Why bird watchers watch Roger Tory Peterson
His Field Guides to the Birds are the international bibles of bird watching. His bird silhouettes can make a bird watcher out of a novice almost overnight. Without watching Roger Tory Peterson first, in print or in person, millions of people would never have started watching birds
ROGER TORY PETERSON, a lean blue-eyed youthful-looking man who is fifty-three and lives with his wife and two teen-aged sons in a rambling white house at Old Lyme, an osprey’s glide from the Connecticut River, is the most celebrated bird watcher since John James Audubon, who died in 1851. His fellow bird watchers, given an opportunity, flock from far and wide to watch him watch birds. When the newspapers reported that Peterson was visiting the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary of the Audubon Society of Massachusetts, birdwatcher-watchers descended on that lovely strip of wilderness like a cloud of starlings descending on a cherry orchard.
Most of the mob at Ipswich, like most of the scores of thousands who trek earnestly to preserves and parklands elsewhere in Canada and the U. S. in the hope of being rewarded by the exciting red, white and black flash of a pileated woodpecker skimming the treetops, the whirring grace of a mourning dove, or the melody of a vesper sparrow, not only have binoculars strung from their necks but firmly clutch in their hands one or another of Peterson’s Field Guides to the Birds.
There is a Peterson Field Guide for the birds of eastern and central North America, one for those of western North America and Hawaii, one for those of Britain and Europe, and one
he was commissioned to do for Texas, which, being Texas, claims its birds are bigger and better than the birds of the forty-nine other states.
These books, which Peterson illustrated as well as wrote, so simplify methods of bird recognition that even a novice has a chance of attaching the right name to a bird briefly glimpsed in flight. That’s why ornithologists acknowledge that Roger Peterson has done at least as much as anybody else, and perhaps more, to turn bird watching from the hobby of a relatively few individuals, who were often laughed at, into an accepted sport.
HOW BIRD WATCHING BECAME BIG BUSINESS
While there are no reliable statistics, ornithological organizations estimate that there are from ten to twenty times as many bird watchers in the U. S. and Canada as there were in 1934 when Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston timidly published the first two thousand copies of the first Field Guide — the one for the birds of eastern and central North America. The multiplication of bird watchers has multiplied the demand for binoculars and is also reflected in the demand for walking shoes, rain capes, rucksacks, bird calling devices, telephoto lenses and other paraphernalia.
It has put bird feeders in hundreds of thousands of backyards on both sides of the international boundary line and added wild bird food to the stock in
CONTINUED ON PAGE 56
ROGER TORY PETERSON continued from pape 18
“Princes, tycoons, generals or kids, bird watchers are all a bit more civilized than nonwatchers“
trade of druggists, grocers and hardware merchants. Wild bird feed has become a regular item on the shopping lists of countless families—often to the dismay of tidy backyard gardeners, who have discovered that uneaten birdseed sprouts into stubborn thickets of weeds.
In Britain, bird pictures by Peterson pushed Swoop to pre-eminence in the wild bird food market. In Canada and the U. S. other pictures, reproduced on little cards and offered as premiums, have helped to sell millions of pounds of Red Rose tea.
Meanwhile Peterson, whose worried father used to warn him that he'd never get rich watching birds, is not exactly a millionaire but is not exactly poor, either. His books have sold over a million and a half copies in eleven languages and, phenomenally, each year more of them are sold than in the previous year, so the
royalties roll in merrily.
Besides, there are royalties from an album of recorded bird calls and from firms that use his bird paintings for commercial purposes. Thirty or forty nights a year he gives illustrated lectures—about birds, of course—on the Audubon Screen Tour circuit. It's not unusual for a Peterson lecture to draw an audience of fifteen hundred or more. Then there are payments for the
paintings he sells outright, and for the
articles he writes on birds, and for his
photographs of birds.
All this enables Peterson to roam the world—watching birds. He has watched them in forty-three countries on five continents. and in recent years he has averaged thirty or forty thousand miles of travel a year. In the Andes, fourteen thousand feet above sea level, where the air was so thin he could hardly breathe, he rediscovered, watched and photographed a
species of flamingo supposed to be extinct. In Africa, he stopped a charging rhinoceros in its tracks by waving his arms and shouting; he braved lion country to see a pennant-winged nightjar, and, at Victoria Falls, watched two taita falcons—birds so rare that there are just eight specimens in all the earth’s museums.
In France he interrupted his bird watching to accept the Geoffrey Saint Hilaire gold medal of the Société d’Acclimation for “doing more in France than anyone else to interest people in birds; and, for
Tory Peterson difficult to find. The first time I tried to phone him to arrange an interview he was in Patagonia. When I tried again he was on the U. S. Pacific coast. Then he was in Britain watching sea birds with Jack Livingston of Toronto, managing director of the Audubon Society of Canada. Then he was in Canada, bird watching at Algonquin Park. Finally I caught up with him at Old Lyme, a New England community that appears to be populated chiefly by artists and writers. His house, which can’t be seen from the road, is set in fifty-four acres of wooded land.
