Pre-Peterson Field Guides

An Annotated Bibliography

by Ian Paulsen

May 19, 2024

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a birder in the United States and Canada, and the time period you’re in is before the publication of the first edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds on April 27, 1934. What book would you be using as a field guide? Prior to 1889, bird books for the region were either taxonomic keys that required a bird in a hand or large, often multi-volume tomes with layouts that wouldn’t be considered a field guide.

That changed in 1889, with the publication of Birds Through an Opera Glass by Florence A. Merriam (Bailey). Below, I compiled an annotated list in chronological order of pre-Peterson field guides. Please note that for this article I’m focusing on books illustrated with drawings and/or paintings and not by photographs. Photographic guides in the pre-Peterson period were virtually non-existent.

The author’s collection of Pre-Peterson field guides.

PRE-PETERSON FIELD GUIDES

1889. Birds Through an Opera Glass. Florence A. Merriam (Bailey) (1863–1948). Houghton Mifflin. 225 pages.

This book is considered to be the first field guide for the region because it was small (4” x 6.5”) and didn’t rely on taxonomic keys with the bird in the hand for identification. Many of the articles in the book were published in Audubon magazine in 1886, but were revised for this book. It was illustrated with woodcuts from Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway’s A History of North American Birds, published in 1874. The book was in print at least until 1900.

1895. Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America. Frank M. Chapman (1864–1945). Appleton. 530 pages (second edition). Second edition 1912 (reprinted by Dover, 1966).

This guide features both taxonomic and field keys plus artwork by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927) including eight color plates. It’s by far much more detailed and inclusive, especially in the species accounts, to Merriam’s Birds Through an Opera Glass. Although it’s noticeable larger than the above Merriam book, it’s close to the size of modern field guides. The book was in print into the 1930s and then Dover reprinted it in 1966 as a paperback.

“Mobbing a Pygmy Owl,” by Canadian bird artist Allan Brooks, is the frontispiece in Ralph Hoffmann’s Birds of the Pacific States.

1898. Birds of the United States (East of the Rocky Mountains). Austin C. Apgar (1838–1908). American Book Company. 415 pages.

This book is often overlooked in compilations of early Pre-Peterson field guides. It was designed to identify birds both in the hand and in the field. It has taxonomic keys for each species arranged by family. It’s compact in size like modern day field guides with an illustration, in most cases, of a given bird in their species account, although the artwork by today’s standards isn’t very good.

1902. Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. Florence A. Merriam (Bailey). Houghton Mifflin. 590 pages. Four editions.

Basically, this book is the western version of Chapman’s Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America and, like that book, has plates by Fuertes, but only in black-and white. In some species accounts, there’s a small illustration of museum study skins of said species. The fourth edition was in print to at least 1920.

1903. Color Key to North American Birds. Frank M. Chapman. Doubleday, Page and Co.. 312 pages. Second edition 1912.

Although the title says Color Key, this book comes close to modern field guides with color illustrations next to abbreviated species account, but the book is taller than modern day bird guides. The artwork was done by Chester A. Reed who went on to publish his own field guides (see below).

1904. A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York. Ralph Hoffmann (1870–1932). Houghton Mifflin. 357 pages.

This is Hoffmann’s first bird guide, his Birds of the Pacific States (published in 1927, see below) was his second bird guide. Although this book does contain keys, they are arranged by seasons (and by months for spring) and not by taxonomic order. In the species accounts, field marks and vocalizations are italicized for quick reference. According to Roger Tory Peterson’s (1908–1996) biographer Doug Carlson: “I’ve seen RTP’s copy of Hoffmann and it’s pretty well marked up, indicating that he relied on it quite a bit.” Here is a photo of Ralph Hoffmann beside Albert Einstein, as well as Elsa Einstein, Eleanor Hoffmann, and Ludwig Kast: https://theberkshireedge.com/book-review-annotated-list-of-the-birds-of-berkshire-county-massachusetts/hoffmanns-einsteins/.

