Roger Tory Peterson was born on August 28, 1908, and died July 28, 1996, just before his 88th birthday. This is an article I wrote about him for New England Monthly in June 1987. In the last thirty years, some things about birding have changed—such as the development of various birding apps for personal devices—but some things have stayed the same, not least of which is the essential joy of watching and listening to birds every day wherever you may be.
In the perfect light of his Connecticut studio, Roger Tory Peterson shuffled through a stack of papers like a fox sparrow rattling through dry leaves. The most famous bird watcher in America was preoccupied, a little beady-eyed. “This is quite a story here,” he said, “Do we have that many copies of this or not?”
Ginny Peterson, his ubiquitous helpmate, replied, “Chuck is suppose to Xerox all this stuff for you.” And turning my way, “So we can really get a package before you go.”
Peterson—author of the world’s first useful bird-watcher’s field guide, artist, conservationist, birding bon vivant—is a tall, handsome man. The youthful vigor belies his seventy-eight years. And the Scandinavian pallor—the flaxen hair turned white, the limpid blue eyes, the alabaster skin—makes him seem almost other than human, a feat of bionic engineering that might go on birding forever.
He fiddled with a new calendar, illustrated with his photographs of birds. “Was there anything…I know there’s been so much written lately,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“I hope not to be redundant,” I said.
“You can’t help it,” Ginny reminded me.
The topic of Xeroxing went on for some time, until, almost shouting, I said, “The first thing I’d like to talk to you about is your ear.”
Peterson froze for the microsecond that is required of all organisms when it is time to prioritize. The fox sparrow stops shuffling when it hears the high-pitched squeal of a hawk. Peterson dropped the small talk when he hears the word ear.
For birders, it is a word full of implications. For people who are hooked on birds, watching them is a foregone conclusion. Hearing them is the next dimension. Listening to birds has everything to do with the richness and complication of the activity, from the pure joy of it to the hierarchies of skill and snobbery that ensue when bird watching is pursued as a sport. One of the sporting events for which a bird-tuned ear is a necessity is the Big Day. During this game, a team tries to count as many species as possible in a twenty-four-hour period. It’s much quicker to identify birds by the sounds they make than to try to see each one as it flits high in the trees.
Birders always watch to see how other birders hear. Peterson knows all the good ears across America and has an excellent ear himself. He has used his ears throughout his life in his loving pursuit of birds and, though he is somewhat reluctant to admit it, as a birding jock. Like a lot of birders, Peterson is ambivalent and at times critical about the fairly garish evolution of bird watching. In recent years, it has slipped from a serene, almost religious pastime into a raucous, all-too-human activity stoked, like any other sport, by competition and gamesmanship. His ambivalence has not been so great, however, as to make him abstain. He is a member of the four-person team that currently [1987 when this was written] holds the North American Big Day title—244 species seen on May 1, 1985, in Texas.1
Thinking about ears, Peterson began to slump back comfortably into his overstuffed couch. He cast his eyes across the room as if talking to someone sitting behind me. The slouch and the faraway stare are so familiar to his friends and associates as to be classifiable as a field mark, a way to identify Roger Tory Peterson, like the twitch of the eastern phoebe’s tail or the hunched profile of the American kestrel.
“Bird watchers from the East,” he mused, “tend to use their ears more, and those from the West tend to use their eyes more. I think that’s understandable, because in the East you’ve got so much woodland, and the ears are therefore more important. In the West it’s a lot of open country and the eyes are more important. I think, amongst my own friends, the ones with the sharpest ears come from places like Pennsylvania or Connecticut. So my ears really are better than average. I still have my high registry.”
High registry. It is a touchy subject among birders. With age, people lose the ability to hear high-frequency sounds. For most people this is a loss of little consequence. Birders, however, don’t like to contemplate the inevitable waning of the shrill zees, weets, tsees, and breets many species emit. It is a sign that they are losing touch with their world. Peterson is worried, and to observe his soliloquy on the matter is to get a poignant glimpse at the man beneath the bionic exterior.
“I can still hear practically everything,” he said, almost defensively. “I’m afraid I’m about to lose blackpoll warbler, grasshopper sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet. These are the first to go. I’ve heard them all within the last year. I’m right at the edge—”
“Would you feel better, honey,” Ginny broke in from her straight-backed chair, “if you were sitting up here? You’re all kind of crunched.”