Peterson and his wife Barbara, who looks like Myrna Loy looked in Miss Loy’s prime, can watch birds without stirring from their living room, one wall of which they tore down and replaced with glass. This faces on a garden where they set out manufactured food for wild birds, chunks of suet, and strings of stale doughnuts hung from branches. The wall opposite the expanse of glass is monopolized by bookshelves crammed with books on natural history—many of them Peterson’s own in various translations. On the other walls are superb European prints of Peterson's paintings. The original paintings are in such demand that he seldom manages to hang onto one.
In this pleasant room Roger Peterson talks animatedly of birds. He estimates, on the basis of a survey he undertook for the National Audubon Society, that there are five or six billion adult land birds in the U. S. and a hundred billion birds in the world. He thinks they probably have more intelligence than they get credit for. A canary expert, for instance, maintains that canary sounds have twenty-seven elements, each with a communication value, so that
these birds have what amounts to speech.
What’s the best time to see birds? Early in the morning, says Peterson, although he himself hates to tumble from bed early. Where are you likeliest to see them? Near water, where there are both woods and open fields, replies Peterson, who in one year has seen 572 different North American species — until recently an all-American record. It doesn’t really matter whether you walk — as Peterson does — or wait for the birds to come your way. But whichever you do, be quiet.
As for bird watchers themselves, they’re a mixed bag but, in Roger Peterson’s not wholly impartial view, tend to be a mite more civilized than nonwatchers. His wife was a seasoned bird watcher when Peterson met her. She had assisted in the preparation of the definitive work on the roseate spoonbill and after that had charge of the National Audubon Society’s photo and film department. Their two sons, Tory and Lee, are both bird watchers. Indeed, most of the Petersons’ friends are bird watchers.
Their friends include the youngsters the Petersons affectionately call their “tea kids,” who collect the Peterson cards from Red Rose tea and write regularly of their latest ornithological sightings. Sample: “Two thrushes, three sparrows and a robin.”
They also include such distinguished bird watchers as Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke; Stephen Potter, the humorist; C. H. Greenewalt. the Du Pont president who wrote a book on hummingbirds; Prince Yamashina of Japan; and Prince Franz Joseph of Liechtenstein, who once confided to Peterson that as a boy he clipped Peterson’s water bird pictures from magazines and stuck them on his bathroom walls—“aquatic, you know.”
Roger Peterson, with Barbara acting as his secretary, manages to keep at least in occasional touch with both the tea kids and the Very Important Persons. When he’s at Old Lyme he works a minimum of eighty hours a week, mostly in a stable he has converted into an office and studio. Apart from his mass of correspondence he always has half a dozen new projects in his typewriter or on his drawing board. When I saw him he was collaborating with James Fisher, the British author, ornithologist and broadcaster, on a large picture book. The World of Birds; planning a new Field Guide for the birds of Mexico; compiling a second bird song album with Bill Gunn, a Canadian ornithologist; writing a wildflower book of which he was coauthor; producing articles for nature publications; contemplating an Ontario Field Guide; appraising the prospects of a book on African birds; and studying an osprey colony on the Connecticut River.
Peterson types laboriously but paints swiftly and surely, using sketches from life, colored photographs, and bird skins he borrows from the American Museum of Natural History, which has a collection of eight hundred thousand.
As he paints he may ponder the significance of bird watching in human affairs. He believes bird watching is an antidote for neurosis—not escapism but a return to reality by people trapped in an artificial gadget world. He has noted with satisfaction that more and more doctors are prescribing bird watching for patients who should walk more, or who would benefit from a nerve-soothing activity.
Ironically, when his eyes felt the strain of long hours at typewriter and drawing board, and he had them examined by a New York ophthalmologist who didn’t link R. T. Peterson, patient, with Roger Tory Peterson, ornithologist, the ophthalmologist said he should have a hobby that required him to gaze at distant objects. “Why,” he asked, “don’t you take up bird watching?”
“I took it up,” said Peterson, “when I was eleven.”
He was eleven and in Grade Seven in public school at Jamestown, N.Y., and his teacher, Miss Blanche Hornbeck, organized a Junior Audubon Club. On April 8, 1919, with snow still lying in the woods, Roger Peterson went on his first bird-
watching expedition and saw a flicker sleeping on the side of a tree, exhausted by its migration flight. He touched it, thinking it might be dead, and with a sudden soft whistling of wings it vanished.
He was so impressed and excited by this experience and by the beauty and mobility of the flicker that, from then on, birds were to be his predominant interest —so much so that he can remember the date of a grandmother’s birthday because it coincided with the date on which he first sighted a cardinal.
As for Miss Hornbeck, who started it, she lost track of Peterson, but when she enrolled years later at Cornell University for a summer course in ornithology she had to equip herself with his Field Guide to eastern and central birds, which had become a standard ornithological textbook in U. S. and Canadian colleges. By then what she recalled about Peterson was his habit of dropping asleep in class.
He had a reason. At this stage he was both a moth collector and a bird watcher. While other lads were in bed he’d sneak out unnoticed by his parents and, net in hand, pursue the moths that fluttered around street lamps. At dawn he’d wake himself to deliver the Jamestown Morning Post to earn money for the field glasses he had his bird-watching heart set on. After he had the glasses he delivered papers to buy a camera, then he delivered them to buy ornithological literature.
