On the centennial of Roger Tory Peterson’s birth, most of the attention will center on his classic field guides. But a protégé and friend also celebrates him as a temperate activist who inspired generations of birders and naturalists to protect the creatures they watched.
August marks the centennial of the birth of a man who helped to change the ways humans relate to birds and to the rest of the natural world. Roger Tory Peterson’s genius was making natural history accessible and understandable to the general public. This talent brought him considerable success as a young man. Ironically, it also brought him angst and consternation in his later years, when he was sometimes treated with disrespect by the very community of birdwatchers he had helped to develop.
I know this firsthand. Getting started as a crazed little-kid birder in the 1960s, I idolized Peterson, who was then the world’s best-known bird expert. I read and virtually memorized all of his books and magazine articles I could find. But by the 1970s, as a teenager, I was part of a growing cadre of “extreme birders” who worked to recognize Empidonax flycatchers, immature gulls, and other birds treated as impossible to identify in Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. And in 1980, when the fourth edition of that book was published, I was a vocal critic. As always, the book was superb for beginning birders—for the people who really needed field guides—but it wasn’t designed for the serious, hard-core birders like my friends and me.
So I wrote a review. With all the smug know-it-allness of a 25-year-old, I went on about all the details that were missing from Peterson’s bird guide. It was a caustic review, oh so clever in its wording. It never dawned on me that the great man would actually read it.
But he did. And I was mortified to learn that he was genuinely hurt by this sharp critique from a former fan. How did Roger Tory Peterson respond to this attack? Did he lash out in retaliation? Hardly. He wrote to me about his next project, revising the western edition of his field guide: “What I plan to do now is to take advantage of anything valid amongst the criticisms. I would welcome the opportunity to show some of the maps and plates to you.” After a couple of years of cordial correspondence between us, he arranged for me to write and illustrate a book in his own Peterson Field Guide series. It was to be an “expert” guide with details on the most-difficult-to-identify birds, like female hummingbirds and fall warblers, the very details I claimed he had omitted from his most recent book. As I struggled for six years with the challenge of producing the Field Guide to Advanced Birding, with constant coaching and advice and information from Peterson himself, I found myself more and more in awe of the man I had so casually criticized. And I realized that I was not the first to underestimate Peterson. Neither would I be the last.
Almost every account of Peterson’s life stresses the same theme: the overnight success of his first Field Guide to the Birds, which was published in 1934, when he was only 26. In an era when books on bird identification were mostly dry tomes with exhaustive detail, young Roger developed a little masterpiece that boiled everything down to basic descriptions and simple drawings. It was a daring shortcut, bypassing all the technical points of ornithology to zero in on the bird as it appeared at a distance. Four New York publishers turned the book down cold before Houghton Mifflin Company, of Boston, cautiously agreed to print 2,000 copies, warning the author that he would receive no royalties on the first thousand sold. But the book was an immediate sensation. That first printing sold out in weeks, and the publisher scrambled for months to keep orders filled. The book has been in print ever since, and today sales of various editions of Peterson’s bird guides run to more than seven million copies.
Americans in the 21st century seem obsessed with instant-success stories, whether they involve the college kid becoming a dot-com millionaire or the waitress winning American Idol, and that may explain why there remains such interest today in Peterson’s breakthrough. This view has tended to obscure the importance of all his accomplishments after 1934. Among active birders—the people who should respect Peterson the most—there is a general sense that he was some old guy who died in the 1990s and who had written a successful bird book a long, long time ago. One recent blogger even sneered that Peterson had spent most of his life coasting on the success of his first book—a bizarrely uninformed claim about a man who was, by any measure, a workaholic until the day he died. But the fact that anyone could even make such an error reflects a lack of appreciation for all that Peterson did.
We could view him as an author who wrote two dozen books and hundreds of magazine articles; as an editor whose field guide series eventually grew to more than 50 titles, covering everything from fish to ferns; as an artist who painted thousands of illustrations and hundreds of fine art paintings of nature; and as a photographer, filmmaker, traveler, teacher, public speaker, and (always) an expert on birds and nature.
