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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. ]


RESOURCES

BOOKS

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

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

Peterson, Roger Tory

(b. 28 August 1908 in Jamestown, New York; r/. 28 July 1996 in Old Lyme, Connecticut), artist, writer, and naturalist who achieved world fame as an author, illustrator, and editor of nature books.

In his youth, Peterson displayed a spirited and rebellious independence. His father, Charles Gustav, had come from Sweden as a small child and worked as a craftsman in the furniture factories of Jamestown. Peterson’s mother, Henrietta Bader, brought to western New York by her German immigrant parents, worked as a teacher and homemaker. Peterson had a younger sister. His passion for nature study began at age eleven; he had a particular, but not exclusive, interest in birds. He used existing published guides to birds, wildflowers, and butterflies, but he was critical of their inadequacies.

Peterson developed skills in writing and drawing while attending Jamestown High School. He graduated in 1925 and took a job applying decorative painting to furniture. In November he attended the annual meeting of the American Ornithological Union (AOU) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There he met the well-known bird scholar Ludlow Griscom and the bird artists Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Francis Lee Jaques. Peterson had submitted two bird paintings to be shown at the meeting, and exhibited his work again at the 1926 meeting of the AOU in San Francisco, which he did not attend.

Peterson enrolled in New York City at the Art Students League in 1927 and 1928 and at the National Academy of Design from 1929 to 1931 to study drawing and painting. His pursuit of bird watching continued undiminished. He found in New York City a small group of young men who shared his passion for birds and joined their Bronx County Bird Club. He continued to paint furniture decorations to supplement his income.

During his student years, Peterson spent summers as a nature counselor at a summer camp in Maine, developing into an enthusiastic and effective teacher. This led in 1931 to his position as an art and natural history teacher at the Rivers Country Day School in suburban Brookline, Massachusetts. His association with the prosperous families that summered in Maine and favored private education had the effect of cultivating refined social graces and gentlemanly behavior in Peterson.

Peterson began writing and illustrating articles that were published in Field and Stream and Nature Magazine. His book A Field Guide to the Birds was published by the Houghton Mifflin Company in 1934 and was an immediate success. His innovation, the Peterson System of bird identification, was based on similarities of form, size, and color, rather than on scientific relationships, that could be used by the amateur observer. The Field Guide went through four editions, and together with his A Field Guide to the Western Birds (1941), eventually sold more than seven million copies.

Suddenly in demand as a famous author, in 1934 Peterson joined the National Association of Audubon Societies, where he served as art editor of Audubon magazine until 1943. He also was the association’s educational director and principal lecturer and writer. His first duties included redesigning and illustrating the Audubon publications; he also wrote many of their articles.

In 1935 the Audubon Societies established a camp in Hog Island, Maine, with Peterson playing a major role in planning the facilities and programs and becoming the bird instructor in 1936. Programs were offered to adult nature enthusiasts. Peterson and one of these students, Mildred Washington, were immediately attracted to each other and were married on 19 December 1936. Peterson suddenly found himself in the social register, having married a descendant of George Washington’s family. They had no children.

Peterson undertook a heavy schedule of traveling and lecturing, and continued his writings on nature, producing magazine articles and the major book projects Junior Bookof Birds (1939), A Field Guide to the Western Birds, and Birds Over America (1948). His career activities aggravated some basic incompatibilities in his marriage with Mildred, and they divorced in 1942.

Peterson married Barbara Coulter, a curator of the Audubon photo library, on 9 July 1943; they had two sons. During World War II, Peterson was drafted into the army, serving in the Corps of Engineers. From 1943 to 1945 his writing and illustration talents were used to produce military instruction manuals. He adapted the Peterson System of bird identification to the task of enemy plane spotting. Toward the war’s end, he contributed to an Army Air Corps research project on the dosage effects of the insecticide DDT.

Peterson’s abilities as a writer, lecturer, and illustrator of the beauties of nature found a vast international audience. His articles appeared in Life magazine and National Geographic, and he formed partnerships with overseas naturalists. His books with the British ornithologist James Fisher, Wild America (1955) and World of Birds (1964), were milestones in nature publishing. The demand for his participation as a teacher and advocate for wildlife preservation took him to projects in eighty countries. From 1946 he was general editor of the Houghton Mifflin Peterson Guide Series, which ran to twenty-one volumes.

Barbara Coulter Peterson became an independently accomplished naturalist. Her custody of the family’s home responsibilities was unavoidably lonely, and the marriage suffered and ended in divorce after thirty-two years, in 1976.

Peterson was considered handsome and never lacked for female attention. He was six feet tall and had an outdoors-man’s trim and robust figure. In maturity, his white hair was full. He married Virginia Westervelt, a divorced neighbor in Old Lyme, Connecticut, on 8 April 1976.

In his later years, Peterson devoted his energy to gallery-type painting and produced a series of limited edition collector’s prints of wildlife, particularly birds. He received many honors, including awards, honorary degrees, and memberships on the boards of major organizations, worldwide. He received the Geoffrey St. Hilaire Gold Medal from the French Natural History Society in 1958 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

Peterson died at his home in Old Lyme. His remains were cremated and buried on Great Island at the mouth of the Connecticut River. His name had long since become practically synonymous with bird watching. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich wrote: “In this century, no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson.… His greatest contribution to the preservation of biological diversity has been in getting tens of millions of people outdoors with Peterson’s Field Guides in their pockets.”

John C. Devlin and Grace Naismith, The World of Roger Tory Peterson (1977), is an authorized biography that is enhanced by Peterson’s own illustrations and many anecdotes of close friends and associates. An obituary is in the New York Times (30 July 1996).

Michael F. Haines

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