Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides

by Spencer Schaffner

Reviewed by Grant McCreary on October 10th, 2012.

cover of Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides, by Spencer Schaffner

Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press

Date: July, 2011

Illustrations: a few black-and-white figures

Binding: paperback

Pages: 214

Size: 6″ x 9″

MSRP: $24.95

comparison front view of Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides

comparison side view of Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides

I love field guides. I love to learn from them, compare them, and even read about them. Some, like The Crossley ID Guide and the Collins Bird Guide of Europe (published in the U. S. as Birds of Europe), I enjoy for their artistic merit (though not solely for that reason). Still, the most important thing about them is how well they help me to identify birds. But according to Spencer Schaffner, “These books have always done much more than that.” He continues: “Taken at face value, field guides are intended to help birdwatchers identify and learn more about birds, but representations of birds and the environment in field-guide literature have much broader implications.” Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides is a book about exploring these implications.

Schaffner repurposes the term binocular vision for the sake of his argument. He uses it here to denote a way of “seeing and thinking about birds as detached from the physical, political, and ideological worlds that greatly affect them”. In using this term, the author is engaging in a bit of word play. Binocular vision normally refers to the advantages of two-eyed sight, such as depth perception and increased field of view. However, looking through binoculars greatly diminishes these advantages. In the same way, the author argues that, with their focus on identification, field guides serve to foster a narrow view of nature.

Schaffner starts with an investigation of the first field guides from the late nineteenth century, particularly Florence Merriam’s Birds through an Opera Glass and Mabel Osgood Wright’s Birdcraft. These earliest guides relied less on illustrations and more on narrative to help the user identify birds. But identification was not the authors’ only purpose; the text was specifically tailored to influence readers to care about, and thus want to save, birds. Birds of that era were under assault on several fronts, most notably from the plume trade that coveted bird feathers for ladies’ hats. Merriam and Wright utilized several methods, including blatant anthropomorphism, to engender strong emotional feelings about birds, an approach designed to halt this practice. Schaffner concludes that “the genre of the field guide began as an intervention aimed at promoting conservation”.

But field guides have changed. The author argues that modern field guides, in their strict focus on identification, “represent a seductively simple vision of the world birds live in”. First, Schaffner attempts to show how today’s guides treat all birds as equals and how this, in turn, influences how birds are treated and managed. He does this by examining attitudes toward four “nuisance” birds (including, surprisingly, the Bald Eagle), and how they have changed over time. I found this discussion to be very intriguing (I didn’t realize there was a bounty on Bald Eagles in Alaska until 1953!). Nevertheless, this line of argument seems to me problematic. Yes, the authors of the first field guides expressed obvious preferences for some birds over others. And that’s putting it nicely, Wright heaps invective on the American Crow in her account. Modern field guides obviously do not do that, but I would not go so far as to claim, as Schaffner does, that they present the message that “all birds are equal”. For example, some field guides focus on common birds and barely mention, if at all, rare or range-restricted species. And there is a conspicuous difference in the treatment of native and introduced birds in North American guides. Common and widespread non-native birds, such as the House Sparrow and European Starling, are included in every major field guide but many other birds, especially those not on the official American Birding Association checklist (and thus not countable by ABA rules), are not found in most guides. If anything, I would argue that the treatment of introduced birds in field guides reinforces the notion that these birds “don’t count”.

Most field guides, according to the author, also promote ‘binocular vision’ in the way they depict birds isolated from their environment, suggesting that birds live only in pristine habitats. Schaffner does focus on an exception that proves the rule: Jack Grigg’s field guide, All the Birds of North America. This guide shows birds painted against a typical habitat, including human-altered ones. This presents a subtle suggestion of some threats that birds face. Schaffner does not treat the recent Crossley ID Guide, which has a major focus on depicting birds in typical, life-like scenes. However it is true that the majority of field guides do not mention, much less show, anything except that which relates to field identification. But does that lead to ‘binocular vision’? I’ll return to that later.

The author also examines online and digital field guides, how they differ from print guides, and whether they too contribute to binocular vision. Unsurprisingly, given how fast this market is changing, this chapter is already out-of-date. Although some statements are now incorrect, this does not affect the underlying question: Are the birders using the myriad tools and gadgets available today becoming dependent on them to identify birds?

Finally, Schaffner considers how birding, especially the competitive big-day and big-year varieties, ignores or even implicitly endorses some forms of environmental degradation. This is especially true of landfills and sewage treatment facilities, which are well-known birding hotspots, but still toxic and environmentally dangerous. Using the World Series of Birding as an example, the author argues that birding at these toxic sites “overwrites those sites as healthy”. I’m still more than a little incredulous about this proposition; it is certainly worthy of contemplation but it feels out of place in a book otherwise about field guides.

Actually, incredulous pretty much sums up my initial reaction to Binocular Vision. It felt like an academic exercise trying to find fault where there is none. But it did cause me to question some long-held, and even unconscious, assumptions. Primary among these is the connection between field guides and conservation. Roger Tory Peterson, the author of the earliest among the “technical” field guides that Schaffner is critiquing, endorsed the view that learning about birds (usually via field guides) is the first step in becoming a conservationist. More recently, in his field guide (Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America), Ted Floyd writes:

We are also drawn to an abiding question: What is the name of that bird? A name is a tool for organizing our thoughts, for making sense of the world around us. Knowing the name of something makes it more important. Giving a name to something immediately triggers a cavalcade of questions, of discovery, and of wonder.

Schaffner questions this commonly held belief and instead suggests that certain field-guide attributes encourage the users of such guides to become blind to anything other than identification. True, many field guides are singularly focused on identification to the near, or total, exclusion of conservation. However, that is not the case with all of them. For example, in the introduction to the Smithsonian guide, Floyd eschews the notion that conservation information is irrelevant to identification, and goes on to include such things as conservation success stories, population status, and current threats in his species accounts. But even without such explicit endorsements of conservation in a field guide, there is still an “inextricable link between identifying and conserving birds”.

I happen to agree. I can’t speak for other field-guide users, but my own experience perfectly tracks the statements made by Peterson and Floyd. Contrary to Schaffner. I became a birder, in large part, due to The Sibley Guide to Birds. After I started looking for and identifying birds, I wanted to learn all I could about these wonderful creatures. That came to include conservation and how I could help. It is no exaggeration to state that I can trace my conservation ethic and most everything I have done to help birds and the environment back to picking up the Sibley guide for the first time.

Even if they do help promote it, should field guides even be concerned about binocular vision? My initial reaction was, “No, their purpose is to help identify birds.” But, as Schaffner shows, that has not always been the primary purpose of field guides. Further, Floyd demonstrates that conservation is linked to identification and can be incorporated without hindering the other. So perhaps there is a place for conservation, alongside identification, in field guides. A good, easy place to start would be to include the IUCN Red List status for each species.


The writing and structure of Binocular Vision helped contribute to my impression that this book is not directed at birders, but is rather intended to contribute to the study of environmental literature. But that doesn’t preclude birders from getting something out of it. I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions but I felt it was worth reading for the critical thinking it stimulated about field guides and birding. I would recommend it to birders interested in field guides beyond their use for identification, and especially to current or prospective field-guide authors.

Category: Miscellaneous

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Disclosure: The item reviewed here was a complementary review copy provided by the publisher. But the opinion expressed here is my own, it has not been influenced in any way.

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