The Beauty of Little Brown Birds

White-throated Sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow.


Female Red-winged Blackbird, taken at Trinity River Audubon Center near Dallas, Texas.

red-winged blackbird, female

Her head is blurry, but look at the delicate stripes of russet mixed in with the butter yellow and coffee colors of her feathers.

Savannah Sparrow, Goose Island State Park, TX.

Savannah Sparrow, Goose Island State Park, TX.

This winter I have been very inspired by the work of nature writer Florence A. Merriam.  She was the first to write about observing birds alive in the field, rather than relying on dead specimens to study, and what I especially love about her is that no bird was too plain or too ordinary for her to attend to.

In 1889 and 1894, she spent the spring near San Diego, California, recovering her health, and observing birds.  The notes she took on those trips later became the book A-Birding on a Bronco:

I had no gun, but was armed with opera-glass and notebook…Every morning, right after breakfast, my horse was brought to the door and I set out to make rounds of the valley.  I rode till dinner time, getting acquainted with the migrants as they came from the south, and calling at the more distant nests along the way.  After dinner I would take my camp-stool and stroll, through the oaks at the head of the valley, for a quiet study of the nearer nests.  Then once more my horse would be brought up for me to take a run before sunset; and at night I would identify my new birds and write up the notes of the day.  What more could observer crave?  The world was mine.  I never spent a happier spring.  The freedom and novelty of ranch life and the exhilaration of days spent in the saddle gave added zest to the delights of new fauna.  In my small valley circuit of a mile and a half, I made the acquaintance of about seventy-five birds, and without resort to the gun was able to name fifty-six of them.

Canello [one of the horses she rode] and I soon became the best of friends.  I found in him a valuable second — for, as I had anticipated, the birds were used to grazing horses, and were much less suspicious of an equestrian than a foot passenger — and he found in me a movable stake, constantly leading him to a new grazing ground; for when there was a nest to watch I simply hung the bridle over the pommel and let him eat, so getting free hands for opera-glass and note-book.

Her poetic and humorous descriptions make you feel you are accompanying her on a warm afternoon outside:

Up to this time not a grass blade had stirred, but while I dreamed a brown leaf went whirling to the ground, the stray stalks of oats left from the mowing began to nod, and the sycamore branches commenced to sway.  Then the breeze swelled stronger, coming cool and fresh form the ocean; the yellow primroses, around which the hummingbirds whirred, bowed on their stately stalks, and I could hear the wind in the moving treetops.

Mountain Billy [another horse] grazed near me till it occurred to him that stubble was unsatisfactory, when he betook him to my haycock.  Though I lectured him upon the rights of property and enforced my sermon with the point of the parasol, he was soon back again, with the amused look of a naughty boy who cannot believe in the severity of his monitor; and later, I regret to state, when I was engrossed with the woodpeckers, a sound of munching arose from behind my back.

This book is available online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  If you look below the little picture of the cover on the right hand side of the page, you will see a link to “view volume” and you can page through it.  Most of the illustrations are not listed in the “page” menu box on the left of the book images, but usually they are on a page that just says “text,” instead of a page number.

I have written about two other of Florence Merriam’s books here.  I love the way she captures a sense of expansive time and the intricacies of nature.