His hero was Audubon, the artist and naturalist who ranged through the United States and Canada in the first half of the last century, painting birds. He dreamed of being a second Audubon. So, with paper money, he bought paints. He won a Buffalo Times competition for young readers with an ink drawing, not of a bird but of a banded purple butterfly.
When Peterson was seventeen he attended a convention of the American Ornithologists Union, where he met the naturalists whose books and papers he’d read. He was too thrilled to be shy and the great men were fascinated by the "gangling shiny-faced teen-ager in the Sunday suit who could imitate bird calls with rare skill, and could discourse with the best of them on the characteristics of hundreds of species.
They encouraged him and he went home more determined than ever to be the top
bird watcher in the profession. The friendships he had formed with several men he met at his first ornithologists’ convention proved to be lasting. Men like the eminent Ludlow Griscom, author of Birds of the New York City Region and William Vogt, then editor of the magazine, Bird-Lore, enjoyed having him as a companion on their field trips.
Besides being a born naturalist, Peterson proved to have abilities especially suited for bird watching—extraordinary hearing and vision. He still pinpoints nine out of ten birds with his ears before searching them out with his eyes. If he’d ever heard the call, he knew what bird it was. William Vogt tells of being with him in New York when Peterson heard “the lisp of migrants over Times Square at night,” above the din of traffic, and nearly walked in front of a trolley in his concentration.
With eyes as keen as his ears he could distinguish a bufflehead duck from a golden-eye at half a mile. At closer range he could do what’s almost impossible: discern which was which of the dozen or so tiny look-alikes that ornithologists group as “confusing fall warblers.”
“You get it ready; I’ll get it published”
The idea for Peterson’s recognition system came from Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages, a semibiographical story with a Canadian background. In this the youngster, Yan. has a book with which he can name ducks when he examines them close up but it doesn’t help him name ducks in flight or bobbing on water. It dawns on him that each species has its own distinctive pattern. He decides that if he can draw the ducks’ “uniforms” in a manner that underlines the differences, he’ll be able from his drawings to tell them at a distance, just as soldiers use distinguishing marks to tell at a distance which are the uniforms of friend and which of foe.
Peterson saw that Seton had diagnosed the weakness of the old bird books: they were virtually useless unless the bird was in the hand instead of the bush. He decided. like Yan, to draw the uniforms of the birds and, while he was at it, he realized that the silhouettes of birds in flight could be as distinctive as the uniforms, so he drew them too.
The sketches he took on his outings attracted the attention of other bird watchers. One day his friend Vogt asked him why he didn't pass what he’d done along to the public, in a book.
“Nobody knows me,” Peterson said. “Nobody would publish it.”
“You get it ready and I’ll get it published,” Vogt declared. But when it was ready all New York’s publishers rejected it. Then Vogt heard that Francis Allen, an editor of the Boston publishing house. Houghton Mifflin, was a bird watcher and sent him the manuscript. The day after receiving it Allen wired that he’d publish it but that the venture was such a gamble that he could pay no royalties on the first thousand copies sold. Peterson, who by then was teaching art and natural history at a boys’ school in Massachusetts, doubted whether there would be a market even for a thousand copies. Yet, in 1934. in the midst of the Great Depression, the first printing, two thousand, sold out within a week and seven thousand copies had been sold by Christmas. Total sales of this Field Guide, which has been completely revised twice and gone into thirty printings, have passed six hundred thousand and current sales are in the vicinity of fifty thousand a year, with Canadians accounting for around five thousand. The Field Guide, priced at about $5, is one of Houghton Mifflin’s all-time best sellers, having recently passed the Lloyd C. Douglas novel, The Robe.
During the war Peterson was in the army engineerin^orps and, for a while, did research for . ce on the effects
of DDT on wildl>.M£«g£his most valuable contribution was una^ owledged: aircraft recognition silhouettes, by which spotters could identify planes ¡Is flight, were suggested by Peterson’s bi 1 recognition silhouettes.
Demobilized, Peterson brought out Birds over America in 1948, How to Know the Birds in 1949, and, in 1951, Wildlife in Color and the special bird guide he illustrated for Newfoundland, in which, to
his eternal embarrassment, he painted four toes on a three-toed woodpecker. There was also a Junior Book of Birds. The much-translated Peterson gets a bang out of what translators do to his phonetic renditions of bird calls in English. The kittywake’s keet wack becomes, in French, keke oek, and, in Danish, tatterak. But, after all, Canadian ornithologists render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” and U. S. ornithologists render it as “old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”
Even for a modest man like Peterson,
there’s a satisfaction in finding out how far fame can spread. Not long ago he was with Carl Buchheister, president of the National Audubon Society, in a little Mexican fishing town on the Gulf of California. They were sightseeing in a taxi driven by a Mexican named Lallo, and, on the shore, saw some kind of a plover. They didn’t have a very good look at it and were arguing about its species when Lallo interrupted. “I, señores, will settle it,” he said. With which he produced, of all things, a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide. ^