75th Anniversary of First Peterson Guide Approaches

 If a Pacific seabird faced near-extinction due to a flawed U.S. naval decision, you approached this man and he raised the necessary fuss to stop it. If you needed platforms to help New England raptors successfully nest as their numbers mysteriously plummeted, this man arranged for a grant. If the fauna of a fragile, remote atoll in the Indian Ocean were threatened due to military designs of a NATO nation, this man was at the forefront of the cacophony against it. If the “world’s greatest ornithological spectacle,” situated on a lake in East Africa, required preservation, this man ensured its protection.


Published in 2008 to mark the 100th anniversary of Roger Tory Peterson's birth, this biography explores Peterson's extraordinary life through his writings and hundreds of interviews with colleagues, proteges, family, and friends. Kenn Kaufman calls this work, "A wonderful biography, bold and surprising and lively, crackling with the adventures of the man who did more than anyone else to create the modern popularity of birdwatching." (www.petersonbird.com/reviews.html)

If a struggling conservation organization sought to enlighten Americans about the natural world, it hired this man to write and lecture on its behalf. If the average person lacked a portable book that “boiled down” a bird’s field marks to their essentials so that it could be identified without shooting it and examining it in the hand, this man wrote and illustrated such a book. If the world didn’t have enough birdwatchers, this man’s book created the birdwatchers and, thus, an army of conservationists whose numbers grew over decades.

There was a time when one man was the go-to person for any environmental crisis or for more mundane educational efforts. That man was Roger Tory Peterson. When in 1908 he was born in the furniture-manufacturing western New York municipality of Jamestown to working-class, immigrant parents, the fledgling Audubon movement was struggling against the millinery trade, which, for the sake of decorating women’s hats, sponsored the mass killing of birds big and small.  Widespread “egging” by collectors disrupted nesting colonies. Even after millinery and market hunting of most migratory birds in North America had been banned, young boys still felled songbirds with a slingshot, simply because they could. But in 1920, when Roger was nearly 12, he discovered birds, through the wild-eyed, beckoning flight of a waking northern flicker.  Rather than try to kill it, he was smitten, and from then until the day he died on July 28, 1996 at nearly 88, he pursued, explained, and lobbied for birds with his artist’s feel, photographer’s eye, and scientific mind. (Later in adolescence, he mastered butterflies and moths, as well as wildflowers, but birds would remain his utmost passion.)

An embodiment of the American Dream, Roger Tory Peterson rose to the top of his field without earning a single college credit. He sent himself to art school in New York City following his 1925 high school graduation, while immersing himself in avifauna alongside his companions in the Bronx County Bird Club. Upon seeing some of Roger’s patternistic bird drawings, a friend pleaded with him to turn these into a field guide. Finally, 75 years ago, on April 27, 1934, his A Field Guide to the Birds emerged via Houghton Mifflin, dealing a decisive blow to bird-in-the-hand birding. Then a teacher of natural history at the exclusive Rivers School outside Boston, Roger’s fame and acclaim steadily grew; John Baker grabbed the twenty-something youth for the post of education director at what was then called the National Association of Audubon Societies. Roger had mentors, from near and far, of his own – museum scientist Ludlow Griscom, bird portraitist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, author/artist Ernest Thompson Seton, seminal nature photographer Herbert K. Job – but he laid the foundation for modern birding and conservationist thinking, inspiring generations to follow him into the field and learn about and protect what they found. Among his progeny are Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E. O. Wilson, eco-tourism entrepreneur Victor Emanuel, and field guide author David Sibley.  Among his colleagues were the late Yale luminary Charles Remington and brainy British ornithologist James Fisher.

Roger led the way as art director of the National Wildlife Federation; co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund; battler against DDT; and advocate for the Laysan albatross on Midway, the wildlife of Aldabra, the flamingoes of Lake Nakuru, Kenya, and many more birds and animals across the globe. He edited the Peterson Field Guide series as it exploded into dozens of titles.  He wrote and painted until his last day. If he were alive on the occasion of his field guide’s 75th anniversary, he would say the same thing he declared in the Foreword to his Burroughs award-winning 1948 volume, Birds Over America:  “One cannot give a large share of his life to … [birdwatching] without soberly reflecting on the mechanics of the well-integrated world of nature. One inevitably becomes a fervent conservationist.”  And, as one of his earliest benefactors, Boston educator Clarence Allen, once remarked: “Yes, indeed, the birds are glad that Roger came along.”


I enjoyed the article on Roger Tory Peterson. It inspired me to pull out my childhood copy of A Field Guide to Western Birds to enjoy it once again. I spent many hours with this book over the years and continue to do so. I think it is a timeless publication.



Peterson’s Western guide was an eye-opener for me, probably like that first covert Marlboro the future hopeless drug addict smoked behind Jimmy’s house in fifth grade. I spent so much time poring through it the first few months I was birding that my mom used to knock on my bedroom door and tell me to turn the light out because it was one in the morning and I had school the next day. Thanks, Roger, for all the great work you did. Today’s youth with wires sticking out of their brains and checking their fool gadgets every five minutes will be the poorer for their folly. “Huh? ‘Ambient Sound?’ Doood, like, weren’t they a grunge band out of Tacoma?”


I can thank Roger Tory Peterson for launching me into serious birding. I had been using the Golden Guide to 100 Familiar Birds to identify the birds at my kitchen bird feeder. Then a flock of evening grosbeaks arrived and I couldn’t find them in my book. I went to the library and checked out the Eastern Field Guide to the Birds – that was in 1960. I was hooked. With no range maps next to the photos I was forced to learn the AOU order and to check for field marks. Some plates were not even in color. The pneumonics given for bird songs were extremely helpful and serve me well 40 years later. Our local Audubon Society sponsored Audubon Wildlife Films which features a 16 mm film personally narrated by a professional naturalist. My husband chaired the film committee so we got to take the speakers to dinner before the film. We were able to have dinner with Roger Tory Peterson and his wife. It was a great thrill to meet him.


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