Roger Tory Peterson Is Rewriting America's Birding Bible Chapter and Verse
Five years ago the people of Jamestown, N.Y. held a straw ballot to choose the town's most famous son or daughter. One of the losers, by a single vote, was Lucille Ball. The winner was Roger Tory Peterson. The irony could not have been more acute. Though Peterson, 71, is hardly a recluse, his fame hinges not on his public personality, but on an innocuous-looking little book called A Field Guide to the Birds. Known to the cognoscenti simply as Peterson—as in "Quick, look it up in your Peterson"—the 384-page volume has been the bird-watchers' bible for nearly half a century.
First published in 1934, the original field guide, together with the Western U.S. edition that followed, has sold more than three million copies. But sales figures alone cannot begin to explain Peterson's stature among fellow naturalists. Noted birdman James Tucker considers him "the man singularly responsible for the popularization of birding around the world," and estimates there are between 10 and 20 million bird-watchers in the U.S. alone.
Small wonder, then, that a new edition of Peterson is awaited by birders as a signal event. Curiously, the person whose enthusiasm for the project seems most restrained is the author-artist himself. Over a crowded lifetime, in his quest to observe one winged creature or another, Peterson has touched down in all 50 states, 80 foreign countries and both polar regions. In 1953 he and British ornithologist James Fisher set off on a whirlwind 100-day, 30,000-mile North American tour during which they sighted 572 species, a single-year record at the time. Lately, however, with hermit-like dedication, Peterson has been spending up to 15 hours a day at his drawing board, preparing the new bird guide that is due out in the fall.
Comparing the task of revision to a prison sentence—"a kind of penance"—Peterson concedes that he should have started work on the project 10 years ago, but says he was unwilling to cut down on his fieldwork. Moreover, he has been preoccupied since 1974 with turning out gallery-size paintings of birds in the wild. Peterson originals have sold for up to $25,000 at auction, while his limited-edition prints are priced at $150 each. Now there are compelling reasons to get back to the bird guide. "An awful lot of people have grown up on the book," says Peterson, "but so many years have passed that it's not just historic, it's almost prehistoric."
In truth, the world of birds has changed significantly since Peterson's guide was last revised 33 years ago. Some migrating species have extended their range. The mockingbird, for example, was once uncommon outside the South and Midwest, but now winters as far north as Canada. The rare ivory-billed woodpecker—which Peterson spotted in backwoods Louisiana in 1941—is believed to have vanished into extinction. Other, more familiar birds are no longer distinguishable as individual species. Several years ago, for example, scientists concluded that the Baltimore oriole in the East and the Bullock's oriole in the West were, in effect, one species. Consequently both are known, to purists if not to sentimentalists, as the prosaically renamed northern oriole.
Other changes, too, have prodded Peterson back to his studio. While the Eastern and Western editions of his guide sell 140,000 copies a year, a rival, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, published in 1977 with photographs instead of paintings, has already sold 750,000. An older competitor put out by Golden Press, the 14-year-old Birds of North America, sells 250,000 annually. Beneath Peterson's placid exterior, the competitive juices are sluicing.
Though Peterson protests being chained to the drawing board, his confinement is cheerful. His green-shingled studio, a converted carriage house on the grounds of his home in south-central Connecticut, sits amid 70 acres of oaks and evergreens. Inside, a stereo murmurs background music, while titmice and chickadees feed outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Casually dressed in a turtleneck and corduroy slacks, Peterson perches on a stool surrounded by three easels holding paintings in various stages of completion. To check on the accuracy of colors and markings, he refers to a tray of "museum skins"—cotton-stuffed specimens from his personal collection of 2,000 birds. Near at hand are some 100,000 carefully catalogued color slides, all from photographs by the artist himself.
Peterson is equally methodical when dealing with text. Each written entry in the new guide, after going through a minimum of five revisions, is numbered and hung from a peg-board. The book has been reorganized and color maps included to show the range of each species. In addition, the new book will contain twice as many picture plates as the current one and for the first time all will be in color. Peterson will deliver the last few paintings to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, next month and is filled with pride and relief. "It's been a real albatross around my neck," he says, "but the new edition will be a far better book."
