Birding on horseback

Florence Augusta Merriam. 1896. A-Birding on a Bronco. Houghton, Mifflin and Co., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA .

This is a delightful book by a great late nineteenth to early twentieth century naturalist. Merriam was an ornithologist, author of Handbook of Birds of the Western United States. She was an organizer of several chapters of the Audubon Society.

This book, which I listened to on Librivox, is a set of notes from two visits to a ranch in Southern California in 1889 and 1894. Many of her observations are of the birds at their nests, an aspect of birding which seems to have fallen out of fashion. Today, there is much more emphasis on counting species and individuals seen and much less on the close observation of behavior. She does tend to use strongly anthropomorphic descriptions and to attribute a greater degree of self awareness to her subjects than would ever be acceptable today. Nevertheless, she is a fine observer and writer. Her descriptions of southern California as it was over a century ago, when life revolved around farming, ranching and orchards are a reminder of how much our landscapes have changed.

Reading her accounts of the numerous attempts at nesting by a wide variety of birds in the oak woodlands and chaparral, it came home to me very strongly how frequently they failed. I would guess that well under half of the nests she saw started produced fledglings. Most were destroyed by unknown agents or simply abandoned. Snakes, other birds and cats were likely culprits. Given the utter vulnerability of the eggs and hatchlings, it is almost surprising that any are successfully reared, though I know it’s been done for a hundred million years or more. A small bird’s life must be exhausting and frustrating, with no time to rest between the challenges of nest building, foraging, territorial defense and, for many, migration. Even during brooding, there must be constant vigilance. Their lives must be a near continual state of nervous excitement, ending in exhaustion.

The bronco in the title, was not, by the way, some half wild creature suitable for a rodeo but actually a couple of docile ranch ponies, well suited for a lady naturalist to wander the country. One in particular was so patient as to stand for hours while Merriam watched nests. The only danger was that they shied at snakes, if they sensed their presence. On occasion, bronco and rider went right past rattlers in the dense brush, but mostly they stayed away from likely snake habitat.

Horseback sounds like a wonderful way to watch birds; I will someday have to compare this book to Birding From a Tractor Seat by Charles T Flugum.