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Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music

Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music: A description of the character and music of birds, intended to assist in the identification of species common in the Eastern United States, by F. Schuyler Mathews

Originally printed in 1904, G.P. Putnam`s Sons. Reprinted 2000, Bedford, MA: Applewood Books. 262 pages; Dimensions (in inches): 0.75 x 7 x 4; 53 black-and-white reproductions of original three-colour lithographs by the author. ISBN 1557095183. Paperback $14.95.

This is a Guest Review by Spencer Schaffner - spiegel@u.washington.edu It is unusual in that it is of a re-issued older field guide. Spencer is currently working on his PhD at the University of Washington, writing about, you guessed it, The History of American Field Guides to Birds for his dissertation.

The modern field guides we are used to in the US - Peterson, Kaufman, Sibley, etc. - offer detailed migration information, pithy descriptions of each bird, and digitally enhanced images. On the internet, dozens of bird-identification sites can be found, and many more websites allow bird songs to bubble forth from our computers http://www/naturesongs.com/birds.html is one of the best. It wasn`t always this way, though, and F. Schuyler Mathews` 1904 Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, reissued by Applewood Books, is a pocket-sized reminder of what bird books used to be. Whereas our modern field guides are bent on helping us quickly and accurately identify birds, many popular field guides of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries blended the goal of identification with encouragement for readers to revel in the beauty of birds and their music.

Mathews writes this about the Ruffled Grouse (our Ruffed Grouse): There is no doubt about it at all, here is the kettledrum of Nature`s orchestra! About the Red-winged Blackbird: A beautiful slim and smooth black bird with scarlet epaulets sways unsteadily on the supple stem of a cattail on the margin of the pond... About the White-throated Sparrow: This handsomely attired Sparrow is one of the most distinguished members of the family. Contrast this with Sibley`s description of the same species: Smaller and plumper than other Zonotrichia sparrows. Rufous on wings and sharply outlined white throat distinctive. Looking at older field guides, one starts to wonder, in our race to identify, identify, identify, has something been lost?

Mathews` Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music describes the Eastern birds (or most of them) in elaborate passages, but what is most ambitious about this book is the music. Mathews renders each bird`s song on a musical scale, complete with liner notes and commentary. Don`t read music? Don`t worry. Mathews offers both a quick primer on how to read music and a glossary of musical terms. Paging back to Mathews` handy glossary, you`ll know just what he means when the lark`s song is described as affettuoso or the robin`s melody as sostenuto. On the other hand, if you do happen to read music, this guide breathes new life into bird songs.

Mathews concedes that: …Of course it is a more or less problematic matter to deal with wild music. It is not amenable in any respect to law. However, the question involved is not whether the bird`s song is radically different from ours - we may admit that point - but whether it may be truthfully and logically recorded upon the musical staff. That question, it is the object of this book to answer affirmatively, and with due regard for all the difficulties involved. (xvii)

F. Schuyler Mathews` Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music is not the only book of its time that attempted to capture bird songs on the printed page. S. Miller Hageman`s Bird Songs (also of 1904), for instance, presents bird songs in the form of poems. In that book, Hageman not only poetically recreates the rhythm and tone of each bird, but works to capture the poetic essence, if you will, of each species. Many authors writing about birds have focused first on the joy of listening to birds, then on the joy of watching them, as bird songs have been considered a primary enhancement to everyday life. Mathews is simply following along in this tradition.

F. Schuyler Mathews, author of numerous books and field guides in the early twentieth century, was also a careful watercolorist, and this field guide includes 53 plates. Whereas the early editions of Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, still available in many libraries, featured Mathews` water colours in the three-colour lithographic process, the black-and-white reproductions in this volume pale in comparison. That said, this field guide is still a startling little book with the very great potential of helping us see and think about what we`ve come to take for granted every time we open a field guide.

Created: 29th Dec 2002

 

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