INTERRUPTION SEEMS TO BE a standard event at the home of Roger Tory Peterson, where he’s lived for thirty years. As one conversation after another got derailed, an unsettling thought began to surface. In the lives of famous people, one sometimes arrives too late. The stories that make the right points have been told and retold. The stories that make the wrong points, or no point at all, are lost conveniently in the past, regardless of how much richness and texture they might add. The eminence is mythologized—and simplified: the facts that remain, although indisputable, often sound pat. A lot of famous couples—Andrew and Betsy Wyeth come to mind—practice this kind of reductionism, but that’s no solace when you know that a larger-than-life presence has been lost in the process. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising in Peterson’s case. After all, he has spent a lifetime rendering birds in their simplest forms, but while this technique is wonderful for field guides, it makes for somewhat less satisfying biography.
Thus, the information available on Peterson’s parents fits the stereotype of the immigrants establishing a foothold in America. His father, Charles Gustav Peterson, came with his family from Sweden as a baby. By the age of ten, he was working in the woolen mills in Jamestown, New York. In The World of Roger Tory Peterson, Peterson’s biographers gingerly suggest the paterfamilias had a drinking problem and that he was impatient with his son’s love of nature. Roger’s mother, Henrietta Bader, came to America from Germany when she was four. She was more tolerant of Roger’s proclivities. According to one famous Peterson story, she once allowed him to use the family parlor as pupation grounds for eight hundred or so caterpillars on their way to becoming moths.
Roger was in love with the natural world from an early age and he was directed toward birds at age eleven by a teacher Blanche Hornbeck, but with or without her encouraging instruction, it is likely the die was already cast for the young boy. This pattern of early, irrepressible fascination with birds and butterflies, snakes, frogs, fossils, and rocks is the standard beginning for the most proficient adult birders and naturalists. For a handful of children, nature speaks in an argot that the rest of us largely ignore. As they watch and listen, their lives are forever changed.
Nevertheless, the mothers of child birders often provide subtle, silent support for their slightly aberrant offspring. Since the information on Henrietta is scant, I inquired if Peterson’s mother played this protective role for him. “More or less—“ he began.
“His mother was fantastic!” Ginny interrupted, at which point the conversation became something of a Ping-Pong match with Henrietta playing the part of the ball.
“My father took a dim view of it,” said Roger.
“But your mother said he was supportive, hon, he never—“ Ginny returned, fearful that some less-than-charitable light might shine on the elder Peterson.
“Yes, he was supportive in the end,” said Roger in a distracted lob.
“His mother was unusual in that she would allow Roger to take over her living room with—“ Ginny volleyed.
“But you weren’t there, sweetie,” Roger returned.
“But you told me—with all this paraphernalia—and you even hatched something like eight hundred moths…”
At which point Roger dropped the ball, as he is wont to do, and launched into a discourse about his concern over the disappearance of many large moth species, due most likely to the spraying of larvicides. Ginny, however, was not through.
“…this was her living room, this is what I want to point out. This was her living room. And they didn’t have—how many rooms did you have in your house, hon? You didn’t have—“
“Oh, it was a fairly good-sized house,” replied Roger.
Undaunted, Ginny went on until Roger concluded, gently but firmly, “I’d better tell about her. You weren’t there.” Then he proceeded to talk instead about his sister and only sibling, Margaret, who lives in California.
AS FAME GOES, Peterson’s is circumscribed. Among those who place little emphasis on telling a mockingbird from a turkey vulture, he remains a nonentity. In the circles where such things do matter, Peterson is so famous that his name has become generic. Birders say Peterson when they mean field guide. This usage has been modified in recent years with the entry into the market of so many competing guides, but still a birder would never say, “Get me A Field Guide to the Birds.” It is always, “Get me Peterson.” As a kind of economic indicator of his fame, books in his series have sold more than ten million copies, and a Peterson bird painting now brings between $10,000 and $25,000.
Peterson’s fame springs from one thing. He had a brilliant idea at precisely the right time—when for a variety of reasons, including a growing awareness of shrinking natural landscapes and declining numbers of birds and animals in those landscapes, there was a growing cultural shift from a quest-and-conquest approach to nature to a passive enjoyment of it. On a few spring days in 1934, all two thousand copies of A Field Guide to the Birds, written and illustrated by Peterson, sold out. He was twenty-five years old at the time and was moving from his anonymous small-town life into the rarefied world of birding as it was then practiced in Boston and New York. Birding today is a much more heterogeneous affair—thanks in large part to the mass marketing of A Field Guide to the Birds—than it was earlier in the century, when it tended to be a pastime of wealthy white males. It has never been such a closed society, however, that its members would exclude from their ranks a good birder on the basis of pedigree alone. In the end, all that matters to birders is whether you can tell the difference between blackpoll, bay-breasted, and pine warblers in their fall plumages.
