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Peterson, Roger Tory (1908 – 1996) American Ornithologist

Roger Tory Peterson (1908 1996)
American ornithologist

A small book, tucked away in innumerable back-packs and car pockets, ever ready to hand for perhaps the majority of birders in the United States, is quite likely to be Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, first published in 1934, revised and reissued several times, and still a must-have for many bird-watchers, serious or otherwise. In 1941 it was joined by a companion volume, A Field Guide to Western Birds. Together, the two guides (the first rejected by four publishers before Houghton Mifflin finally accepted it) have sold on the order of seven million copies by 1997. The critic William Zinser suggested that Peterson's Field Guide was "the single most revolutionary development in American birding." He was the first to introduce simplified, comparative drawings and to point out key field marks (distinguishing characteristics) that help identification in the field. Later critics judged Peterson harshly for his last revision of the Guide as "not knowing much about contemporary identification skills." But the revolutionary importance of the Guides lies in the number of people they have "turned on" to birds and to birding; they still sell, and are still used by birders at every level.

The man who has been called the modern successor to John James Audubon was born in Jamestown, New York, of a Swedish immigrant father and a German immigrant mother. Reportedly a loner, a boy considered strange by other children, Peterson came out of his shell when one of his teachers started a Junior Audubon Club. Birds became a passion for the eleven-year old, and he sought a job as a newspaper delivery boy so that he could buy a camera to photograph birds. Some seven decades later, he was still making pictures of birds. The prescient caption under his photograph in his high school yearbook read "Woods! Birds! Flowers! Here are the makings of a great naturalist."

Peterson studied art rather than ornithology, and he considered himself first a painter, then a writer, and only third a naturalist. Yet such was his reputation and standing among people interested in natural history that the New York Times could announce his death as that of "the best-known ornithologist of the twentieth century." Because his work reached so many people, because it helped them become involved in knowing more about the world around them, and because it inspired them to actually get out in the field and get involved, Peterson might even deserve Sports Afield's label of "the twentieth century's most influential naturalist." Academically trained or not, he spent his lifetime doing ornithology, i.e., studying birds, and in getting other people to join in that passion. His guides provided clear access to bird identification, even for the most rank amateur. Along with his many awards for art, he was also honored as a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was bestowed with the Linné gold medal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

After art school, he taught at a boys' school in Massachusetts. The success of the first field guide allowed him to return to New York to a position as an educational specialist and art editor for Audubon Magazine. He remained associated with the National Audubon Society for the rest of his professional life, serving in various capacities as artist, writer, secretary, and two different terms as director.

His passion for nature centered on birds, certainly, but he also was enthusiastic for all of the natural world, worked on many fronts to protect its diversity, and became an advocate for and teacher about managing the environment wisely. For example, he and his wife shared a love of flowers, and created and maintained butterfly gardens; one of his best known field guides is for wildflowers. All told, he published almost 50 books, including his edition of Audubon's Birds of America, and wrote many articles on birds as well as on other topics in conservation and management of gardens and wildlands.

As stated in a New York Times editorial, Peterson did indeed become "a great naturalist and more. He was one of the pioneers in teaching twentieth-century Americans to walk more gently on their land."

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Devlin, J. C., and G. Naismith. The World of Roger Tory Peterson: an Authorized Biography. New York: New York Times Books, 1977.

Peterson, R. T., and R. Hoglund, eds. Roger Tory Peterson; Art and Photography from the World's Foremost Birder. New York: Rizzoli, 1994.

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"Peterson, Roger Tory (1908 – 1996) American Ornithologist." Environmental Encyclopedia. . 22 Nov. 2017 <>.

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"Peterson, Roger Tory (1908 – 1996) American Ornithologist." Environmental Encyclopedia. . Retrieved November 22, 2017 from

Peterson, Roger Tory

Roger Tory Peterson, 1908–96, American ornithologist, writer, and illustrator, b. Jamestown, N.Y. He became famous with his best-selling pocket-sized Field Guide to the Birds (1934) and is known for his bold, precise drawings and paintings and his clear, succinct descriptive prose. He wrote or edited more than 50 books, many on birds, many on other facets of the natural world. Through his books and his Institute of Natural History (founded 1986 in his birthplace), Peterson was extremely influential in popularizing birding and in heightening awareness of environmental issues.

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"Peterson, Roger Tory." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 22 Nov. 2017 <>.

"Peterson, Roger Tory." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (November 22, 2017).

"Peterson, Roger Tory." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 22, 2017 from