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Roger Tory Peterson

Bird On! News
3rd August 1996

It was not one of our intentions at Bird-On! to run regular obituaries. However, the death of Roger Tory Peterson on 28 July 1996 is very significant. As a very young man he really did invent the field guide. Without it, birding would not have become what it is and we would all still be floundering around not knowing what bird it was we were looking at.

It is pretty well inconceivable that any person reading this - unless they have stumbled across the site and are not interested in birds - does not own a Peterson guide. I have just checked my shelves and there are at least 15 guides with his name on them within three feet of me.

I am sure that most people in the States will see obituaries of him in the papers but I have based what follows on the excellent obit which appeared to-day in The Guardian newspaper in the UK by Nick Hammond - lately of the RSPB.

Petersen was just 22 years old when a friend birding with him suggested that the methods he used to identify ducks would make a good book. Thank you, William Vogt. The book was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1934. They were the fifth publisher to whom it was offered and Richard H Pough of the Audubon Society actually asked them to do it before Peterson offered it. The editor (Francis Allen) wanted to make sure the company did not lose out and Pough agreed to guarantee it - he was so sure. His confidence was not misplaced and the first edition of 2,000 was sold within a week. They are very valuable books now!

Others followed, but during the war Peterson's techniques were used to make a field guide to warplanes! In 1950 he extended his interest, at the suggestion of James Fisher who was working for the publishers Collins, to Europe. The resulting book has featured in 13 languages and sold well over a million copies. For years and years it was the book - A Field to the Birds of Britain and Europe which was just known as Peterson - although written with Guy Mountfort and P A D (Phil) Hollom. I have just swung round and looked at my guides shelves - 15 with Peterson on the spine!

His guides were a real breakthrough. What he did was to try to convey the essence of the bird. If he knew it in the wind fair enough but if he did not he was able to provide a really good image from skins and photos. The idea of flagging up the areas of the bird that were diagnostic was new and the colours did not bother to go into extreme detail but showed what you would see on the bird through binoculars - not perched behind a huge telescope and looking at every feather! His later years were taken up with a lot of photography as much easier than painting.

One of my favourite Peterson books is the collaboration that he made with James Fisher. This is Wild America which documents about 30,000 miles journeying around North America - down to Mexico and from Newfoundland to the Pribilofs. It is well worth a good read - and will give you a good idea of what made this man tick.

If you want an epitaph, Nick Hammond has pointed it out. It was Peterson and his guides that really got people interested in birds and so in bird feeding. Nick points out that the range of the Cardinal and the Tufted Titmouse have expanded through that feeding. I would add Evening Grosbeak and House Finch to that and possibly several others. Painting your way to expending the range of birds - what a legacy to leave!

Chris Mead

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