After high school, Peterson, whose artistic abilities were already apparent, went to work in one of the Jamestown furniture factories, painting chinoiserie on cabinets. In this spare time he painted birds, and at seventeen he submitted two of these paintings to what at the time was the most prestigious show for bird artists in the country, the exhibit accompanying the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists Union. The paintings were accepted, and in the fall of 1925, Roger was rubbing elbows in New York City with the most influential bird men in America.
Within two years, he had saved enough money to return to New York as an art student. From 1927 to 1932, he studied at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design, continuing to support himself by painting furniture. And he birded. He joined ranks with eight other young men, all birding whiz kids. They called themselves the Bronx County Bird Club, soon shortened to BCBC. They were tireless and competitive, the prototypes for today’s birding jocks.
For five summers Roger was a counselor at Chewonki, the preppie and proper boys camp in Maine. The founder of Chewonki was also director of the Rivers School—equally preppie, proper, and for boys—near Boston. Roger went there to teach natural history. By night he began working on the idea he’d had for a bird-watchers field guide. He also began to merge into the birding elite. After some hesitancy, the Nuttall Club of Boston, one of the most exclusive of the men’s ornithological clubs, asked Peterson to join, and there he met Francis H. Allen, an avid bird watcher and an editor at Houghton Mifflin. The story goes that four publishers turned down his field guide before he took it to Allen. (As Allen was the one editor in Boston equipped to judge the book’s merits, one has to wonder why Peterson didn’t take it to him first.) Houghton Mifflin accepted it, but apparently even Allen had some reservations about its chances for success; he asked Peterson to forgo royalties on the first thousand copies.
There were two wonderful things about A Field Guide to Birds: it was simple, and it filled a vacant niche. Before Peterson, bird books were written for two readerships—children and scientists—missing altogether the middle ground inhabited by an untold number of eager but untutored bird watchers. When these people turned to the scientific texts, they met minutiae, not birds. Most ornithologists of that era were taxonomists, interested in sorting out the different families of birds. Their books were discourses on avian anatomical parts and nuances of plumage. Terms like fuscous, ochraceous, and chaetura drab were of no use to bird watchers who used a simpler color lexicon—brown, black, blue, yellow, red—to watch and identify the objects of their affections. Peterson decoded these ornithological hieroglyphics in his first field guide. In so doing, he made bird watching fun.
For sixty years now , Peterson has worked steadily, often furiously, sometimes indiscriminately, at what he knows and does best: teaching passionately about birds. While all this hard work is wrapped up in an almost eerie desire to stay at the head of his class, it is also one of the most admirable things about Peterson. He’s never been inclined to rest on his considerable achievements. From the wildly successful A Field Guide to the Birds, which covered only the eastern United States, sprang the entire Peterson Field Guide Series. It now  includes thirty-four books, and ranges far from birds to such titles as A Field Guide to the Atmosphere and A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (written by Peterson’s younger son, Lee). Peterson is the titular editor of the series and the author or co-author and illustrators of six of the guides.
From 1934 until 1943, Peterson worked for the National Audubon Society as a teacher and lecturer and was on the staff of the society’s magazine Audubon. After a stint in the Army, he embarked on an extremely successful and lucrative career as a writer, artist, photographer, and celebrity tour leader. He virtually never turns down an offer to write a glowing preface to any book dealing with birds. In the last ten years he has devoted more time to painting portraits of birds, which are sold as originals and limited-edition prints. And in the face of increasing competition from other field guides and an ever more sophisticated and critical readership, he has been working obsessively to revise his eastern and western United States bird guides. The latest A Field Guide to the Birds came out in 1980. Peterson wants to complete his revision of A Field Guide to Western Birds by 1988, before he turns eighty.
On the day of my visit, a half-finished color plate of gulls for the western guide lay on his drafting table. In the requisite north light beaming through the large window of Peterson’s studio, those tiny undone gulls flying across the page were like ghostly apparitions imploring their venerable artist to get back to work.
I’M GOING TO GET A LITTLE CLOSER,” the photographer said to Peterson.
“You’re going to get all the pores in my nose now,” Peterson mumbled.
“S’cuse me?” she asked.
“All the pores in my nose.”
“No, I’m not getting that close—yet.”
