Monday, December 17, 2007

Birding Tipping Point

Originally coined as a sociological term in the 1960s, “tipping point” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling 2007 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

One such “little thing” that turned the art of birding, or birdwatching (as it was known in the early decades of the 20th century), on its head was described thusly by Scott Weidensaul in his 2007 book, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding:
All his life, [Roger Tory] Peterson made a point of crediting those whose encouragement and ideas were crucial to his development as a birder and a field guide author. At the head of the line stood Blanche Hornbeck.

Although she only taught in the Jamestown, New York, schools for a single year, beginning in the fall of 1919, the pretty, red-haired Miss Hornbeck changed young Roger’s life. He’d always been interested in nature, but when Miss Hornbeck started a Junior Audubon Club in her class, distributing the illustrated leaflets from the National Association of Audubon Societies, Roger Peterson fell hard for birds.
And the rest, as they say, is history.

Peterson himself described Hornbeck’s influence in a 1996 article in International Wildlife (excerpt):
Had it not been for Blanche Hornbeck, my seventh-grade teacher in Jamestown, New York, my life probably would have gone in a different direction. Who knows? She was a red-haired lady of about 30; I was a rebellious kid of 11.

She started a Junior Audubon Club. Students paid a dime to join, for which we received a button with a Red-winged Blackbird [Agelaius phoeniceus] on it and 10 leaflets, each with a colorplate of a different bird and an accompanying outline to be colored in with crayon. Miss Hornbeck decided this was not the way to learn to draw, so the next day she gave each of us a little box of watercolors and a colorplate by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the leading bird illustrators of his day, from his portfolios of the birds of New York. She gave me the Blue Jay [Cyanocitta cristata], which I copied with care.

Our efforts were put up on the blackboard. I thought I did pretty well, but my Blue Jay was credited to Edith, the girls who sat across the aisle. Discovering my distress, Miss Hornbeck soon put things right. The Blue Jay will always rank among my favorites because it was the first bird I drew.
In his 2007 biography, Roger Tory Peterson, Douglas Carlson writes of Miss Hornbeck’s lasting influence on Peterson:
Peterson and Miss Hornbeck would rediscover each other in an exchange that clearly reveals his sincerity concerning the importance of the Junior Audubon Club and provides a rather touching footnote to the story. In 1950, Miss Hornbeck read a magazine profile of Peterson in which he acknowledged his debt to her. She wrote him enthusiastically to say that she had discovered “that a former pupil was the great and honored Roger Peterson! My joy and satisfaction in your wonderful achievement is unlimited and I am more happy than I can tell you to have played some small part in helping you to discover your life’s work.” She remembered a rainy morning bird walk when she expressed surprise that anyone came. “I can still hear you say, ‘You can count on me, no matter what the weather.’” Peterson sent her two inscribed books, including his collection of birding recollections, Birds over America, which prompted her to write about her joy in “participating vicariously in events which I would like to have had.” Peterson continued to send books to her until he learned of her death.
How many of todays birders have had similar, if not quite so dramatic, tipping-point moments as children: a seemingly uneventful learning moment with a teacher, a fleeting encounter with an adult mentor, or perhaps an influential book that caused them to be turned on by birds? We all owe a collective debt of gratitude to the unsung Blanche Hornbeck's of the world.


Blogger Imagesmith said...

I am glad I stumbled across your blog, I'm a birder & post a few photos now and again of birds. You are a great resource for me.

December 18, 2007 6:55 PM  

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