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Retrospective
Timeline: Roger Tory Peterson
August 2008 marks the centennial of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson, a prolific birder and author of multiple field guides. Below are a few highlights from his inspiring career.

 

1908–1926

1908: Roger Tory Peterson is born on August 28 in Jamestown, New York.

1915: Peterson starts attending the Junior Audubon Club, run by his seventh-grade teacher, Ms. Hornbeck.

1919: Peterson goes on a field trip that he later describes as hugely influential. He writes, “We came across a flicker, just a few feet off the ground on the trunk of a tree. Its head was tucked under its wing coverts. It was probably exhausted from migration, but we thought it was dead. We stood and started at for a while, examining its beautiful plumage. When I reached out to touch its back it exploded with life—a stunning sight, flying away with its golden underwings and the red crescent on its nape—I can see it now—the way it was transformed from what we thought was death into intense life. I was tremendously excited with the feeling which I have carried ever since, of the intensity of a bird’s life, and its apparent freedom, with this wonderful ability to fly.”

1924: A number of young people cofound the Bronx County Bird Club, a group that Peterson joins after he moves to New York.

1925: Peterson attends his first American Ornithologists’ Union convention.

1925: At age 16, Peterson graduates from Jamestown High School.

1925: Peterson supports himself by painting furniture at the Union National Furniture Company over the summer. 

 

1926–1934

1926: Peterson moves to New York City.

1927: Peterson enrolls in the Art Students League.

1927: On a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, Peterson meets with ornithologist Arthur Trezevant Wayne.

1928: Peterson submits some charcoal sketches for acceptance into the National Academy of Design and is accepted for the fall semester.

1929: Bird-Lore publishes Peterson’s first article, titled “Warbler Ways.”

1929: On Stony Lake in Michigan, Peterson begins his teaching career as a nature study instructor at a YMCA camp.

1930: Over the summer, Peterson works at Camp Chewonki in Maine, to which he returns as a counselor for the next five years. The president of the Chewonki Foundation, the nonprofit that resulted from the camp, credits Audubon with defining the camp’s mission.

1930: Peterson writes his first conservation articles in the New York State Bulletin, in April.

1931: Clarence Allen hires Peterson as a natural history and art teacher at Rivers School in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

1932: Peterson writes his sister to ask her to type up an article titled “Half a Mile Away,” which Nature later publishes.

1933: Peterson exhibits field guide plates and paintings at the American Ornithologists’ Union and sells four of them.

 

1934–1942

1934: After four publishing companies turned down Peterson’s field guide proposal, Houghton Mifflin decides to take the project on and prints two thousand copies of Field Guide to the Birds. All the books from the first printing sell out within a week.

1934: The National Association of Audubon Societies hires Peterson as the director of education and art director of their publication, then called Bird-Lore.

1935: Peterson is tasked with setting up the Audubon Nature Camp on Hog Island in Muscongus Bay, Maine.

1936: The first summer the Audubon camp opens on Hog Island, Peterson serves as the bird instructor.

1936: Peterson meets and marries his first wife, Mildred Washington.

1938: While working for the National Association of Audubon Societies, Peterson writes Junior Audubon leaflets and an essay to introduce them titled “How Should Nature Be Taught.”

1938: After four years at Audubon, Peterson reports his accomplishments, which include 100 lectures in 18 states, 75 radio broadcasts, 62 new Junior Audubon leaflets, 9 teacher guides, 480 paintings, drawings, and illustrations for Bird-Lore.

1938: Houghton Mifflin publish Peterson’s The Junior Book of Birds.

1939: Peterson completes the first of six revised editions of the eastern version of Field Guide to the Birds.

1939: National Wildlife Publishing Corporation publishes a series of postcards painted by Peterson.

1939: Life magazine begins to publish Peterson’s paintings, including an image of an osprey with outspread wings on a pitch pine branch.

1941: Houghton Mifflin publishes Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds.

