Book Review: The World Of Birds

The World Of Birds, by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson

Be forewarned that if you decide to read this book it may draw some attention, not least because the book is massive.  It’s a book that is impossible to read this book discreetly, given the size of this book.  Fortunately, it’s not a book that one would want to read privately and if you are fond of reading about birds [1], you will find much to enjoy even if this book is seriously dated in some of its aspects.  Even with that said, and even if some of the text is limited by the author’s mistaken scientific understanding of birds and his laughable opinions on convergent evolution (which he repeats several times as if it were gospel truth), the book does feature some gorgeous drawings of birds and also a message on conservation that was well ahead of its time, given that the book was written in about 1964 or so.  So, if you want a book with mistaken worldviews and outdated technology references to birding, but enjoy timeless art and thoughtful discussion on the preservation of birds by those who love them, this book does have something to offer a reader.

The contents of the book are highly varied and organized in a somewhat unusual way.  Coming in at nearly 300 massive pages, this is a book that can be read either somewhat quickly or very slowly depending on how one goes about it, as there is a lot of material here to look at and read.  The book contains ten chapters that make up four sections.  The first section looks at ornithology as a science, looking at the variety of birds (1), how birds live (2), some extinct birds of the past (3), where birds fit on the supposed tree of life (4), and the distribution of birds around the world (5).  The second part of the book looks at bird watching, explaining various bird societies (6) and the techniques of bird watching (7).  The third section of the book consists of a lengthy and gorgeously rendered series of drawings that shows the “regiment” of all known bird families along with maps of their distributions around the world (8).  The fourth and final section provides a discussion of the problems of conversation and the relationship between birds and man throughout history (9) as well as a thoughtful if someone obsolete bibliography (10) along with a short appendix and an index for readers.

This book is clearly not written for a general audience, or at least not the sort of general audience that exists nowadays.  Whether readers were expected to be more scientifically literate in times past than they are at present or whether there were a lot more technically inclined birders in the past, this book is remarkable in its dense and somewhat obscure language about birds and the study of birds.  The fact that the authors of this book encourage readers to write monographs on birds and help the study of the field as a whole given the paucity of such guides even in the mid-20th century is remarkable.  The book exposes, in a vivid and intriguing way, just how recently birding became a serious intellectual pursuit, given that recordings of bird sounds was just beginning in the pre-World War II period and that even compiling bird lists was rare before the 19th century, such that even Thomas Jefferson can be considered a pioneer in the field.  Although this book’s text definitely shows its age, the art of this book is beautiful enough to make it of enduring value as an encouragement to the study of and concern for birds, regardless of whether the text is read or merely viewed as a work of art.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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