Remembering Roger Tory Peterson

Every time you thumb through a field guide to nature, say a little prayer to Roger Tory Peterson, whose path-breaking field guides breathed life into birding

This day in 1908, Roger Tory Peterson was born in Jamestown, New York.

Roger Tory Peterson
Roger Tory Peterson (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Long before any of us here in India had decent field guides to turn to, we were forced by booksellers to familiarize ourselves with the birds of the British Isles and the American countryside. Early amateur birders given to the latter compulsion are therefore forgiven for entering in their trip lists mockingbirds and grackles, cowbirds and roadrunners where chats, prinias, bulbuls and coucals should have been been listed.

I remember some of those field guides, not just bird guides but guides to rocks, insects, mushrooms and fossils. And I think I still own a few, though I seldom turn to them any more. I also remember the logo — a flight silhouette of a broad-winged passerine in a circle emblazoned with the name ‘Peterson Field Guides’. The author, or co-author, was most often Roger Tory Peterson.

For most of my life, that’s all I knew of the man.

And then, somewhere along the way, I read a quote by Peterson that, in its laconic way, summed up his life’s purpose: “I consider myself to have been the bridge between the shotgun and the binoculars in bird watching. Before I came along, the primary way to observe birds was to shoot them and stuff them.”

Recall that even Dr Salim Ali, who authored the first comprehensive layperson’s field guide to Indian birds, wrote without guilt of shooting specimens for study. That, perhaps, was in an era of plenty when ponds teemed with wintering waterfowl and migrating starlings darkened the sky.  Arguably, it was tragedy that converted many Americans to bird-watching. Most saw garden birds up close for the first time when they dropped dead, or twisted in statuesque rigor mortis, poisoned by pesticides that eventually entered the soil and water and claimed human lives. Rachel Carson documented this most terrifying of tragedies in her ground-shaking thesis, Silent Spring.

In 1934, Houghton-Mifflin published Peterson’s first book for bird-watchers, A Field Guide to the Birds. Almost overnight, they dramatically changed the way Americans went out into the field and made birding accessible and simple for the layperson. It is not excessive to say that they set the gold standard. What was really revolutionary about the new field guide was the Peterson Identification System, a field guide design that placed related species together on plates on the basis of size and distinguishing marks. Most field guides the world over continue to use this system, with a few innovations.

When Peterson died in 1996 at the age of 88 he left behind a world enriched by his legacy. Though we remember him best as an artist of birds, he was much more. Educator, conservationist, activist, visionary hobbyist are all titles equally applicable to him. To read more about Peterson, I suggest you get hold of this biography by Douglas Carson. There’s also another biography by Elizabeth J Rosenthal, Birdwatcher – The Life of Roger Tory Peterson.

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