Peterson was out on the lawn surrounded by women, having his picture taken. A great deal seemed to be at stake in the making of this image. Age is not discussed at the Petersons. “We’re not talking numbers,” Ginny announced, when mention of her husband’s imminent birthday came up. “He and I promised when we got married that if he’d never mention my numbers I’d never mention his. That’s the deal.” Roger and Ginny see the camera not as a device for recording verities but rather as a tool for enhancement.
Ginny to photographer: “Roger likes backlighting, preferably Vaseline on the lens, soft focusing, and so forth, but you know what he’s after. That softer look. Just make sure he’s younger. That’s what he’s after.” Chasing this will-o’-the-wisp, we all got giddy on the lawn. “Those are awfully pretty blue eyes,” I heard myself say at one point to Roger Tory Peterson.
He seems to elicit a frothy, mothlike behavior from the opposite sex, but it is the kind of fluttering that is not so much flirtatious as motherly. There is a long tradition of women helping Peterson, of whom the most recent and avid is Ginny. Besides being press agent, program director, nutritionist, bouncer, and wife, she has been a diligent coworker on the revisions of the eastern and western field guides.
The divorce rate is high among birders and ornithologists. A lot of women get tired of having to compete with birds for their husbands’ affections, and they get tired as well of the schlepping that goes along with chasing birds, whether for fun or for science. Peterson is no exception. Ginny is his third wife. The first was Mildred Warner Washington, a prominent New England beauty whose lineage traced back to Washington. Mildred loved nature, but only among other things, such as music, which became a problem. She and Roger, twenty-one and twenty-eight respectively, met at an Audubon camp—birders are always falling in love out-of-doors; it has to do with the grand vistas and all the fresh air—but no doubt their competing wills conspired to end the marriage. They parted company after seven turbulent years.
Shortly thereafter, Peterson married Barbara Coulter, at the time a secretary with the National Audubon Society. She was everything Mildred was not, including long-suffering. During thirty-two years of marriage, Barbara was amanuensis, suitcase-packer, organizer, travel companion (she went with him to Antarctica eight times), crisis manager (she once produced a shear pin from her personal effects when an outboard motor broke on a field trip), horsewoman, environmentalist, fond companion to Roger’s aged mother, and the mother herself of two sons, Tory and Lee. It seems to have been a marriage of great richness, conviviality, and no dull moments that ground to a halt largely because of spousal burnout.
Shortly after the divorce, Roger, sixty-seven, married Virginia Quinlan Westervelt, then forty-nine, a neighbor and social friend of the previous Mr. and Mrs. Peterson for some twenty years. If there was any chance that the aging Peterson might have been drifting into quiescence, Ginny headed off that specter at the pass.
IN PROTECTING AN EGO UNACCUSTOMED TO ABUSE, Ginny has had to work overtime since 1980. That year, the newly revised—and eagerly awaited—A Field Guide to the Birds came out. But to Roger and Ginny’s horror, the book met with some scathing criticism. The first shock was that it happened at all. There is a tacit understanding among the elder generation of bird watchers that any bird book is better than no bird book; hence Peterson’s habit of writing prefaces or dust-jacket blurbs for even the most marginal of texts. The second shock, of course, was that it happened to Peterson.
According to the critics, neither Peterson’s paintings (all new) nor his text (more or less old) took into account the many pointers about identification that have been discovered by ardent birders in recent years. Three reviews in particular were merciless. Peterson’s thrushes were fat; the throat pouches on the cormorants were all wrong; the various plumages of the sandpipers were confusing. A comment on this last problem by one reviewer hints at the kind of minutiae that is now standard dialogue among birders: “Certainly, no full winter-plumaged Western Sandpiper ever shows any trace of rusty on the scapulars.” The complaint is well taken, but stuff like this means nothing to tens of thousands of bird watchers, for whom Peterson’s revised field guide basically did what it’s always done: provide simple identifications of the major groups of birds.
Nevertheless, his critics were technically right. The inclusion of much of the new information would have made the guide better. And all of it was available to Peterson, since he runs in the circle of truly accomplished birders who pass around such information in ornithological bulletins and journals and by word of mouth. (To bird in the company of such people, who spout obscure field marks like Bible students quoting verses from Colossians, is a truly amazing experience.) In the end, however, one senses that something other than missing facts was eating at these reviewers. It is as if their feelings had been hurt. Their father figure, the man whose book they had clutched to their breasts since childhood, the man they would have been eager to please, ignored them.
Beating their chests, these critics incidentally marked a historic moment in the annals of bird watching. With their reviews, birding became a bona fide American sport, replete with egotistical jousting and generational squabbles. Birders, just like their counterparts on baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and football fields, were now play King of the Mountain. For better or worse, Roger Tory Peterson was not about to budge.