1905. Bird Guide (Part 2) Land Birds East of the Rockies. Chester A. Reed (1876–1912). Revised 1909.

Chester A. Reed was a prolific author of pocket-sized (usually about 3.5 inches by 5.75 inches) nature guides mainly focused on birds. The books often came with a slipcase for protection from the elements. Each species came with a color illustration (almost always done by Chester A. himself) next to its species account. He died from pneumonia at age 36, after which his father, Chester K. Reed (1851–1921) had two of Chester A.’s books published posthumously. His books averaged between 230 to 250 pages and were in print until the early 1950s. Listed below are the other noteworthy bird books by Chester A Reed:

1906. Bird Guide (Part 1) Water Birds, Game Birds and Birds of Prey East of the Rockies. Chester A. Reed. Revised 1910.

1912. Birds of Eastern North America. Chester A. Reed.

1913. Western Bird Guide. Chester A. Reed. Chester K. Reed.

1914. The Bird Book. Chester A. Reed. Edited by Chester K.. A Canadian version was also published.

1923. Birds of the Pacific Coast. Willard A. Eliot. (1871–1961). Putnam. 268 pages.

Putnam, along with Houghton Mifflin, published field guides (which Putnam called Field Books, although Houghton Mifflin occasionally did so) in the early to mid-twentieth century. Houghton Mifflin eventually won out though (well, at least until 2021, that is).

One can see the size difference between Florence Merriam Bailey’s Birds Through an Opera-Glass and Elliott Coues’s Key to North American Birds.

1925. Field Book of Birds of the Southwestern United States. Luther E. Wyman (1869–1928) and Elizabeth F. Burnell. Houghton Mifflin. 308 pages.

In this book the species accounts have a layout that has text, an illustration and a range map on opposite pages similar to today’s field guides. This is the earliest example of this layout I have seen and which wouldn’t be duplicated until 1949 when Birds: A Golden Nature Guide by Herbert S. Zim and Ira N. Gabrielson was published with a similar layout.

1927. Birds of the Pacific States. Ralph Hoffmann. Copyright renewed in 1955 (in print at least until 1973. Houghton Mifflin. 353 pages.

In 1919, Hoffmann moved his family to Carpinteria, California, and soon afterwards began working of this volume. It was similar in format to his A Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York with the field marks and vocalizations italicized for quick reference. It lacks the “seasonal keys” of his first book and his writing skills had much improved since 1904. Also, Canadian bird artist Allan Brooks (1869–1946) did the artwork for the book including ten color plates, of which the frontispiece, “Mobbing a Pygmy Owl,” is one my favorites of his work. Roger Tory Peterson acknowledges Hoffmann’s book in the preface to the first edition (1941) of his western guide: “This guide does not intend to replace Hoffmann’s handbook; rather, it could be most effectively used as a companion piece to it. The approach of the two books is quite different. Hoffmann’s is especially thorough on the voices and habitats of birds, much more complete than is possible in a book of this size.”

1927. A Field Guide to the Birds of Central Kansas. Harvey H. Nininger (1887–1986). Democrat-Opinion Print. 36 pages.

This is the first publication that I know of to use the term “field guide” instead of “field book” or “bird guide,” although by today’s standards this booklet would be classified as an annotated checklist and not as a field guide.

1931. Field Marks of All Birds: Easily Confused, Occurring Annually in Northeastern North America. Henry Hill Collins III (1905–1961). Self-published. 16 pages.

The cover art shows arrows pointing out field marks. This is three years before Peterson’s first field guide that made this arrow system his trademark. I didn’t think much about this booklet until I read a mail order catalog item from Peacock Books a few years after I bought a copy of it. According to the item description via John Yrizarry, Peterson adopted this system for his field guides. Curious to find out if this story was true, I contacted Peterson biographer Douglas Carlson, and he checked his notes and couldn’t find any mention of this booklet. More recently I contacted Melissa Post at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and she said: “Although it is likely that a multitude of influences resulted in Roger Tory Peterson’s publications, without reading his journals, it would be mere speculation as to what those additional influences may have been.” So the story could be true or not.

1934. A Field Guide to the Birds. Roger Tory Peterson. Houghton Mifflin. 167 pages. Published on April 27.

With the publication of Peterson’s first field guide, the modern field guide era began.

If I were to construct a family tree of early field guide authors, with Roger Tory Peterson as the father of the modern field, I would have Florence A. Merriam (Bailey) and Ralph Hoffmann as grandparents, Frank M. Chapman and Chester A. Reed as granduncles, and Austin C. Apgar as the long-lost cousin no one talks about!

A spread from Frank M. Chapman’s Color Key to North American Birds.

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Ian Paulsen is a lifelong birder and book collector. He’s the author of the bird/natural history book blog called: The Birdbooker Report. Ian is the moderator to the Facebook group: I Love Ornithological and Bird Books. Ian’s a co-founder of the Washington (State) Ornithological Society and a contributing author to the book: Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution (2005).