Birds of the World / by Justine Lee Hirten

This 1961 book illustrated by Arthur Singer is one of the most striking in my collection. Over 700 species of birds are illustrated in this book, all nestled beautifully around the text starting with its elegant title page.

I’ll apologize ahead of time for my mediocre scanning here, the book is heavy and too large for my scanner with my double page spreads — it was easier to put a bar over the seam rather than try to patch things up, I regret butchering this lovely book.

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This book and A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America are Singer’s best known works, the 1966 field guide is a classic birding reference considered by many to be a better introductory guide for beginners than the more well-known Peterson and Sibley guides. Singer worked as a designer and illustrator in advertising before switching to wildlife subjects and his sensitivity to creating compositions suitable for text layouts without interrupting the flow of the image is surely an echo of his prior training. The illustrations are airy — there are very few full backgrounds but this does not turn it into a static field guide of birds on blankness. The subjects and the bits and pieces of their habitats weave around the page in suspended moments. It is a lot to fit on a page but personally I enjoy the density. The book is packed but it doesn’t feel crowded or overwhelming, for me it feels rich and generous.

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Singer captures feather detail beautifully in a mix of gouache and colored pencil. At the time of this book’s release some critical eyes were underwhelmed with several of his illustrations featuring birds from outside of the US — subjects he had no first-hand experience with and may have had less than perfect specimens or photographs to work from. it’s a reminder of the importance of quality reference material when venturing outside of subjects you have seen first-hand, and further proof that birders and bird appreciators make up one of the most astute audiences around (painfully so, at times). 

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50 years later we see this type of book is practically extinct. The lushly illustrated nature encyclopedias and animal guides of the past are out of vogue either replaced with photography or by online references, but we are grateful for the small boom they had in the 1960s and very excited to see contemporary iterations involving artists such as Owen Davey carrying it on. If you were anything like me as a child you may have dragged heavy tote bags of books like these home from the library and read them strewn open on the floor. Even if none of the written information made any sense to you the impact from the clarity and intimacy of their illustrations may have helped set you on the path to appreciation of nature and inspired the pursuit of drawing as it did for me. Photography will always have its leading role in the nature/wildlife genre and remains a bewilderingly difficult and intense art form in my mind — there’s no griping about photos here, only the hope that we may see more books of this kind in the future. I believe a fresh revival of this format would be very successful at this time. The field of natural science illustration is going through a growth spurt that could manifest new treasures if we are given, or create, the opportunity to do so.

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I’ll finish with this image, perhaps one of the most adorable pages in any of my books! There are plenty of plates for egg identification but not quite so many showing the “after” image front and center, the yawning is an especially perfect touch, and a final reflection of the calm nostalgia I feel after browsing a beautiful wildlife encyclopedia.