Hailed today as a world-famous naturalist, Peterson was once regarded as a juvenile troublemaker who rolled garbage cans down the streets of his upstate New York hometown. Then his seventh-grade teacher formed a Junior Audubon Club, and the boy's imagination was caught. Entranced by the boundless vitality of birds—what he calls "their seeming embodiment of being alive"—he arranged his paper route around the best birding spots and saved his money to buy a box camera. He hung bird feeders in the nearby woods and on snowy days skied out to fill them. In summer he studied wild flowers and trees and at night, with a gossamer net, pursued luna moths through a local cemetery. "You can't make a living doing that sort of thing," Peterson was warned by his father, a cabinetmaker. But his mother was sympathetic, even allowing him to raise 800 pipevine swallowtail caterpillars in her living room one summer. His school companions called him "Bugs" or "Nuts." "I was," he concedes, "a little bit of an oddball."
Graduating from high school, Peterson moved to New York to study art, first at the Art Students League and later at the National Academy of Design. He supported himself by painting decorations on furniture and spent every spare moment on birding expeditions to Central Park, Jones Beach and the far reaches of the Bronx. Then, in 1931, he took a job teaching art and natural history at the Rivers School in Brookline, Mass. One of his pupils was Elliot Richardson, the future Attorney General. "He had the great ability," says Richardson, "to inspire enthusiasm in others for the things that inspired him."
It was during his three years at Rivers that Peterson began painting birds for a field guide. Once, birdmen had been able to identify species in the field only by shooting them and examining their carcasses. Peterson, inspired by the noted ornithologist Ludlow Griscom, believed in identification by relying on "field marks"—distinctive coloring or physical features that could be seen through binoculars without harming the birds. He also had a phenomenal ear for birdsong. A Harvard scientist once tested Peterson's hearing and declared it the most acute he had ever encountered. "I still rely on my hearing for at least 90 percent of my fieldwork," says Peterson. "As you get older you're supposed to lose your high registry, but it hasn't happened to me yet and I don't think it will." As a young man, he recalls, he used to take his dates to the movies, close his eyes and listen for birds on the sound track.
Publishers were intrigued by Peterson's ideas, but doubted there was a market for bird books during the Depression. Five companies rejected his field guide before Houghton Mifflin agreed to a modest printing of 2,000 copies. To the company's amazement, they sold out in a week. Since then, as author, editor, illustrator or contributor, Peterson has lent his name to more than 100 titles, including the 25-volume Peterson Field Guide Series of nature books. Other nature writers regard his name in their books as a kind of imprimatur, and Peterson is glad to oblige. "The only person who's written more forewords than I have," he says, "is Prince Philip."
Twice divorced—after marriages of seven years to socialite Mildred Washington and 32 years to secretary Barbara Coulter—Peterson has been married since 1976 to Virginia Westervelt Peterson, 53. (He has two children, both by his second marriage: Tory, 34, a Hartford, Conn. stockbroker, and Lee, 31, a wilderness survival expert who is author of A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants.) Vigilantly protective, Mrs. Peterson, a chemist by training, joins her husband for a two-mile jog every morning, drew the maps for his new guide and shepherds him gently through a maze of social commitments. Notoriously absentminded, Peterson once wandered off from a dinner party in his honor. Friends found him sitting on some rocks not far from the house, listening to the cries of gulls in the dark.
Grateful for his wife's help—"There's complete rapport and sympathy between us," he says; "we're a team"—Peterson is already planning their next globe-trotting ventures. He would like to visit China and the Soviet Union and to see the birds of paradise in New Guinea. Before that, however, he plans to carry out a personal mission. Of some 650 species of birds believed to nest in the U.S. and Canada, Peterson has seen all but two—the extremely rare Bachman's warbler and the lesser prairie chicken, common to parts of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Next year, he vows, the prairie chicken will be struck from the list.
Given Peterson's single-minded-ness, it seems unlikely that even the warbler can elude him much longer. Once, on a visit to France shortly after World War II, he followed a flock of sandpipers into a minefield, oblivious to the danger until brought up short by the corpse of a cow. British nature photographer Hosking remembers a trip he took to the Hilbre Islands off the west coast of England to study shorebirds with Peterson and several companions. One of the group was Lord Alanbrooke, Winston Churchill's Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who held them all spellbound one evening. He was recalling a dramatic confrontation during the war between a table-pounding Churchill and a fist-shaking Joseph Stalin as the two men argued strategy over a bottle of vodka. Most of the birdmen were hanging on every word, but Peterson's eyes seemed to glaze over. When Alanbrooke finished, there was silence. Then Peterson spoke. "Y'know," he said, "I guess these oyster catchers eat most any mollusk."
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