A Tradition of Mentoring: From Ludlow Griscom to Roger Tory Peterson to Kenn Kaufman and Beyond

Is any group of people more inclined or anxious to share what they know than birders? There is no single field guide that we all use. Instead, there are dozens. Many of us go out of our way to publish what birds we've seen and where we have seen them. When the experts among us come upon new diagnostic field marks for a cryptic species or species group they are quick to write an article trumpeting their discovery.

It is never too early to introduce your children to birds and the natural world. In this image Mat Gilfedder and his son Alex, who were visiting from Brisbane, Australia, enjoy the wonders of Oregon's Fern Ridge Reservoir. Mat added several life birds while his son was busy exploring things a little closer to the ground. In this day and age, an appreciation of the natural world is high on the list of values many parents hope to instill in their children. (photo by Dave Irons using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ8)

After four-plus decades of birding, I've assimilated enough bird-related factoids to be considered an expert by most other birders. Perhaps surprisingly, when I ponder what I know about bird identification, vocalizations, and life histories, I am hard-pressed to come up with any piece of information that I discovered on my own. It is for this reason that I feel a sense of obligation to “pass it forward” when I'm in the company of less-experienced birders. Invariably, such folks are surprised that “expert” birders willingly share ID tips, directions to rare or hard to find birds, or offer assistance in the search for a particular species that would be a lifer for the neophyte. Many new birders mistakenly presume that expert birders are self-taught, or that there is some trial by ordeal a birder must go through in order to attain such expertise. This is not the case. Simply ask for help and you are likely to get more than you could have imagined.

My approach to mentoring is hardly unique within the birding community. In fact, I cannot recall ever meeting an expert birder who treated their wealth of knowledge like it was a trade secret. I have benefited from thousands of exchanges of information with hundreds of other birders. On occasion my mentoring efforts come full circle and I learn something new from a birder who I helped along when they were first getting started.

The name Ludlow Griscom is likely unfamiliar to many reading this blog. Yet, Griscom is generally acknowledged as the first birder who could reliably identify most of the birds he encountered by sight. He recognized that most species of birds present “field marks” -- combinations of plumage and physical characteristics -- which allow them to be identified on sight. Prior to Griscom, ornithologists eschewed sight records. They dealt in shotgun identification, thus only specimen-supported records were published. Griscom was a protégé of Frank Chapman, who in 1900 conducted the first Christmas Bird Count.

As a luminary in the Linnean Society of New York (founded in 1878 and still in existence) during the 1920's, Griscom met and mentored a young Roger Tory Peterson. As we all know, Peterson would eventually use his artistic skills and what he learned from Griscom to publish his landmark field guide in 1934. Peterson's field guide system provided the foundation for the modern field guides we use today. In some small way Peterson has mentored us all.

Kenn Kaufman is among the legions birders from my generation who were both influenced and inspired by Roger Tory Peterson. In chapter one of his book “Kingbird Highway,” which is recommended reading for any birder, Kaufman writes that Peterson was his “hero” and that he read and re-read his Peterson field guide on a nightly basis. Kaufman ultimately authored his own field guide, wherein he continues to pass forward lessons that trace back to Griscom and perhaps beyond. In the preface of “Kingbird Highway” Kaufman discusses how the modern sport of “birding” evolved in the early 1970's and how it was driven by a group of birders who all seemed to have some connection to these earliest mentoring lineages.

I believe that we have reached the next crossroad. Various electronic media, most notably the Internet, allow us to share what we have learned at a rate few could have anticipated even two decades ago. As we develop BirdFellow, we will embrace this long tradition of mentoring and do all in our power to build networks and connections between expert birders and those whose birding experiences can be enriched through access to their expertise.

If you want to learn more about the famous birders discussed above, I recommend reading the following books:

Dean of the Birdwatchers: A Biography of Ludlow Griscom, by William Davis 1994.

Kingbird Highway: The Story of an Obsession That Got A Little Out of Hand, by Kenn Kaufman 1997.


Congratulations on the launching of a great site for birders. I look forward to reading your blogs and seeing the website develop over time. Having this resource is much needed. I have had the benefit of many mentors during my 50 years of active birding, and you are absolutely right about how generous birders are with their knowledge.


Thanks for passing on all of the historical connections information! It looks like BirdFellow will be a great resource for many. I didn’t know you had such a knack for writing. I’ll check in again soon and, if i see any unusual species, I’ll let you know.


Irons gives a righteous nod to Those Who Came Before. Reminds me of the story of “Beethoven’s kiss,” an honoring peck passed on down the mentoring line through the ages among pianists. Someone had to be first to ID a female Cape May Warbler in a treetop without blasticating it. Someone had to be first to build a compelling case for distinguishing a Yellow-bellied Flyke in the field in California. And everyone “gets” Lincoln’s Sparrow for the first time. Times change, but we need to remember how the chain of learning works. Dave has become among the important mentors in Oregon birding and, as such, is merely passing along what he has learned to others. Much in birding does ultimately involve some manner of “reinventing the wheel,” but having a picture of a thin disc with an axle in the center helps. I look forward to much more.

David Fix
Arcata, California
Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion
Marbled Murrelets surveyed,
also lawns mowed. hey


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