Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bertel Bruun

New York Times obituary

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
This week, I wrote a lengthy blog post looking at how bird field guides have changed over time. I was researching the four men who put together my personal favorite, the Golden Guide, when I noticed in Wikipedia that Bertel Bruun, who coauthored the guide with Chandler Robbins, had died last week, on September 21. I was surprised that the only obituary I could find online was from a Southampton newspaper in which you have to pay to read the article, but Wikipedia had managed to get all the pertinent information.


The Golden Guide was my essential bird identification tool—the book I took everywhere during the entire time of my birding career when I brought a field guide everywhere. [I read every species account in both the Peterson Guide (3rd Edition from 1947) and the Audubon Land Bird and Audubon Water Bird guides for the birds I saw after I got home each day.] [My first copy of the Golden Guide fell apart fairly quickly due to heavy use. I cut out the bird pictures to make flash cards, which my students used a lot and which I still have.] Right as I was becoming confident enough to go out with just a field notebook, wherein I could take notes about any unfamiliar birds I encountered, an updated version of the Peterson Guide, designed specifically to compete with the Golden Guide, and a brand new National Geographic guide, patterned in many ways on the Golden Guide, were being released. At about that time, the second edition of the Golden Guide was released, updating bird names and adding a few important identification details, and that was still the book I brought with me when I did grab for a field guide.

Golden 2nd Cover

The Golden Guide series was all edited by naturalist and educator Herbert Zim. The Golden Guide to birds was illustrated by Arthur Singer, whose beautiful and vivid drawings were both lifelike and well-posed to show off the important field marks. The text was written by one of my personal heroes, Chandler Robbins, an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bertel Bruun.

Dr. Bruun was by profession a neurologist, who conducted research on the neurological impact of heroin on the human brain and served as medical director of the first heroin treatment center in New York City. He later became head of the Columbia Presbyterian stroke center. He was born in occupied Denmark in 1937, and took special pride in the fact that his brother and father were active members of the Danish Resistance.

During his medical career, he was also an active birder who wrote or co-wrote several books, including one about Ducks, Geese, and Swans, several about birds of Europe, and the Common Birds of Egypt, the only field guide strictly focused on that country’s birds.

Dr. Bruun’s passion was using the conservation of wildlife as a bridge for helping advance peace. In the 1970s, he became president of the Holy Land Conservation Fund, a non-profit organization based in New York City that was set up to help support wildlife preservation efforts in Israel. Bruun sought to expand the work in Israel to the fuller mission of advancing conservation in the Middle East. In 1978 he was in Tehran when the Shah of Iran was overthrown. Violent groups who opposed the peace treaty found his work a threat.

He retired as a neurologist in 1989, after suffering a series of strokes. More homebound, he took an interest in toy soldiers and started a small business buying and selling them, and wrote the definitive guide, The Toy Soldiers Identification and Price Guide in 1994. By then he was no longer writing bird books.

The field guide industry now is dominated with books whose authors are named in the very titles of their field guides, such as The Sibley Guide to Birds and The Crossley ID book. No longer are field guide authors allowed by publishing marketers to remain quiet and unassuming people such as Chandler Robbins and Bertel Bruun. But Bertel Bruun’s contributions to birding and ornithology were important, and I feel sad that his passing went unnoticed.