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Books This classic bird guide offers what an app can’t: It breathes personality, passion

I’m an incompetent birder. I’ve been watching birds on and off for 50 years and I’m still pretty bad at telling one kind from another.

I have trouble spotting them in the first place. When other birders are tilting their Tilley hats upward and training their binoculars on that blue-headed vireo in the branches of a beech, I’m madly scanning the tree and muttering, “Where, where?” My memory for identifying marks is sieve-like. At the start of every spring migration, I struggle to recall the difference between the myrtle warbler (black mask, white throat) and the magnolia warbler (black mask, yellow throat). I have a tin ear for bird song. When I hear the familiar trilling of a house wren, I still sometimes pause for a second and wonder, whaddat?

Thank goodness for Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. First published in 1934, it is still the best of the bird-watching guides. My 1980 version of its fourth edition for eastern North America gets more use than any book in my house. Its paperback cover is scuffed and the opening pages are rippled from rainy bird walks, but it still does the trick better than any birding app or website.

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Perhaps oddly, for this is hardly Anna Karenina, A Field Guide is also a pleasure to read. On a summer day when others are buried in murder mysteries or Alice Munro stories, I’d just as soon be leafing through Peterson’s. The author’s personality breathes from every page.

Peterson grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., an hour or so from Buffalo.

When he was 11, he came across what he thought was a dead bird. The bundle of brown feathers erupted into life. It was a flicker, a member of the woodpecker family that hops on the ground eating ants. Peterson was hooked. “Ever since that day I’ve felt that birds are the most vivid expression of life,” he told the author William Zinsser for The Art and Photography of the World’s Foremost Birder when he was 85. “Birds symbolize freedom and I think that’s why bird watching is so important to so many people."

Peterson went to art school in New York in the 1920s. He joined the Bronx County Bird Club, a group of high school boys with what was then an obscure hobby: identifying birds by sight (instead of blasting them from the skies with a shotgun first). The few bird guides of the time gave annoyingly complex descriptions of the various species.

Peterson had an idea that would change the course of his career and send millions of people into the woods to get a neck ache. He would produce a simplified guide with basic illustrations of bird species. Each drawing would include little arrows to point out give-away field marks, such as the black patch across the chest of the flicker or the white blob on the cheek of the common goldeneye.

To make things even easier, he would group similar species together so birders could compare. “Streak-breasted grass sparrows” take one page in my edition, “rusty-capped sparrows” another. “Confusing fall warblers” – their trademark colours faded – rate two pages.

Although it came out in the midst of the Depression, A Field Guide sold out in the first week and has been selling ever since. It’s now in it sixth edition. Peterson became the world’s most famous birder, a tall, patrician figure of Swedish and German heritage who looked (in Zinsser’s words) like the elder in an Ingmar Bergman film.

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A bird watcher gazes out as a flock of geese pass by, outside Stockholm.

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Dozens of other Peterson guides followed, covering everything from moths to wildflowers. Competing bird guides emerged, too. I have a shelf full of them, on the birds of everywhere from Ottawa to New Delhi. Some are more comprehensive than A Field Guide. The Sibley Guide to Birds by master birder David Allen Sibley is thick enough to squash an American robin. Others use close-up photos by expert wildlife photographers.

None matches Peterson’s for its practical simplicity. Contrary to what you might expect, drawings are actually better than photographs for identification. The field marks stand out more. As Peterson put it, “A photograph is a record of a fleeting instant; a drawing is a composite of the artist’s experience.”

Peterson’s pithy notes are bound to stick in even the leakiest memory. The purple finch is “like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” The harlequin duck is “dark and bizarre.” The rose-breasted grosbeak sings like a robin that “has taken voice lessons.” The rusty blackbird gives “a split creak like a rusty hinge.” The fish crow issues a “short nasal car or caw” while the American crow utters “an honest to goodness caw.”

Peterson, who died in 1996, had the discipline to cut the chaff and leave only that which is useful to the struggling, squinting birder. In that sense, the field guide is a lesson to writers everywhere.

And yet there is passion in this little book. Peterson truly loved birds. Although he saw more than half of the world’s 9,000 species and went birding in every corner of the Earth – including, at least 17 times, Antarctica – he wasn’t a “twitcher,” compulsively ticking off species for his life list. He bridled when others asked if he had seen any “good” birds. All birds were interesting to him. His favourite was the ordinary blue jay.

It’s something I try to remember when I’m straining to identify that mysterious shape flitting through the underbrush, my faithful copy of A Field Guide to the Birds in my pocket.

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