1941: Houghton Mifflin publishes The Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds, a book that Peterson co-authored with John H. Baker.

1941: Houghton Mifflin publishes the second revision of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

 

1942–1953

1942: Peterson leaves Audubon.

1942: Peterson’s wife, Mildred Washington, files for divorce.

1943: Peterson is inducted into the army. 

1943: Peterson marries Barbara Coulter.

1943: After six months of training, the army assigns Peterson to engineering school.

1944: The army excuses Peterson from leaving the country, considering his artistic ability to be a “rare skill so he would not be useful overseas.”

1944: Peterson wins the Brewster memorial Award for Nature Writing.

1945: The army transfers Peterson to Orlando, Florida, where he serves in the Air Corps. There he does work testing DDT on five-acre test plots. In his final report he writes,“By using this dangerous poison widely, before we know more about its properties, we run the risk of turning our world into a biological desert.”

1945: Peterson is discharged from the Army.

1947: Houghton Mifflin publishes Peterson’s third revision to Field Guide to the Birds.

1948: Dodd, Mead and Company publish Peterson’s Birds Over America.

1949: Houghton Mifflin publishes Peterson’s How to Know the Birds.

1949: Peterson begins the Peterson Field Guide Series, which will grow include more than 50 titles.

1950: Peterson writes an article about his teacher, Ms. Hornbeck, discussing her influence in his interest in nature.

1950: Peterson receives the John Burroughs Medal for nature writing for Birds Over America, which includes photographs taken with his 4x5 revolving-back Auto Graflex.

1951: Houghton Mifflin publishes Wildlife in Color, a collection of 450 wildlife portraits.

1952: Audubon magazine begins to publish a column titled “Roger Tory Peterson’s Bird’s-Eye View,” which runs until 1962.

 

1954–1974

1955: Houghton Mifflin publishes Wild America, a book Peterson coauthored with James Fisher.

1957: Harcourt Brace publishes The Bird Watcher’s Anthology, edited by Peterson.

1960: Peterson makes a silent film titled Wild Europe.

1961: Houghton Mifflin publishes the first revision of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds.

1964: Senator Abraham Ribicoff asks Peterson to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations about the damaging effects of pesticides.

1964: Doubleday publishes The World of Birds, a book Peterson coauthored with James Fisher.

1967: Peterson completes Wild Eden, a film about the Galapagos.

1968: Peterson writes an article in Audubon Magazine, titled “A Plea for a Magic Land,” about protecting an atoll in the Indian Ocean from a proposed military base.

1971: In the first issue of International Wildlife, Peterson has a travel story “How I Photographed All the Flamingos in the World.” The magazine names him “roving editor” later that year.

1972: The government bans DDT.

1972: Peterson makes the film Wild Africa.

 

1974–1980

1975: The National Wildlife Federation inducts Peterson into its Conservation Hall of Fame.

1976: For its annual award, the Cosmos Club selects Peterson, whom it nominated as both an artist and an ornithologist.

1976: After 32 years, Peterson and his wife, Barbara Coulter, divorce. One month later he marries Virginia Marie Westervelt.

1976: Peterson completes gallery paintings, including two snowy owls in the Arctic and a golden eagle in the west.

1976: Between now and 1978, Mill Pond publishes 17 of Peterson’s lithographs of full-size bird portraits.

1977: Peterson is given the Alger Award for emerging from poverty and deprivation as a child.

1978: The National Audubon Society publishes Birds of America.

1978: The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum awards Peterson the Master Wildlife Artist award.

 

1980–1996

1980: Houghton Mifflin publish the fourth revision of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

1980: President Jimmy Carter awards Peterson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

1990: Houghton Mifflin publishes the second revision of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds.

1993: With the help of Peterson, Paul Benke establishes the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York.

1994: Houghton Mifflin publishes the fifth revision of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

1996: In late summer Roger Tory Peterson passes away.

2002: Houghton Mifflin publishes the most recent edition of Field Guide to the Birds.

 

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