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Charles J. Pennock was one of the finest birders in the country around the turn of the century. A prosperous Philadelphia businessman, he was also a longtime president of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Society, the snootiest birding club in North America, a group so exclusive that it refused to admit women until 1982.

Pennock was in every respect a solid citizen: a justice of the peace, a member of the board of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, a volunteer curator at the academy's museum, a devoted husband and father.

But on the night of May 15, 1913, he disappeared. His frantic family notified the police. But a missing persons bulletin about a gray-bearded man, 55 years old, wearing a dark suit with gray stripes and a stand-up collar, produced no responses.

The years went by. The Delaware Valley Ornithological Club began listing him as a "Deceased Member." His wife, despairing, donated his huge collections of birds, eggs, and ornithological books to the Philadelphia Academy.

But not long after Pennock's disappearance, a new name began to appear in the ornithological journals. A John Williams was filing excellent reports from the tiny village of Saint Marks on the Gulf Coast of Florida just south of Tallahassee. Mr. Williams did splendid work, full of careful observation, and since he lived in one of the richest birding areas in the country, editors welcomed his submissions. He was elected, sight unseen, to the American Ornithologists Union and the Wilson Ornithological Club, and even became a fellow in absentia of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

Skilled ornithologists were not exactly as common as house sparrows in the U.S. 70 years ago, but somehow, Mr. Williams's excellent writings didn't arouse any curiosity as to where he came from and how he came to know so much about birds. Finally, his handwriting betrayed him. He sent a manuscript to an old friend, who tipped off his family. His brother-in-law traveled to Saint Marks and discovered that John Williams was in fact Charles Pennock. He had tried to vanish. He had shaved his beard, changed his name, moved far away, but he couldn't get over his fascination with birds, and that had exposed him.

Mr. Pennock's strange story is one of a wealth of tales contained in A World of Watchers by Joseph Kastner (Alfred A. Knopf), a history of both professional and amateur bird-watching in America from the Indians to the present day.

This is social history of a high order, a tracing of changes in attitudes and actions over time and a gallery of portraits of some intriguing characters who were in the thick of those changes.

Mr. Kastner begins with the Indians. His information is necessarily sketchy. He has some bird names that suggest the unsurprising idea that Indians were quite familiar with the songs and habits of the birds, and he has an anecdote about an ornithologist who went birding with some Apaches in the 1870s. The Indians saw so many more birds than the ornithologist that they decided that white men must be blind.

The rest of the book is about the discovery of America by Europeans, a process that took more than 300 years, and the changes in attitude that the discovery produced. The story starts with very early reports, such as Captain John Smith's first sketchy account of eagles, "hawkes of diverse sorts . . . wild turkies, . . . blackbirds with red shoulders," and "some other strange kinds unknown by name," around the Jamestown settlement and continues through Margaret Morse Nice's intimate history of the life of the song sparrow. It runs from John James Audubon's remark that "I call birds few when I shoot less than 100 per day" to the strict protection laws passed under the inspiration of the society that bears his name.

This story has been told before in various ways and in various places, but Kastner brings it all together. And he has a very nice feel for the people involved, the forceful and often contentious personalities who created the situation we have today, with bird protection a settled fact and millions of people spending time outdoors watching birds.

Conservatives may be dismayed to learn it, but the U.S. government played a central role in all this from very early in the game. In fact, in the last half of the 19th century, during the golden age of American ornithology, much of the most important work was accomplished by the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

The man behind that development was Spencer Fullerton Baird. Appointed assistant secretary of the newly created Smithsonian Institution in 1850 and promoted to secretary in 1878, he remade the study of natural history--as field biology was then called--in North America.

His years at the Smithsonian could also be called the Golden Age of American Imperialism. With army units setting out to the west to pacify and explore the vast territories newly stolen from Mexico and/or the native Indians, Baird had an opportunity to fill in some very large empty spaces on the ornithological map.

Thanks to his lobbying and his superb connections--his father-in-law was the inspector general of the Army--he managed to make natural history collecting a part of the Army's duties in the new lands. George McClellan, later commander of the Union armies in the Civil War, was one of his better correspondents.

But most of the work was done by doctors, the only military men with scientific training, and the only military men who could dissect a specimen and make sense of what they found inside.

So from isolated frontier forts, and from the expeditions that explored the routes that the railroads would later follow west, Baird's doctors sent crates of specimens to the Smithsonian. They came from William Alexander Hammond (after whom Hammond's flycatcher is named), from Elliott Coues (Coues' flycatcher), from Charles Bendire (Bendire's thrasher), from Janos Xantus (Xantus murrelet), and from William Anderson, whose wife is honored in the name of Virginia's warbler.

The interested amateur has always played an important role in ornithology, and a bit over a century ago, the amateurs began to organize. The first birding society was the Nuttall Ornithological Club of Cambridge, Massachusetts, formed in 1873 by a group of well-connected Bostonians. A Nuttall member was expected to have "good moral character, genuine interest in bird study, a reputation for accuracy, and qualities of heart and mind that make a man clubbable." The Nuttall Club did not admit women until 1974.

The Linnaean Society of New York was founded in 1878 for the study of natural history, and particularly birds. Like the Nuttall Club, it drew its members from leading families. Several Vanderbilts belonged and so did various Roosevelts, including, at different times, both President Roosevelts.

But about 70 years ago, the Linnaean Society began to change. The change was initiated by Ludlow Griscom, the prophet of birding with field glasses rather than shotguns, and it was carried on by a bunch of high school kids from the Bronx, lads of obscure origin with very little money. Their main guidebook had been salvaged from a garbage can by one of their members.

These smart-assed teenagers--they called themselves the Bronx County Bird Club--astounded their stuffy elders with the sightings they reported and their ability to defend the accuracy of those sightings at meetings of the Linnaean Society. As Kastner puts it, the Bronx, "like Boston Harbor when the patriots dumped tea into it or the Finland Station when Lenin arrived there . . . became a starting point of a historic revolution, which was to turn bird watching from the pastime of a relative few into the pleasure of a great many."

Several of these kids--Joseph Hickey, Allan Cruickshank, William Vogt--went on to distinguished careers in ornithology. A young art student from Jamestown, New York, an honorary member of the Bronx County Bird Club, became the Thomas Paine or Marx and Engels of this particular revolution. That was Roger Tory Peterson, whose bird guides made the game accessible to almost everyone.

Kastner points out that Peterson was uniquely qualified for this work. Even at age 19, he was among the most skilled birders in the country, and his training in art included study at the Art Students' League under John Sloan, a realist of the Ashcan School, and at the more traditional National Academy of Design.

Today, according to a survey cited in Kastner's closing chapter, one out of four Americans does some bird-watching. Most of these watchers know little, but about seven million Americans can identify at least 30 species and two million can identify 100 or more. Bird-watching has become, behind hunting and fishing, the third most popular outdoor sport in America.

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