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Bertel Bruun, 73; designed iconic birders’ guidebook

Mr. Bruun’s layout presented a genus or species on two pages. Mr. Bruun’s layout presented a genus or species on two pages. (ruth bruun)
By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times / October 14, 2011

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NEW YORK - Bertel Bruun, a coauthor and designer of a hugely successful guidebook that helped make bird-watching easier for millions of binocular-toting neophytes, died Sept. 21 at his home on Long Island. He was 73.

The cause was heart failure, his son Erik said.

Mr. Bruun, a neurologist and an amateur ornithologist, wrote or helped write more than a dozen books, but none has been more popular than “Birds of North America,’’ part of the Golden Field Guides series. First published in 1966, it became an instant hit with birders (a term they prefer to bird-watchers), and more than 4 million copies have been sold.

The guidebook built on the work of the renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, whose “Field Guide to the Birds’’ (1934) popularized what had been an esoteric interest with a blend of science and evocative prose.

“Birds of North America,’’ written by Mr. Bruun with Chandler Robbins and Herbert Zim and illustrated by Arthur Singer, was a more terse and accessible handbook for those trying to discern whether it was a golden-winged warbler or an eastern wood pewee that had just fluttered away.

“What is compelling about it is its utilitarian simplicity,’’ said Pete Dunne of New Jersey Audubon, an organization independent of the National Audubon Society.

Though Mr. Bruun wrote some of the text, perhaps his biggest contribution was designing a layout that served that simplicity. Whatever the reader needs to know about a genus or a species is presented across two pages. On the right-hand page are vivid illustrations; on the left, the information: distinguishing characteristics, behaviors, habitat, a map showing the season-by-season range across the continent. (A distinguishing characteristic of the eastern wood pewee: “Song is a plaintive, whistled pee-oo-wee, pee-oo.’’)

Mr. Bruun’s layout, though no longer considered unusual, was a breakthrough. In Peterson’s guides, the illustrations (with brief summations) were on one page while the full texts were elsewhere in the book.

After a stroke left him unable to practice medicine, Mr. Bruun moved in 1989 to Long Island.

There he started March of Time, a company that traded in antique toy soldiers - more than 5,000 of which lined his shelves, many posed in battle formations. In 1994 he wrote “Toy Soldiers Identification and Price Guide.’’