Amid the tussle—in part because of it—a second generation of field guides is now emerging. These take one difficult group—the gulls or the shorebirds, for instance—and pontificate on every manifestation of plumage, every nuance of leg, bill, and eye color. They are wonderful guides, with, yes, prefaces by Roger Tory Peterson. People with a sense of irony will note, however, that these guides are not unlike the ponderous texts written by nineteenth-century taxonomists, the books from which Peterson saved a whole generation of birders.
One has to ask how the game got so complicated. It has to do not so much with the ardor of the participants—Peterson is no less passionate than his younger counterparts—but with their accoutrements. Today [late 1980s], sporting birders go into the field with high-powered binoculars and telescopes and devices for playing and/or recording bird song. With recording devices they call the birds in close, and with their powerful optics, they study these birds minutely. After seeing a bird so well, the next step is to notice that the illustration in the field guide doesn’t quite duplicate the living thing. To engage in this is an instructive exercise and it has contributed to a greater understanding of plumage molts in various groups of birds, but in the end it misunderstands the purpose of a field guide—and the inestimable contribution of Roger Tory Peterson.
These days, Peterson birds in the company of people who use all this equipment, simply because it enhances his ability to watch birds—with a sixty-power Questar one can get breathtakingly beautiful looks at birds—but still he feels a little sabotaged by all this high-tech paraphernalia. “These fellows now with Questars—you can see the fleas on a phoebe,” Peterson told me ruefully. “They’re always talking about abraded tertials and all that, and they’re right back to the specimen tray. It was exactly what I was trying to get away from.”
At moments like these, Peterson seems dogged by his critics, even though they wouldn’t fill one pew in his congregation. It was inevitable that the disciples would challenge their leader; it is a little sad Peterson can’t quite let it go. He is determined that the revised A Field Guide to Western Birds be flawless, which in the realm of field guides is almost a contradiction in terms. “Westerners are more sophisticated about their birding than the Easterners, I think. Some of the roughest critics are in California,” he said. “The Western guide is going to be trickier. It’s tricky with the gulls. With such critics, I’ve got to get it right.” The man who made birding fun seems to have lost that theme in a thicket of hubris.
FORTUNATELY, THOUGH, PETERSON has not lost the birds in that thicket. Earlier on the day of my visit, a pair of red-breasted nuthatches—the first of the season—had appeared in the trees outside his studio. Their arrival caused an enthusiastic outburst. A red-breasted nuthatch, charming as it may be, is not a bird that would necessarily excite a person who has been watching birds for some seventy years. It is not a resplendent quetzal. It is, instead, a bird that provides a barometer of a person’s interest in the subject. Peterson was thrilled. He was just as excited later, when one of them reappeared. “Ginny, Ginny,” he exploded. “The red-breasted nuthatch has already found the feeder!”
Shortly before this unequivocal confirmation of Peterson’s unabated passion, I had, at Ginny’s encouragement, called a cab. In those last few moments, we rambled. He talked about how in the end he sees himself as basically a teacher. He talked about what birds nest in his woods. He grumbled about how he can’t eat sweets anymore. And we compared notes about who we enjoy being in the field with. As it happens, Peterson, because of his eminence, and I, because of good luck, bird with some of the same people who are among the best birders in the world. “I enjoy being with Ted Parker,2 who has a very good ear. He’s excellent. So are the Rowletts [the brother and sister birders, John and Rose Ann], and Victor [Emanuel] has one bad ear, but his eyes are extremely good, quick, very fast in the field. One of my favorites here in New England, probably one of the best in the world, is Noble Proctor in Connecticut.”
And, toward the end, I asked him if he got out alone anymore, which at times can be the best way to bird.
“The only birding I do alone is incidental to getting my morning exercise. When I’m at home I don’t get much chance to do birding except very incidentally.”
“Like the red-breasted nuthatch?”
“Yes,” replied Roger Tory Peterson, “you can’t ignore birds.
1 The current North American Big Day record is 294 species seen and/or heard by a team in Texas on April 25, 2013. Here is a link to an article about that and other Big Day records: https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/blog/2017/01/16/big-days-record-books/
2 Ted Parker died in 1993 at age 40, along with botanist Alwyn Gentry, in a plane crash in Ecuador while doing a Rapid Assessment survey for Conservation International. Their untimely deaths were a great loss to tropical ornithology, botany, and conservation.
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