and twenties? What birds did she watch out the window all those years ago?
I sit at Connie’s old kitchen table, the one she’d long-ago discarded, and I watch the chickadees come to my window. Squirrels leap from tree to tree in the nature preserve across the street. Her field guide sits on the corner of my desk, next to a potted aloe. The container is clear, and I can see the aloe’s roots growing, pressed against the glass. First there was one thin root, which gradually thickened and branched. Other roots appeared. They grew slowly, so slowly that I didn’t notice until suddenly one day I did.
Lauren Smith recently earned a master’s degree in environmental writing from the University of Montana. She is a writer, field biologist, environmental educator, and someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about birds. More of her writing can be found at Talesfromawanderingalbatross.wordpress.com.