Reading the Field Guide

1. Rusty Blackbird
Euphagus carolinus

Rusty only in the fall;
usually suggests a short-tailed Grackle.
Male, spring: A robin-sized blackbird
with a pale yellow eye.
Note, a loud chack.
“Song,” a split creak like a rusty hinge.
River groves, wooded swamps, muskeg.

2. Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Muscivora forvicata

A beautiful bird; pale pearly gray,
with an extremely long scissor-like tail,
usually folded.
Sides and wing linings salmon-pink.
The young bird with a short tail
may suggest Western Kingbird.
Voice: A harsh keck or kew;
a repeated ka-leep;
also shrill kingbirdlike
bickerings and stutterings.
Habitat: Semi-open country,
ranches, farms,

3. Sanderling
Calidris alba

A plump active sandpiper of the outer beaches,
where it chases the retreating waves
like a clockwork toy.
Summer plumage: Bright rusty
about the head, back, and breast.
Winter plumage: The palest sandpiper;
snowy white below, pale gray above
with black shoulders.

4. Black Skimmer
Rhynchops niger

Black above and white below; more slender than a gull,
with extremely long wings.
The bright red bill (tipped with black) is long
and flat vertically; the lower mandible juts
a third beyond the upper.
This coastal species skims low,
dipping its knifelike mandible in the water.
Voice: Soft, short, barking noises.
Also kaup, kaup.

5. Whip-poor-will
Caprimulgus vociferus

A voice in the night woods.
When flushed by day, the bird flits away
on rounded wings like a large brown moth.
Male shows large white tail patches;
in female these are buffish.
Voice: At night, a rolling,
tiresomely repeated whip’ poor-weel’,
or purple-rib, etc.;
accent on first and last syllables.

6. Black Rail
Laterallus jamaicensis

A tiny blackish rail with a small black bill;
about the size of a bobtailed young sparrow.
Nape deep chestnut.
Very difficult to glimpse, but may be flushed
by dragging a rope over the marsh.


Found poetry from Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 4th edition. Some text and italics have been omitted, but nothing has been added.

Field guides are reference books, written to be skimmed. Since the books must be portable, the prose is economical in the extreme. But forced concision can lead to inadvertent poetry, as I think these examples show. (This is another post that began on the Found Poetry forum at Read Write Poem.)

6 Replies to “Reading the Field Guide”

  1. Peculiarly effective. The whip-poor-will is particularly haunting. ‘A voice in the night woods’, ‘…like a large brown moth’.

  2. Dave, these are wonderful examples of the found poetry of field guides. I’ve also always liked the way in which bird songs are so often very accurately described in these guides.

  3. I don’t know if I’m just waking up to it or if it’s a fall mood that’s come over me, or you, but there’s an emptiness/flatness to this and this morning at Morning Porch, a stunning hollowness as if nobody were there and things were happening without the warp of a human witness. Well, obviously, since this is found, you’ve largely left yourself out. There’s no interference in the signal: the loneliness is huge. At Morning Porch, I knit my own flag this morning out of the bars and stripes of land fog and moon that had been left out, un-sewn. It’s as if with the fall season I’ve got to put together a new kit and learn how to forage for myself all over again. It a weird kind of conscription. At Morning Porch it’s Jurassic and here it’s post-apocalyptic. The birds are missing. The book is here but no birds. It’s a bereavement twenty falls late.

  4. One of the things I like about field guides is the misture of objective information and the affective element the writers can’t help thiemselves slipping in… works really well here. Thanks Dave!

  5. Thanks for the comments, y’all. Much appreciated. Bill, I think the emptiness/flatness you sense is simply the dullness of wit that afflicts me in very humid hot weather.

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