But I want to focus on one area that is often overlooked: his influence as an environmentalist. Not many would think of him in this role. It’s true that Peterson was rarely an activist. But throughout his career, his books and articles and public lectures were illuminated by a deep understanding of environmental principles. In subtle ways he brought generations of birders and naturalists to accept responsibility for the survival of the creatures they watched. Most young naturalists who got their start between the 1940s and the 1980s were fans of his, devouring everything he wrote and taking it to heart. As a result, we grew up with the unshakable belief that naturalists must be devoted conservationists, and vice versa.
Birds Over America, published in 1948, shows Peterson’s breadth as an environmental birder. A sweeping account of birds and birdwatching on the North American continent, it managed to pack in a remarkable number of ecological concepts and environmental issues. It discussed the mutual interests of all living things, the roles of hunters and farmers in conservation, the protection of endangered species, the importance of certain habitats. “Today all marsh birds, not waterfowl alone, are in the red. Every day plans are made somewhere in this country to drain a lake, a swamp, or a marsh,” he wrote. Fourteen years before the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 20 years before Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, Peterson’s Birds Over America touched on the themes of those books. It devoted a whole chapter to the problem of invasive species, long before this became a hot topic among naturalists. But it had optimistic messages as well: “More birds have adapted to a changing world than have failed. I have never, in all my years of birding, seen a chimney swift nesting in the old-fashioned way, in a hollow tree. Most phoebes today use bridges or rafters. Only a few still favor rocky ledges.” Birds Over America showed Peterson to be ahead of his time as an environmentalist, and those who read it were pulled along, gently, to a greater awareness of their world.
His subsequent projects echoed similar sentiments. Wildlife in Color (1951) was ostensibly a book of nature images, but the text comprised a masterful short course in habitat conservation. Coauthored with James Fisher, Wild America (1956) explored conservation on a continental scale, and The World of Birds (1964), also coauthored with Fisher, did so on a global one. His films on the wildlife of North America, Europe, Africa, and the Galápagos were presented in public lectures as pleas for the protection of natural habitats. His column in Audubon, “A Bird’s Eye View,” published throughout the 1950s, often sounded the same theme. A literate person with an interest in nature hardly could have avoided running across some version of Peterson’s message (as he wrote in Wildlife in Color ) that “our world is ‘one world,’ where everything is interdependent—soil, robins, and hickory trees—brook trout, damselflies, and mink—and men.”
Considering his lack of formal training in biology, Roger Peterson might have seemed unlikely to become a leader in bird study or conservation. He grew into that role for a variety of reasons, including his personal history with the National Audubon Society.
Growing up in Jamestown, New York, young Roger distinguished himself mostly as a troublemaker—until his seventh-grade teacher started a Junior Audubon Club, passing out the Society’s little leaflets about birds to the class. Captivated, the boy channeled his troublesome energy into the pursuit of birds and nature, which occupied the rest of his life. He believed he couldn’t make a living as a naturalist, so he took art classes in New York City and then taught at a private school in Massachusetts until, at the age of 26, his field guide catapulted him to fame. At that point National Audubon hired him to direct its educational programs. He did so for eight years, working alongside some of the finest ornithologists and conservationists of that era, while his worldview matured.
When the hard-driving John H. Baker came in as the new leader of Audubon in 1934, he brought a major focus on education to the Society because, he felt, people who were interested in birds and who knew something about them would be far more likely to support conservation. Right off the bat he hired Roger Tory Peterson, a young man who had already demonstrated an ability to create public interest in birds. So from the beginning of Peterson’s career at Audubon, he was operating under the premise that recruiting new naturalists was a contribution to the conservation cause.
