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January 29, 2021


By Rick Wright

Ask most birders about the birth of the field guide, and we start talking about Roger Tory Peterson. Those who have given more thought to the matter will also mention Frank Michler Chapman, and the truly in-the-know will be sure to bring up Florence Merriam.

That gets us back 125 years, a respectable span of time; but if we broaden our geographic view just a bit, we run across a book, now more than two centuries old, that anticipates every field guide written since, all the way down to Jon Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer’s National Geographic Guide and the big Sibley.

Johann Matthäus Bechstein is known to literary historians as the uncle of the famous folklorist Ludwig Bechstein and to musicians as a cousin of the piano manufacturer Carl Bechstein. To his contemporaries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, though, Johann Matthäus was a leading light in continental natural history; as Walter Uloth puts it,

Not for nothing are the decades from 1791 to 1820 designated the “Bechstein Period,” over the course of which Johann Matthäus Bechstein played a determining role in the development of German-language ornithology.

Johann Matthäus Bechstein - Wikimedia Commons

Bechstein’s most successful and most ambitious work covered more than just birds: the Natural History of Germany, Encompassing All Three Kingdoms, treated plants, animals, and minerals in a manner intended to promote “the clearer and more complete self-education of foresters, teachers, and land managers.” Published in eight parts making up four volumes, this book became a standard manual—but it really wasn’t of immediate practical use in the field. In 1802, two years in to his work the Natural History, Bechstein published a smaller, handier book, the Ornithologisches Taschenbuch von und für Deutschland, “Pocket Book of Ornithology of and for Germany” (that prepositional doublet is a rich hint at the role of natural history in German nation-building in the Napoleonic era). At just about 600 pages and only 6-1/3 inches tall, the book is perfectly field-guide-sized.

In terms that strike the modern reader as familiar, Bechstein explains his motivation in publishing the little book:

No expert will deny that the pocket guides we already have to botany and entomology have dramatically increased not just knowledge in those branches of natural history but also the number of amateurs of those fields…access to knowledge in those sciences has been greatly eased by such simple and handy resources, and everyone with even a moderate interest in beautiful nature has a chance to satisfy his curiosity on the spot, without having to carry a large and clumsy book along.

So why not, he asks, something similar for birds?

Birds often approach as close to the observer as insects do, or one finds a nest; and for anyone who knows how to use a blowgun, nets, or especially a shotgun…nothing could be more convenient than having a resource right at hand that will show him immediately what species of bird he has before him, rare or common…

In composing his new guide, Bechstein started from scratch:

I did not make the writing of this book as easy on myself as I might have, given the work that others and I myself have already done in this field. In enumerating the identifying characteristics of the species, which after all is the main point here, I did not blindly follow Linnaeus or anyone else, but rather first examined the bird itself very carefully to confirm that the commonly indicated characteristics were not just accurate but that they were sufficiently distinctive; and then, whenever possible, I have used as characteristics not just color but the actual structure of the bird…I have also, however, indicated plumage changes as precisely as I could, and I hope that one will be able to identify every bird satisfactorily.

The constraints of paper publication prevented Bechstein from illustrating every species, but for common birds he provides citations to the most instructive images in his own and other works. He is at pains to provide pictures of “new, rare, or otherwise remarkable” species, though he regrets that

many of my rarest specimens were burned by my careless maid before I could have them drawn.

Western Jackdaw - Rick Wright

The species accounts in the Taschenbuch are concise but complete, and the text would look perfectly at home in a “modern” field guide. Of the Western Jackdaw, for example, Bechstein writes with Petersonian clarity that the bird is “black, somewhat paler beneath; the nape pale gray; 13.5 inches long.” He also alerts the observer to the existence of half a dozen color variants, among them birds that are “patchy black and white.” The species’ habitat is described as “anywhere there are old churches, towers, or ruins, but more frequently in low-lying areas than in the mountains.” Jackdaws are said to be social and, in some parts of their range, migratory; they eat insects, worms, grain, and other vegetable matter, and nest in cavities and crevices, “often several pairs in proximity.”

Each account ends with a list of alternative vernacular names (including “Schneegacke” and “Zschokerll” for the jackdaw) and citations to four or five more substantial handbooks, including, of course, Bechstein’s own Naturgeschichte.

Bechstein's jackdaw page - Biodiversity Heritage Library

In an appendix, Bechstein offers the reader a “Birding Calendar,” indicating under each month which migrants arrive and which depart. In the second half of May, for example, we’re told to expect the arrival of the corn crake, and to be on the lookout for roaming flocks of bee-eaters. Similar phenological tables are found in some more modern field guides, especially those covering a small region.

Bechstein's March birding calendar - Biodiversity Heritage Library

Bechstein died at the relatively young age of 65 in 1822. Celebrated in his lifetime, he is largely forgotten by birders today, who should nevertheless offer him a silent thanks every time they open a field guide.

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