Bird watching: The joy of the pocket field-guide

Winter is holding on tight in my part of the world. But there is one sure sign that Spring is on the way — the  birds are coming back. I can hear them chirping out my window.

Out come my vintage birder books and opera glasses:


I love field guides of all kind — and this is one of my favourites: Bird Guide: Land Birds East of the Rockies by Chester A. Reed (new revised edition, Double Day & Company, New York, 1951, first published 1906).

Before picking this up at an antique store for $10, I had never heard of Chester A. Reed or his Bird Guide. But I liked the jacket cover and it had to be mine! And, as usual with these charming old books, there is quite a back story…

birdwatching cover

Chester Albert Reed was a successful American author (he published 24 books between 1903 to 1912), naturalist, artist and photographer.

Chester A. Reed (Source)

Not a household name like Audubon, but many think he should be: he is considered to be a pioneer in the world of ornithology for inventing the pocket-size field guide for birders. Pocket guides existed for other naturalists, but his were the first for birders: He ingeniously thought to include all the detail of the typically voluminous bird book in a portable size perfect for field work.

Amongst the 300 full-colour illustrations of 222 species, is this lovely “topography of a bird”:

birdwatching 3

Not just for hard-core birders, Reed hoped that his perfect little book would encourage turn-of-the-century readers (and beyond) to take an interest in their “wild, feathered friends”:

“It is the duty, and should be the pleasure, of every citizen to do all in his or her power to protect these valuable creatures, and to encourage them to remain about our homes. The author believes that the best means of protection is the disseminating of knowledge concerning them, and the creating of an interest in their habits and modes of life. With that object in view, this little book is prepared. May it serve its purpose and help those already interested in the subject, and may it be the medium for starting many others on the road to knowledge of our wild, feathered friends.”

And, the rest is history. His books caught on — and many more have been published by different authors.

Sadly, Reed’s career was cut short when he died at the tender age of 36 in 1912.

But his books are still available, republished or used.

The Bird Guide was reissued by Double Day in 1951–and I think the author would be pleased by the editors’ introduction:

“This book is to help you recognize birds when you see them. Waste no time in regret that you have so little opportunity to go out and look for them. Look out your own window. Watch your own back yard. Keep on an eye on the street or roadside along which you go to work. Birds are everywhere.”

Indeed, birds are everywhere. Thanks to Reed’s guide, I identified two common (and lovely) birds in my own backyard today — the Cardinal and the Chickadee — and was thoroughly charmed by his descriptions: Cardinal’s are “beautiful, friendly birds” and Chickadees are loved for their “uniform good nature even in the coldest weather and their confiding dispositions…”

birdwatching 2

birdwatching 1

Are you spotting any birds in your backyard this Spring?

For more about this visionary author/naturalist, visit:

Chester A. Reed tribute website:

Biodiversity Heritage Library:


  1. I’m a stargazer, but I recently purchased an old pair of Reed’s Nature Study Glasses to duplicate the views in Garrett Serviss’ “Astronomy With An Opera-Glass.” I’m having a good time, and feel two old authors smiling behind me.

  2. Serviss’ “Astronomy With An Opera-Glass” was in print for a long time, and good copies can be found cheap. I’m not usually a “hoity toity first edition” person, but I recently picked up the 1888 first edition simply because I love the book. The views of the sky are fun, and the writing is charming, a word I wouldn’t usually use for most astronomy books. Reed’s Nature Study Glasses lend themselves well to following the spirit of the book.

  3. Nope. I’m just an old man that likes the stars. I do have a facebook page… pretty big techy deal for me. You can look under my name, and a black and white pic of a kid (me) on a trike will show up. There’s one clip from Serviss’ book on there, with a few other old astronomical things. If you can’t get in deep enough to see it, I’d be happy to “friend” you. (I think I have 20 friends. 🙂 )

  4. I found a copy of the book in late July at a Half-Price Books store in Austin for only $3, in excellent condition. Was not aware of it before then. Thanks for your post and the link to the Chester A. Reed website.

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