One of the young education director’s tasks was to revise the Junior Audubon leaflets about birds that had sparked his own interest some 15 years earlier. But that was just the beginning. During his first four years at Audubon, Peterson wrote and illustrated more than 60 of these leaflets for students, as well as nine teachers’ guides to accompany them. He was involved in the founding of the first Audubon Camp, an educational facility on Hog Island, Maine, and served as the first ornithology instructor when it opened in 1936. He delivered scores of public lectures and radio addresses. Above all, perhaps, he served as a major contributor and de facto art director for Bird-Lore, the precursor to what would become Audubon magazine in 1941. His articles, well informed and engaging, and his accurate, lively illustrations helped set the tone for Audubon’s communication with the public.
In working on the magazine, the education director was being educated himself, because the editor of Bird-Lore at that time was William Vogt. The two had been birding companions several years earlier, during Peterson’s days as an art student in New York. In fact, Vogt had suggested the idea of the field guide and then had helped find a publisher for it. But now, as they worked together at Audubon with a focus on conservation, Vogt undoubtedly influenced Peterson in other ways. Although Vogt never lost his interest in birds, he left Audubon after three years and went on to address broader environmental concerns. He was among the first to openly discuss the effects of human population growth on the environment, and his Road to Survival (1948) became the best-selling environmental book prior to Silent Spring. Peterson’s own awareness of population issues, undoubtedly learned partly from Vogt, inspired many of his writings from the 1940s onward.
Partly by chance, Peterson was among the first to sound the alarm about DDT and other persistent pesticides. In the U.S. Army during World War II, he was assigned to take part in studies of DDT, but the applications were so light on the test plots that the pesticide’s impacts on birds were not immediately obvious. A decade later, in the mid-1950s, when he and his wife, Barbara, moved to Connecticut, they began studying the ospreys that nested near their home—and found they were having disastrous breeding seasons. At first the Petersons had no idea what the problem might be, but analysis of eggs that failed to hatch revealed high concentrations of DDT. Roger became a highly visible spokesman on the issue. At a Senate subcommittee hearing in 1964, he testified about the dynamics of insect populations, natural controls, and the long-term effects of pesticides on birds and other wildlife: “These residual effects are much more subtle and sinister than the immediate results of spraying. All compounds of the chlorinated hydrocarbon complex [must] be banned.” In this period he came closest to being a genuine activist. His friendship with Rachel Carson dated back to at least 1950, and although there is no evidence he influenced her decision to write Silent Spring, she began active research for the book at about the same time the Petersons implicated DDT in the decline of their local osprey populations.
In later years Peterson took on specific causes around the world, from promoting the creation of national parks in Africa to opposing the construction of a military base on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. But late in his life he went back to revising and updating his field guides. And in the end, Peterson’s impact, too, comes back to the field guides, and to the legions of amateurs who took these books outdoors to learn about nature firsthand.
Roger Tory Peterson was never a firebrand environmentalist, but through his gentle style he conveyed a deep passion for the natural world, recruiting a vast army of birders and naturalists who would win their own small victories on a thousand local fronts. Environmental activists, like their counterparts among the hard-core birders, might have questioned his focus on recruiting beginners, but Peterson knew what he was doing. He once said, “The philosophy that I have worked under most of my life is that the serious study of natural history is an activity which has far-reaching effects in every aspect of a person’s life. It ultimately makes people protective of the environment in a very committed way.” Through much of the 20th century Peterson sought to spark people’s interest in nature so that they would work for its future. The emotional connection came first, then understanding, and finally responsibility. His approach is still effective today.
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WHAT YOU CAN DO
The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (on whose board Kenn Kaufman sits) is observing its namesake’s centennial through Teacher Recognition Awards, “recognizing those who are continuing in his footsteps.” The institute, based in Jamestown, New York, is holding a show called “A Lifetime of Birds: Master Wildlife Artist Roger Tory Peterson” from June 22 to October 15. It will include more than 50 Peterson originals—beginning with childhood sketches of birds and ending with field guide art from the fifth edition of A Field Guide to the Birds.